Pastoral Succession: Stepping Out Gracefully – Stepping in Effectively | Pastor Brent Coulter

Stepping Out Gracefully – Stepping in Effectively
Dr. Earlby and Pastor Brent Coulter

Dr. Earlby Coulter & his wife, Esther, have over fifty years of experience in the ministry, and have been pastoring at Harvest Family Church since 1989. Earlby and Esther both graduated from Bible School in 1962, they were married and entered the ministry shortly thereafter. Pastor Coulter has three earned degrees, B.A., M.Div., and a Th.D. Dr. Coulter earned his degrees while working in various roles of full-time ministry. Brent Coulter joined the HFC Pastoral Staff in 1994 upon graduating from Bible College, and served faithfully for many years as an associate Pastor under Pastors Earlby and Esther Coulter. He became the Lead Pastor at Harvest Family Church in November 2008. Brent and his wife Nicole have two daughters.

Pastoral Succession Pastor Brent CoulterIt is inevitable that every Senior Pastor’s season of having the responsibility of leading a church comes to an end. For the ongoing viability of a church, every congregation needs to address the issue of succession. The success of this transition depends upon the recognition of its necessity by the Senior Pastor. He has an extremely important role in the transition. It is better for the senior leader to spearhead the transition rather than having the congregation or other leaders within the church experience the pain of asking a beloved ‘Man of God’ to step away or step down from the leadership role.

When a Senior Pastor arrives at the age of 60 (give or take a few years), he should begin to prayerfully assess the possible successors on his staff. If no qualified successor is readily apparent, he should begin the search to add someone to the staff that could possibly become the new Senior Pastor.

We did not have to go through the process of bringing in someone from outside the church staff. We are sure, however, there are others who could speak intelligently to that process of how to conduct such a search successfully.

Once the successor has been prayerfully considered and identified, there is a myriad of areas of training and preparation that need to be addressed.

In our particular situation, we transitioned the leadership role from father (70 years old) who had been pastor for 20 years to son (38 years old) who had been on staff 14 years. Our proceeding thoughts in this article are intended to spark conversation towards a healthy approach to transition.

Our advice in this article is based on the success and difficulties we experienced within each point mentioned.

We have separated the areas of transition, training and possible change into different categories. Each section is simplified and should be part of a much larger discussion.

Start With a Plan

Try to map out changes as they relate to the transition process. Some of these changes will take place in months; some could (and should) happen over years.

As much as possible, during this period of transition, identify and work through changes in conjunction with one another, so that the successor and Senior Pastor can be seen as working on changes together. It takes a lot of good, healthy communication and respect for each other. The longer this period takes place the better, allowing for an adjustment period for staff, congregation and board.


The successor must feel confident in front of the congregation and likewise the congregation must have confidence in him.

One practical way to achieve this goal is to have the successor up in front of the people as much as possible, making announcements, receiving offerings, preaching, participating in communion, and water baptism and officiating/assisting at weddings and funerals.

As the actual date of transition is approaching, have the successor preach more frequently, especially when the Senior Pastor is there in attendance. The successor cannot be seen just as a fill-in for the absence of the Senior Pastor, but rather as an intricate part of the leadership team of the church.

Part of the training for the successor is getting used to preaching more frequently, and the church getting used to his specific gifts and emphasis. One inescapable fact: not everyone will take to the successor and his style or approach, and it is important for the successor to be prepared emotionally for this reality, but be secure in his gifts and calling. Pastors are very near and dear to the hearts of people and, consequently, not every congregational member will survive through a transition.

The outgoing Senior Pastor will receive more love and accolades than ever before. It is important, however, that he resist the temptation to allow his ego to disrupt the transition. The exaltation of Jesus and the continuing future success of the local church should be the goals. John’s admonition, “He must increase and I must decrease,” is apropos in the transition context.

Further, the simple practice of celebrating with enthusiasm a well-preached sermon of the successor by the Senior Pastor, will go a long way to increasing the positive impact of the successor in the eyes of the congregation. During the transitioning period, attendance of church events by the Senior Pastor hosted by the successor, is very important because it visually tells the congregation the Senior Pastor is supportive of the successor.

Likewise and very important, the successor needs to verbally honor the Senior Pastor on a regular basis, recognizing that he is much beloved by the congregation.

