Insights from the next guy. Pastoral Transition.
In Lamentations 5:19, Jeremiah writes, “Your throne continues from generation to generation.” It is important to understand that Jeremiah said that to God, not to any of us. Our physical presence in ministry has an “expiration date,” and every pastor should realize that he is, in a sense, an interim pastor. Someone will eventually succeed him.
I have been privileged to observe many pastoral transitions in recent years—some have already happened, some are in process, and some are yet to take place. I want to learn from everyone I can, and I believe you do also. So, I’ve asked a number of “the next guys”—those who have received the baton of leadership—to share what their experience was like in assuming an existing church.
I asked each of them to answer five questions:
- Briefly describe how your transition into pastoral leadership happened.
- What was your greatest challenge in assuming the pastorate of your church?
- What worked well for you as you became the senior leader of the church?
- What advice would you give others who are about to transition into a senior role?
- What can senior leaders who are stepping aside do to set up their successors for success?
Hi-Desert Word Center | Barstow, California
- I am taking over for my dad. He has been pastoring full-time since 1992 and has done a wonderful job of training me this entire time. I was 7 then and I’m 36 now.
- My personal greatest challenge has been seeing myself as a real Senior Pastor and not “the Pastor’s son” anymore. I often have to tell myself “You’re a real Senior Pastor. You’re not a kid pretending to be one. You’re not a ‘wannabe’ you’re actually a genuine one now.”
- I have been blessed that my dad has worked on this transition for at least five years, so it has been very smooth. The people are familiar with my wife and me and are very comfortable with us. The biggest thing that has worked well for me is simply being myself and not trying to be someone else.
- Take your calling seriously. We will answer to God someday for the ministry He trusted to us. We aren’t performing-we’re ministering God’s Holy Word. It’s not about me…it’s about glorifying Jesus and helping people.
- Encourage them. They’re going to need to know you trust them and that they’re doing a good job. My dad has truly done this and has publicly affirmed me repeatedly.
Worship Center | Lancaster, Pennsylvania
- At Worship Center, I served as worship pastor for about nine years before stepping into the lead pastor role of our founding Pastor Sam Smucker, who served for forty years. Overall, it was a healthy transition for our church and for both Sam and me.
- One of the greatest challenges was navigating the reality that almost everything I did was being highly scrutinized. A church succession process naturally heightens everyone’s awareness to compare the new pastor with the former. I understood that but I didn’t fully understand what that level of pressure would feel like.
- I received very helpful coaching early on in this new role, which was to identify three personal leadership priorities to focus on. For me they were:
Communication. Including growing in communication from the platform, communication in meetings, and one-to-ones.
Relational investment. Spend time investing relationally in the people I’m leading, not just focused on accomplishing tasks.
Building organizational healthy culture. Healthy things grow. My priority is to ensure that we have a healthy culture.
- Two things: First, honor the past and cast vision for the future simultaneously. Over and over. Recognize the people, including the former lead pastor, who have invested so much to make this church what it is, while also stating that God has more for this church to accomplish. Second, make sure the mission of your church is crystal clear and be committed to it. People can endure change when they are connected to the mission that does not change.
- Cheer on the next generation of leaders. Affirm them publicly. And acknowledge that the future church may look different but it’s what is needed.
Pastor Sam, our former senior pastor, recognized early on that if Worship Center was going to outlast him, he would need to pass it on to the next generation. He humbly released decision-making authority, and still to this day, he cheers on the next generation of pastors and leaders.
Tree of Life Church | New Braunfels, Texas
- My transition into pastoral leadership came after the previous pastor engaged in an inappropriate relationship within the church. I was able to become the senior pastor after almost 18 months of a lawsuit, negative media coverage, and a mass exodus of congregants. A search committee was formed in accordance with the existing by-laws, and eventually, I emerged as the leading candidate. I received more than the minimum number of congregational votes required and was set in as Senior Pastor. I should also mention that I was on staff and had become the interim Pastor for a period as well.
- The by-laws we operated under were one of the greatest challenges we faced. They sounded good on paper, but when applied in a real-life situation with people, there were many weaknesses. The search committee process and structure lent themselves to sides being taken, closed door meetings, secret communications with potential candidates, and people trying to discredit others. That’s just to name a few challenges. I know it sounds like the latest Netflix series, but it happened in church.
