There is so much at stake when a pastor is transitioning out of a church leadership role. Any pastor who has gone through this sort of transition or succession knows the process can be fraught with anxieties, worries and struggles. Even so, the pastor must take the initiative to minimize the inevitable instability within the church. Others can help, but it has to start with the transitioning senior pastor. A vision must be created to help others move through the swirling waters of change as carefully as possible with the goal of preparing everyone for the next leader.
I recently completed my transition out of ministry as a long-term senior pastor and I found this general strategy to work well as my church and I walked together toward my retirement. From the start, the transition/succession was guided by faith. It has to be. Without faith in God’s presence, power, and clear purpose, the rest of the strategy will crumble. That faith is founded in our relationship with Christ and begins in the heart of the departing leader.
Some transitions start with mutual agreement between the governing board and the pastor that it is the “right time” to make the move. When that is the case, being guided by faith is much easier. Both parties know that God’s Spirit is leading the decision-making process so faith flows out easily to the congregation and beyond. But when there is disagreement about the decision to leave or the timing of it, the sense that leadership is being guided by faith can be a challenge. Obvious disagreement yields hurt feelings and disunity, which often become apparent to others. I want to focus on this second scenario for a moment and challenge any pastor who may be in this situation.
The pastor who is leaving must come to grips with the fact that, regardless of circumstances, God is in control and will provide for all parties. I’m not saying that mistakes, personal agenda or personalities can’t or don’t impact decision-making. As leaders in the church we know how hard it is to trust God and lead from a position of faith. We ask our congregations to do this all the time. We tell them that God is in control even when it doesn’t look or feel like it. Now is our time to practice what we preach. Without faith firmly in place we will undoubtedly fail to help our congregation effectively navigate the succession journey. It may take some time, good counsel and forgiveness to get there, but without faith the journey will be longer, harder and destabilizing for all. A helpful reminder for me was the nation of Israel’s wilderness journey. It didn’t have to take them 40 painful years to get to their destination! Your journey doesn’t have to be painful and feel like 40 years.
Once the transitioning pastor is committed to walk by faith, he or she can help drive the process in a number of ways. I’ll share with you the approach that worked for me:
- Transparent communication: While in transition, I engaged with others with the same level of intimacy and transparency I had before the transition process began. My wife and I created a list of people we wanted to make sure heard the news from us first. My closest family members, peers, friends and congregants got the most news and details with the most care. We found that people who were on the fringes of our “intimacy circle’ were fine with less communication and less detail. Those who were new to the congregation heard only what was shared through the official church communication channels.
- Prioritizing groups: The order we told people about the decision to retire was family, my board and staff, then friends, and finally the congregation. Each group was treated differently because of the varying levels of intimacy that had been created over the years. Ordering communication in this way reduced the level of misunderstanding because each group felt like they got the priority and degree of communication and care that was in line with our relationship. This approach reduced the amount of speculation at all levels as important questions could be answered in the context of the relationship. In each conversation I was able to communicate that faith was at the core of the decision and that God would faithfully lead all parties to continue His mission, even with a change in leadership.
- Message repetition: It would be tempting to make one big announcement to say, “I’m leaving” once and move on. But the message of succession has to be reinforced over and over in multiple ways and with multiple people. Once the announcement is made a number of formal and informal tools must be used to keep the communication ball rolling. Reminding people of God’s faithfulness and painting a picture of a future that is secure in His hands is crucial. Just as important as the frequency of the message is marking it with genuine openness and transparency. Speculation lurks in the absence of clear, transparent communication. I found throughout my experience that I had to be the one to take the lead with message repetition and reinforcement. It was too awkward and uncomfortable for others to take the initiative.
- Model shepherding: I wanted to model to the church leaders, staff and congregation that I was walking by faith, and they could also. Since my particular church transition was going to take several months, we needed to keep working together and talking about future plans for the church even though we all knew I wasn’t going to be there when the plans came to fruition. But I wanted to show them that I was engaged and set an example that would encourage them to stay engaged in every conversation throughout the process. Just as we had in the past, we were going to trust God together.
- Preparing the way: Helping a congregation navigate the succession journey can be difficult as a pastor. I tried very hard to treat people as I had treated them prior to the announcement of transition. I tried to love them the same, teach them the same way, exhort and encourage them as I had done before. I challenged them to devote themselves to the mission of Jesus. But, what may be most important is I tried to prepare them for their incoming senior pastor.
I planned and prepared my last three-month long sermon series with the sole purpose of preparing them to be the finest congregation possible for their new pastor. I thought about a number of potential angles like “Moses-Joshua,” “Elijah-Elisha,” “Paul-Timothy,” etc. But in the end, I decided to work backward through the Fruit of the Spirit. I started with self-control and ended with love. I looked through the lens of the new leader and challenged them to be the kind of congregation a pastor would want to inherit. Each week I questioned them on what kind of congregation they would be: undisciplined or disciplined? Self-centered or loving? Throughout the series I was able to tell them how much I loved and appreciated them but also to challenge them to be even more than they were now for their next shepherd.
So where did this get us? It may be too soon to tell but this is for sure…by God’s grace at the first meeting after the congregational vote, our new pastor got a standing ovation. NOT BAD! The staff loves his humble leadership, and he is enjoying his first months of being the senior leader. Me? I’m so grateful for how the journey has gone for my family and me. God has been gracious and faithful. He will be for you too.