Working with Church Staff

The relationship between Pastor and staff is very crucial. The successor and the Senior Pastor need to meet together to establish if the existing staff team will remain after the succession has taken place. Once communication has been made to the staff team about the succession, the successor must be free to decide which member of the team/direct reports will continue to be a fit under his leadership. This process should be achieved with a tremendous amount of communication, respect and discussion with each employee (especially in a smaller setting) concerning their future at the church. Most likely there will be some turnover of employees during a transition.

The successor and the Senior Pastor need to establish a plan of transition as it relates to working with the staff and conducting meetings — the eventual and necessary result being that the successor meets with the staff more frequently without the Senior Pastor present.

The successor would then report back to the Senior Pastor about the meetings, therefore giving opportunity of closed-door training/discussions between the Senior Pastor and successor.

As you move to the official succession date, it is important that separate meetings with the senior pastor and direct reports do not happen without the successor present. Clear and open communication is vital throughout this process.

Working with Church Board/Finances

When the successor has been identified, it is important that he be trained to understand the financial activity of the church, the debt (if any), the salary structure of the staff, and the thought process behind that structure,  how budgeting is done, and how goals are met within that structure, how to plan, vision cast and implement a capital campaign. It is important to understand where the financial authority and accountability exist with the church structure.

When dealing with a church board, deacons, elders (as per the specific church structure), the successor needs to be invited into board meetings as a visitor or in some official capacity as dictated by the church’s by-laws. Initially, he will be a silent observer; however after a period of time he should be encouraged to contribute and give his input. Eventually he should take on a role of responsibility within board meetings.

Senior Pastor’s Wife (a note from Esther Coulter)

There is a transition period for the wife also, especially if she has been heavily involved in different areas such as preaching, teaching, administration, counselling, and women’s ministry, etc. She should gradually step down from any leadership role by training new leaders. She has to follow her husband’s lead. Her identity must be secure in who she is as a person as well as who she is in Christ Jesus. She also has to be very supportive of the successor, his wife and family in every way and not be openly or inwardly critical. This allows the wife of the successor to take her place without struggle. For the outgoing Senior Pastor’s wife, this can be a wonderful new season in life.

For the Senior Pastor and his spouse, it is important to not impose a specific type of ministry model on the successor and his wife. The incoming pastoral family may have a different gift mix or interest in the life of the church, such as worship vs. kids ministry; pulpit vs. counseling one on one; or high profile vs. low profile. In any case, the successor and his family should be encouraged to operate in the gifts given to them by God and not be forced to wear Saul’s armor.

Leaving or Staying

Once the successor is firmly established, the Senior Pastor may leave and attend another church; do other forms of ministry, or stay and help the successor in some way such as, teach a Bible class, visit hospitals, or do some counselling if needed, at the discretion of the successor. This has worked in our case because father and son have a good relationship and good communication. We don’t know how this would work outside of a family context. We know other ministers who have gone on to do other forms of ministry outside the church. If the Senior Pastor is leaving, he should leave town because of the awkwardness of attending another church in the same vicinity. Some feelings of awkwardness will exist for a while regardless of what path is chosen.

Practical Thoughts

Pastoral relations during a celebration of marriage or funerals are a very important time. Therefore, it is important for the outgoing Pastor to refuse invitations to conduct weddings and funerals. In general, the congregation needs to be made aware that the former Senior Pastor will no longer be performing weddings or officiating at funerals.

Final Note to Senior Pastors

It is inevitable that the successor will operate differently from the outgoing Senior Pastor. For example, some changes will occur depending on the direction the successor desires to take in worships styles, song selection, dress code, salvation (altar) call approach, etc.

The Gospel will never change, but the ways in which The Gospel is presented will vary from minister to minister and will continue to change as we have observed throughout the history of the church. Therefore, it is imperative that the Senior Pastor does not openly criticize those decisions, which would cause undue tension and completely undermine the successor, abort the transition and confuse the congregation.

The ethic of love would dictate encouragement and support to help the successor succeed and thrive. For the outgoing senior pastor (post transition) there is great joy in viewing the continued success of the local church that he loved and invested in for many years.

There is an ethical nature and social grace to transition that makes it palatable to everyone involved. Transition should include thankfulness for the past and celebration of the future.