- What worked best for me was maintaining humility and integrity at all costs in the lengthy process. I stayed above the fray, so to speak, and sought the well-being of the church above the pastorate. As I said earlier, I was on staff and had a positive history with many relationships. I worked hard to rebuild trust with the church. I also spoke on forgiveness, restoration, healing, mission, and purpose. The church was not the man, and the man was not the church. It was God’s church, and it still had a bright future and a divine destiny. Our best days were still in front of us.
- The advice I would give others about to transition into a senior role would begin with making sure it’s what you are called to do. It is unlike any other role or position you have ever been in. You must know you are called because that may be the only thing that keeps you going. Also always walk in humility and integrity. When you blow it – and you will – be quick to repent. Make sure you connect with a proven mentor and put them on speed dial and use it often. Trust more in God’s ability to clean up any mistakes you make more than your ability to get it right. And maybe most importantly double your prayer time. No matter how much you may currently pray, it is not enough.
- Start the process as early as possible, if possible. Show them your complete trust and support and let others see it. Spend time not just connecting them to the pastoral role but to the heart and call of the house. What is the unique heart and spirit of the church? Pour vision into them and then process it verbally with them. Don’t correct them, but connect them. They are and should be a different leader and they need to be them. They need to be comfortable in who they are and confident in whose they are. They are not continuing your work. They are continuing His work in His gifting, in His calling, in His anointing. They are not there to fill your shoes; they are there to fulfill their purpose.
Mount Hope Church | Lansing, Michigan
Transition… Planning for Acceleration!
While my wife Renee and I were visiting Washington DC in 2011, we came across this quote on the National Archives building:
“The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future.”
Knowing that I was only months away from becoming the pastor, I stopped right there and gave thanks to God for the amazing heritage we have at Mount Hope Church. It’s a heritage rich in faith, leadership, vision, tenacity, and mission! I thanked God that at the age of 14, Pastor Dave Williams took me under his wing and began to mentor me, and believe in me. He saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself: potential. He taught me how to pray, how to lead a Bible Study, and at the age of 16, he asked me to preach in a Sunday night service. After pastoring Mount Hope Church for just over 30 years, he would soon pass the pastoral mantle to me. I was absolutely coming unglued with enthusiasm over this thought: This great heritage we have at Mount Hope Church is just the beginning of the harvest that is in our future!
I’ve heard it said that it’s not the speed of the runners as much as the ability to make a smooth hand-off that determines who wins or loses a relay race. All the books I read about pastoral transition told me that I should expect to lose at least 15% of the people and have at least a 15% drop in finances. But Mount Hope Church has never been an average church; we worked hard to make a smooth hand-off. A year later, we give the Lord praise because our finances actually increased, attendance is looking great and I’m meeting new people almost every week!
Whether you are looking to transition in the next few years or 30 years from now, it is my prayer that a few of the strategic steps we took during our transition at Mount Hope Church will be a blessing to you.
Strategic Step Number One: Have a Plan
Pastor Dave wisely put together a five-year transition plan. I’m so grateful that he took the initiative with this and refused to leave it up to a committee to decide the future of Mount Hope Church. This was new territory for Pastor Dave and for me, but together we worked out a timeline and a methodical approach to prepare for a seamless transition.
That plan started with Pastor Dave talking to the church board and executive pastoral staff. After much prayer, they unanimously agreed that Kevin Berry would be his successor. After that, my role at Mount Hope Church changed from youth pastor to executive team leader. From leading the church staff to filling in for Pastor Dave and preaching more on Sundays, this gave the staff and congregation an opportunity to get to know me more.
A year before the transition was to take place, Pastor Dave strategically began to communicate about the transition. With a cascading communication, plan he was able to communicate to the early adopters before communicating to the entire congregation. So, by the time he communicated to the congregation, many of them already had buy-in.
- First, the announcement was made to the intercessory prayer partners. This gave them time to bathe the entire transition process in prayer.
- Then Pastor Dave communicated with the leaders of the church
- A letter was then sent out to the membership of the church. In this letter, there was an invitation to come to a special Sunday night service where Pastor Dave would be sharing his heart about the transition.
