Five Things I’ve Learned About Transition
Dennis Cummins

Pastor & Author Dennis Cummins is a 3rd generation pastor and has been in ministry for over two decades, ministering in worship, the Word, and prayer. He is the Senior Pastor of® in Puyallup, WA. Though located in the most un-churched county in the nation,® is a growing, thriving church. Read the rest of the bio for Pastor Dennis.

5 Things About Transitiontran·si·tion  
The process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.

In my experience, I have witnessed different churches go through pastoral transition. I personally experienced transition first-hand almost ten years ago. I took over the senior pastorate for my father-in-law who was also the founding pastor of the church. I had certain expectations concerning our transition, but most were false. My father-in-law started the church in 1990 and I came on staff one year later. I was the youth and music pastor for 6 years and then added the role of co-pastor for about 7 more years. Somehow I figured that by being on staff since almost the beginning of the church and working as co-pastor would somehow give me instant credibility when I transitioned to the senior pastor position. This was another false assumption that brought disappointment to me as a new senior pastor. While my experience is rich with hindsight I can only apply that learned wisdom to future transitions.

Lesson 1 – No One Wants Transition As Bad As You Do

This is true for the one looking to move into the position of the senior pastorate. Elisha asked Elijah to inherit a double portion of your Elijah’s anointing and Elijah said, “You asking for something difficult.” Not difficult to give, but difficult to receive and carry out. I know for myself, I was like Elisha, I want the double portion, I want to pick up where you left off and build it bigger and better. I didn’t realize I was asking for something that had “Difficult” written all over it. It looked easy being co-pastor, it was easy to critique and analyze when I didn’t have the title. As I looked around, I noticed that no one was more excited about me transitioning into the senior pastorate role than I was. This is when I realized I needed to calm down and step back a little.

One thing I have tried to convey, though it was more difficult due to pride and insecurities, was to recognize publicly that I stood on the shoulders of my predecessor. I am reminded of Deuteronomy 6:10-12 of the importance of this:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

This is one thing that Joel Osteen did with great poise transitioning into the role of Pastor after his father passed away. He wore his father’s shoes and showed great humility in the pulpit. He continually honored his father’s pastorate.

This is especially important in following the founding pastor of the church. They sacrificed, and did what we didn’t do so that we can have what we have. While every new senior pastor wants to move ahead with the vision that God has given him, it won’t do any good to move ahead if the people haven’t let go of the last vision. I think that’s why there is a delicate balance in finding the right approach to honoring the pastor and looking to the future. I wanted to honor the past with humility but I also didn’t want to seem incompetent or lacking vision. That is why I think it’s good to have key influencers in your church that you can talk to and get a read on helping you keep this balance.

Lesson 2 – Transition Will Take Longer than You Want it To

Some incoming pastors have the perception that transition ends when they get their new title. This couldn’t be further from the truth. This is especially true if the former pastor stays at the church in any capacity. There are always those people that will only agree with the new guy so long as they see the “head nod” from the former pastor.

So how do you define the end of transition? For me it was when I finally felt like I was the Pastor. I had the title Senior Pastor, Chairman of the board and President for five years but I didn’t feel as though my word was respected as that of Senior Pastor. Technically, I had all the authority the instant we transitioned, but it took me five years to build the respect needed to use that authority.

Lesson 3 – Transition is Inevitable So Plan for It

I think every church and senior pastor should put more thought into transition. Some predecessors drag their feet and ignore the inevitable. They give no thought to their own mortality or overstay their season. Some move too quickly which doesn’t give the people in the church time to process the thought of transition.  This usually makes the next incoming pastor experience a very short and miserable pastorate. I also believe that’s it’s important to have a neutral intermediary outside of the church body to help guide the process. Both the incoming and outgoing Pastors need guidance to find the mind of God.

Depending on the corporate structure of the church, the financials need to be fully disclosed to the incoming pastor, what staff will stay on and what staff should step down, and what type of compensation (if any) would be given to the former pastor. If you are the founding pastor of your current church and may be transitioning within ten to twenty years from now, then start planning now financially if the church is going to take care you as the founding pastor. Also what capacity, if any, will the former pastor have in the church. This is more common among founding pastors that stay at the church.

It’s also important to get your key people informed and on-board with the incoming pastor and time-frame of transition. I define key people as influencers in the church. These are typically the people that have no title and that are not paid staff. I think it’s vital to get their buy-in to be able to better navigate transition.

If the incoming pastor is serving in the church, it is good for the congregation to hear from the current senior pastor about his confidence in the future senior pastor. It’s important for the congregation to realize they don’t have a novice that will be sitting the pilot’s seat. Give him time before the people to preach, not just on special occasions or midweek services. Give him the spotlight before he’s in the spotlight. This could mean the difference between the legacy of the vision and losing the vision.

Following transition, if the former founding pastor is going to stay at the church, he should be gone as much as possible for the first year to allow the people to connect with their new pastor. He shouldn’t continue to do the weddings and funerals of the people in the church without making sure that the senior pastor is a part and fully honored in the process. He shouldn’t handle phone calls from disgruntled people in the church that are unhappy with the new pastor.

Lesson 4 – Transition Will Cause More Transition

Transition is a challenge every church will face, and no matter how well you plan and pray, people with get stirred up and more transition will happen. Sheep only drink out of still waters and I don’t think there’s anything that can stir the waters more than transition of the senior pastorate. Planned or unplanned, it is a hardship on the people. This is where we have to rise above and realize that God has graced us for such a time as this.

This is one of the things that surprised me the most. I figured that having been at the church for almost 13 years operating in the capacity of co-pastor would make for a smooth transition. The people I thought would be loyal were some of the first ones to leave. I expected some change, but I was surprised at who didn’t even respect me enough to give me a chance. The other reality is that no two people are alike. Different pastors have different styles and personalities that will draw a different crowd. This will change the atmosphere of the church especially if key people move on, and especially if they influence others to leave the church with them.

When is transition coming your way? Months? Years? Decades? Plan, plan, plan. Even now I think every pastor should have a transition strategy in case of an untimely death. As the old arabic proverb says, “Trust in God but tie up the camel.” I know as people of faith we stand to live a long full life, but that doesn’t preclude us from using wisdom and having our house in order. If we have a personal will in place, we should also have one in place for the house that God called us to plant and/or pastor. It may be a succession plan, maybe a “Key Person” insurance policy that would aid during the pain and hardship of an untimely transition. Elijah went away, Paul went away, Timothy went away, and many of our modern day patriarchs have went on to be with the Lord. These are great examples.

Lesson 5 – Transition Means Finding a New Normal

This is more true for the exiting pastor that may be retiring. There is nothing more thrilling than serving the Lord in ministry. Standing before people proclaiming the Word of the Lord. Standing by the bedsides of people and comforting families as their loved ones are about to pass. Leading couples into life-long marriage  Helping people make critical decisions. People looking up to you with admiration and respect.

This can be an addictive “high” for the pastor, and he may not realize that all the above was only experienced through the grace and anointing upon his life. This is why it can be difficult for some to let go. Even if they no longer have the title “Senior Pastor,” they lead from behind the scenes, on the telephone, from the other side of the country they still try to pastor what is no longer theirs to pastor. Only because they are seeking something that can only be experienced in role of Pastor. This is why it can be so difficult for pastors that transition into semi-retirement or full retirement. It leads them to the question, “Now what?”