- Finally, the transition was announced at a Sunday night service. It was a great “family” meeting.
In each group, Pastor Dave masterfully communicated that this transition would be like a supernatural moment of acceleration for our church. He explained that we were not going to do what some had done and leave it up to a pulpit committee to decide who the next pastor should be. Instead, we would be biblical and apostolic, and he had prayerfully selected his successor. He made it clear that after prayer, both the staff and the board unanimously agreed that Kevin Berry would be the next pastor. He painted a beautiful picture of Kevin and Renee becoming “Dad and Mom” and Dave and Mary Jo becoming “Grandpa and Grandma” at Mount Hope Church. He and Mary Jo would not be leaving the church; Pastor Kevin asked that he stay on as Ambassador and that his wife, Mary Jo, would continue to lead the Global Prayer Center at Mount Hope Church.
He also painted a great picture of the acceleration that would be part of this transition. When Moses passed the leadership baton to Joshua, the children of Israel quickly entered the Promised Land. When Elijah passed his mantle on, Elisha did twice as many miracles. When David passed his leadership to his son, Solomon exceeded David and became the wisest, wealthiest king ever. Peace reigned and nobody experienced lack in all of Israel. And when Paul passed the baton to Timothy, he ended up establishing the largest first-century church in the world! So, Pastor Dave encouraged the church family to get ready for lift-off. I can’t imagine how dramatically different this transition could have been had it not been for the remarkable and strategic communication from Pastor Dave.
Strategic Step Number Two: Practice Honor
Throughout the five-year transition process, Pastor Dave would periodically honor me from the pulpit. And every time I was given the opportunity to minister, I would consistently honor him. And here’s the thing… we still honor each other to this day. I practice honor by publicly talking about Pastor Dave. Just this last Sunday, I reminded our church family that we wouldn’t even be sitting in this beautiful church today had it not been for the faith, vision, and tenacity of Pastor Dave Williams! I gratefully acknowledge the impact he has had on my life personally as well as so many in our community. Jesus talked openly about his predecessor, honoring John the Baptist in public, and we should follow His example and do that same.
In the book, “The Elephant in the Boardroom – Speaking the Unspoken about Pastoral Transitions,” authors Carolyn Reese and J. Russell Crabtree point out that the first principle for a successful transition is: Honor thy Predecessor. The default succession plan for kings of the Old Testament was often assassination. They would obliterate the previous king and the fruit of his life. Instead of trying to obliterate the past, we chose to celebrate the great legacy Pastor Dave has left. It’s a legacy that is worth celebrating and a foundation to continue to build on. In the first message I preached as pastor of Mount Hope Church, I talked about the principle of honor.
The evening of February 12, 2012, my first Sunday as pastor, we held what we called “The Honor Celebration.” The sanctuary was filled with friends from around the nation, but most importantly, the Mount Hope family and our network of daughter churches. Through a combination of special speakers and videos, we celebrated all the good that God has done and gave honor where honor was due. We lavished Pastor Dave and Mary Jo with love, appreciation, and gifts.
While honor is nearly foreign to the culture around us, it is very much part of the culture of the Kingdom! We wanted to rightly thank this precious couple that had given so lavishly and sacrificially to us. I would not have wanted it any other way.
Strategic Step Number Three: Make Sure the Current Staff Has Your Heart
Everything I read about pastoral transition encouraged me to hold on to the good staff members on our team. We had a GREAT team of staff members, so I did my best to invest in them, spend time with them relationally, and involve them with the strategic plans of the church. More than six months before the transition took place, I had a heart-to-heart talk with the associate pastors to make sure they were on board. I was so excited at the thought of starting out as pastor with such a dream team of leaders.
But much to my surprise, I received a resignation letter from a member of the pastoral staff who had been with us for over 20 years. Then a week later, I received another letter that sounded very much the same as the first. Then a year after the transition, there were four pastors, all long-term staff members that are no longer with us. This is something that I just didn’t see coming. But here’s what I have learned: when they go, it’s okay. God knows what He is doing. The Lord was building me a new dream team right before my eyes and His picks are always the best!
One of the mistakes I made was to try and hold onto a staff member when I was not convinced he had my heart. I tried to “make it work” and the long story short is that it got ugly and it did not work. Lesson learned – if the staff does not have your heart, they have to go. You need a staff that celebrates you, not tolerates you.
Strategic Step Number Four: Have a Strong Vision for the Future
If you are following a strong visionary leader, people are used to hearing the vision – a vision that is compelling and worth throwing their lives into. And they are going to expect to hear the same from you.
During my first week as pastor, I took the board and the staff on a road trip. We first went to the site of Mount Hope Church where I grew up as kid and Pastor Dave was my youth pastor. In this 100+ seat sanctuary we thanked God for the rich heritage of Mount Hope Church. None of the staff or board had ever been in that building and were blown away with gratitude to see where we started, compared to where the Lord has brought us today. Then we drove to the next building, which Mount Hope Church had moved into back in the 70’s. It was there that Dave Williams became pastor and Mount Hope Church began to experience exponential growth! We concluded the road trip in our current sanctuary and praised God for our rich heritage. There, I began casting vision for the future.
I reminded the board and staff of the quote I saw in Washington D.C.:
“The Heritage of the Past is the Seed that Brings Forth the Harvest of the Future.”
I explained that while I was filled with great memories of what God has done in the past, I don’t live my life out of my memory, but out of my imagination. Our biggest and brightest days are not the days behind us… but the days just in front of us. It was a holy moment of celebrating the past and looking with expectation to the harvest of our future!
I’m fully convinced that the celebration and success of the pastoral transition at Mount Hope Church came as a result of the Lord’s favor, much prayer, great leadership, and strategic planning. These steps that I’ve shared are a few keys that the Lord used to supernaturally accelerate our church… and what He has done for us, He can do for you!
New Life Church | Frankfort, Kentucky
- My father-in-law pastored our church for 45 ½ years. He is about to turn 83, and my mother-in-law is 87. They are both greatly loved by our congregation. I served on staff with him in various roles from 1993-1998 and then from 2007-2019, at which time I was appointed as Lead Pastor. The transition was very smooth because the church knew me well, loved me, and respected me as a leader and minister. I had a proven track record of success with them.
- Although there was continuity doctrinally, my father-in-law and I have very different personalities. He is phlegmatic and I am choleric. As a result, our leadership styles are very different. Every personality type has strengths and challenges. The more Spirit-led we are, the more the Holy Spirit maximizes our strengths and minimizes our weaknesses. Because I had a long record of ministry and leadership at our church, the congregation saw the value of our different Spirit-led personalities.
The previous pastor still attends our church. I’ve seen that work well in some cases, and not work well in others. Some pastors have a difficult time “letting go.” Some congregations have a difficult time “letting go.” Every situation is unique, but that is a challenge most transitions will have. New pastors need to respect the previous leadership and previous pastors need to respect the present leadership. The key is respect. If you’ve “passed the baton,” let them run their race. Let them hear you cheer them on, not grumbling on the sidelines. The previous pastor in our church has cheered me on, and I’m very appreciative of that!
- I constantly honor the previous pastor from the pulpit. I call him “Bishop” and his wife “First Lady.” He is still being paid a full-time salary, as if he was still the Lead Pastor. We must never forget the people who blazed the trail before us. We didn’t get where we are without them. Honor is a powerful principle!
- Build relationships. Listen before you lead. Honor the past yet encourage people to embrace the future. Remember, every change can be viewed as a critique of the past. Be Spirit-led, especially when leading change. Get smaller wins under your belt before making big changes. There are some things you may be able to change immediately. There are other things that may require time to change. Know the difference.
- Pray first! That’s what Jesus did! Is the Holy Spirit giving you confirmation to move forward? If so, get a plan in place. Study Moses and Joshua. There is a lot of wisdom to be found in their relationship and transition. Being raised in a denomination, I’ve seen more long-term success through raising your own successor from within the house. I know of one church that had four pastors in twelve years. They eventually selected someone who had been raised in the house. He has been there for ten years now and is thriving. He had their “DNA.”
If your successor is not “in the house,” make sure they are well-known by the people. Have them minister for you often. How do the people respond to them? Is it a fit? Discuss it with your leadership team. Do your homework. Make your phone calls. Talk to mutual friends. What are their strengths and weaknesses? Are there any concerns? How is their character? Are they faithful with money? Is there doctrinal continuity?
Our Finest Hour Church | Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
- I succeeded my father in pastoring after serving him for 16 years as a youth leader and associate pastor. For me, this was a great blessing because I had an intricate working knowledge of the church and his style of pastoring. This allowed me to have realistic expectations as I stepped into this new role.
- Honestly, my greatest challenge in pastoring was me. When you work in a supportive role for as long as I did, you know your role, your place, your strength, and weaknesses. And you don’t have to deal with the “final say” of things.
As the senior pastor, I now must step into a position that requires constant spiritual direction for the church and its departments. Vision casting to the congregation, long-term planning, decision-making regarding staff & policy, family care oversight, and the day-to-day minutia now fell to me. Of course, the preparation, study, and ALL the preaching and teaching weekly became my responsibility.
Of course, none of these are simple responsibilities. And while I was a part of all this under my dad, I was just lifting his hands. I was not responsible for all these leadership duties. My role as the associate pastor was simply to help him make these things come to pass.
I was 37 when I took over the role of senior pastor. I had a family with small children, and an emeritus pastor who was still active in the ministry; and yet these responsibilities were mine. Gaining confidence in myself and overcoming criticalness took many years.
- I made the decision from the start to not hurry and change things. I decided I would adapt to the leadership role FOR the people, and NOT the people to me.
That meant my preaching style, order of service, policies and procedures in the helps ministry, and the staff members were not changed quickly. I made slow, small changes to the service, and functionality of the church over a period of years. This allowed the congregation time to adapt and get comfortable with me. And most importantly, the members had to learn to trust that I knew what I was doing. Once relationship and trust were built, when it came time to make changes, they were on board.
Also, I was sure to keep my leadership team around me active in the process. You must build your own forms of communication and process with the staff and volunteers. These changes can happen much quicker than public decisions. This helps to speed the congregation’s support of your ideas. All the leadership voices preaching the same message are critical.
- Well, assuming the church is healthy, my counsel would be to change things slowly. You are the new equation to the picture of this church’s life. They should not be expected to change quickly for you. Make your plans, have a direction, a vision, and specifics of how those changes will take place, but don’t present them all at once. You want to maintain the quality of life the church currently has. In most cases, the church has thrived for many years in its existing format and changes to worship, service flow, ministries within the church like youth, or small groups can create a lot of stress on the congregation.
I am not interested in driving off the older congregation who needs time to adjust to change, simply because I am in a hurry to see change happen.
You don’t want to have a whole new congregation of turnover in 18 months because you took things too quickly.
I would also advise the new pastor to invest as much as they can in getting to know the leaders of the church, from the former pastor to the elders and deacons in the church, to the ministry of helps. The clearer you understand the inner workings of your church, and its families, the greater opportunity you have to focus your leadership on making the right changes.
You must maintain a healthy quality of the life in the church as you work to make the change to you as the new pastor.
- The greatest thing is to prepare the congregation for the change that is about to take place. Pastors are such an important part of a person’s life. To expect members to accept a new pastor, especially if they’re not from the church and being brought in fresh, it takes time for the people to accept and adapt to your style.
I would ask that the pastor take time to speak personally and publicly about why he’s leaving and to encourage the membership to get behind the new pastor and support him and his style of preaching.
Also, I would also ask that the previous pastor be open to spending time with the new pastor, NOT discussing the members of the church but the processes he used in its operation.
Some helpful questions to ask the pastor might include: How does he run the church daily? Why did he hire his current staff members? What does his volunteer systems look like, and are they working well in training and managing volunteers? How has he managed counseling, budgets, weddings, funerals, and church activities? These are all things that people get accustomed to doing in a certain way. If you are coming in new and don’t know these things, you can really upset a lot of people quickly.
As Pastor Roy Sprague said: You must bury them and marry them correctly, and they will forgive you for everything in-between.
Living Faith Fellowship Church | Superior, Nebraska
- Living Faith Fellowship Church was my home church before I attended RBTC. I graduated in 1989 and came back to LFFC in Superior and worked under Pastor Patsy Busey, the founding pastor of LFFC. I was Children’s Minister for 13 years, and part of that time I was also the Associate Pastor. I left in 2002 and moved back to Tulsa to attend the third-year School of Pastoral Ministry at RBTC. I then pioneered a church in McCook, NE. I stayed in fellowship and communication with Pastor Patsy and moved back to Superior in 2011 to transition into the role of Senior Pastor. In January of 2013, I became the Senior Pastor and Pastor Patsy became the Associate Pastor.
- The greatest challenge in assuming the pastorate of LFFC was that Pastor Patsy had been the only official “Senior Pastor” of the church since its beginning, and she had been there for over 31 years! These are good things, but it was hard for some of the people to let go. I was given some wonderful advice from another minister. He said, “It will take some time for many of the people to transition from looking to Pastor Patsy as the pastor to looking to you. Be patient and the transition will happen gradually.” It was also challenging that she was still at the church as the Associate Pastor. I was glad that she was there, and we have always been close, but it took some time for the people to see me as the Pastor. Some people continued to call Pastor Patsy when they had a question or a prayer request, but she always let me know. I made a quality decision not to get offended about it.
- When I became the Senior Pastor of LFFC, I never tried to be just like Pastor Patsy. We had talked about it ahead of time. We realized we had very different personalities, but the same heart for God and for others. I embraced the fact that I was who God made me to be and I just had to be myself. I did some things differently than Pastor Patsy, but the job got done and people received what they needed from God. My motto for ministry and life is, “Love God, love others, and be yourself!”
- There are things that I would like to tell pastors that are about to transition into the senior role. First, don’t try to change everything all at once. You can make changes, but make them gradually! Be led by the Holy Ghost when making changes. Pray it out ahead of time.
For me, it was important that I stay hooked up with Rhema—my roots! Pastor Patsy always went back to Rhema several times a year – Campmeeting, WBS, Kindle the Flame Ladies’ Conference, etc.
Acts 4:23 (KJV)
23 And being let go, they went to their own company, and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said unto them.
Brother Hagin told us ministers to go back to our own company periodically. I have also done that in the thirty-three years since I graduated from Rhema. It’s so crucial to keep the vision that God has given to Rhema at the forefront of your own ministry. I tell my people that we are all part of Rhema, and we are all working together to usher in the last Great Revival!
- In the case with Pastor Patsy, she stayed at the church as the Associate Pastor. In a lot of churches that wouldn’t work, but in our case, it did because we both understood submission to authority. Pastor Patsy never usurped my authority. We had good communication between the two of us. She let me know what was going on. In the case of Senior Pastors leaving their church, I think it would be helpful for them to talk to their congregation before they leave to encourage the people to get on board with the vision of the new pastor. They need to be supportive and patient as the new pastor finds his or her way. It took me several years before I felt that I had completely transitioned over to my role as Senior Pastor.
Spirit of Life Church | Indianapolis, Indiana
- My wife and I had started attending SOLC in 2002, while we were dating and in college. In 2006, we joined the leadership team. We became assistant pastors in 2009, and in 2011, we were named the senior pastors of the church. I was 30 years old when I received the mantle of senior pastor at SOLC. Pastors Ed and Beth had pastored the church for 17 years. Pastor Ed still ministered once a month until they moved to the east side of Indianapolis in 2020.
- The greatest challenge at the beginning was learning to find my voice while continuing the vision of the church. Our purpose at SOLC has always been to teach victorious living through faith, and specifically, with the Word of Faith message. This could not change, but I needed to avoid comparing myself to the previous pastor and teach and preach as the Lord led. It was now my job to hear from God and speak for Him regarding SOLC.
- I made it a priority to honor Pastors Ed and Beth and remind the church of our history. We do an anniversary service every year celebrating the previous year and the beginning of the church. I believe this is one thing that prevented any strife, division, or significant decline. We had a church that had been very loyal to Pastors Ed and Beth, and I believed that if the church saw our continued loyalty, they would continue to be loyal to us and the church.
- The number one piece of advice is to pray. No matter how great the opportunity may be, pray to know if it is God’s will and purpose for you to assume the role. If you hear an affirmative answer, then continue to pray in the Holy Ghost through the whole transition.
- Senior leaders who are stepping aside can assume lesser roles. Pastors Ed and Beth remained involved in the church, but they allowed me to provide the overall direction of the messages, community involvement, guest ministers, and other items. I’m so glad they didn’t leave the church but continued to mentor and help provide wisdom.
Impact Life Church | Red Deer, Alberta, Canada
- My folks planted the church that we transitioned into. My wife and I were heading more in that direction of lead pastor, as we were the youth and children’s pastors for nine years. Then, we slowly moved into operating as the associates. As the associate pastors, we were asked to take the leadership of the staff/leadership team that ran the day-to-day operations, which over a period of time, turned into taking the reigns as the lead pastors.
- The greatest challenge we faced was decisions that the previous board had made financially that would tie our hands going forward.
- Because we had been running the leadership team for two years prior to taking over the church, transitioning as the lead pastors was an easy flow for us. Because the previous pastor had given me, as his associate, one service a month to minister, the people had an idea of who I was and what I was like (really thankful for that opportunity that he entrusted to me).
- Bring in outside counsel to walk through the process. Both the ‘founding pastors’ and us, the ‘new guys,’ knew it was the Lord that was bringing about this transition; yet there is a lot of emotion simply because transitions have emotion attached to them and it does leave you in a vulnerable place. Having an outside voice come in that can clearly see what’s best for the church (and really, both parties) was a crucial part of our transition.
Communicate with the current staff/leadership that roles and current functions may be changed within time, simply as you bring in your God-given mission.
- Affirm the new guys in front of the congregation. Let everyone see that you believe in God’s call on them for the church. Give space. If it works, take some time away to allow the new guys to get established. Implementing vision, culture and a heartbeat takes time. By not being at the church for a season, it helps the congregation to connect and build a relationship with the new guys.
Abundant Grace Church | Tom’s River, New Jersey
- My dad and I were in the process of transitioning when he got sick with Covid and went to Heaven. Naturally, the transition was complete and I was in the lead role.
- In my case, certainly the parameters in which it happened, but the congregation missing my dad and the shock of it all, including for myself made it a little more challenging.
- Always be honest with people. Some of the congregation just couldn’t get over what happened. I made it very clear that I’m not my dad nor am I trying to be my dad, but let’s work together to honor God and the legacy of Faith that my father has left.
- Having led a Battalion of 50 men as a Fire Chief, leading by example in a spirit of humility goes so much farther and works so much better than rhetoric alone. It’s what people think about you when you are not around that makes a leader. Show respect and you’ll never need to demand it.
- I really didn’t have the opportunity to see this point through, and also given the fact he is my dad made it a little different than most. However, I would suggest imparting what you know as a mentor and then allowing them to take the reigns, so to speak, and that means the mistakes as well.
Faith Christian Fellowship of Tucson | Tucson, Arizona
1. My pastor and I both long believed that I was the likely and right person to lead the church next, but we weren’t clear on time. In August of 2018, I was in Tulsa, and he was in Mexico at different meetings and the Lord spoke to both of us in specific ways that it was time. After we returned and spoke to one another, we agreed that February at our church anniversary would be a good time. We both read a couple of books on pastoral transitions and began speaking to others who had transitioned into or out of pastor roles that we knew.
Key issues we discussed in the following weeks and months.
- When to announce to Leadership and then the Church?
- We told the Leaders in September and announced to the church in October.
- Roles during transition.
- Future roles after transition.
- How much space in terms of time should the church have before the outgoing pastors returned again? For us, it was approximately 3 months.
- Financial compensation. The previous pastor did not ask for any ongoing support, however, we knew we needed to honor and continue supporting him in some way, which we still do and will continue to do.
Leading up to the transition, I took over leading all Leader’s meetings and ministered at our Christmas service. We then co-preached most of January, celebrating and refreshing our history, mission, and casting vision for how those would continue.
2. Without any other paid staff, my wife and I assumed new responsibilities but were unable to release many of our previous ones. This adjustment to the new pace was stressful and took a few months to determine a more ideal flow and audit what agenda items needed to be stopped or rethought.
3. Pastor Virgil’s support was so encouraging, and I can’t stress that enough. Still, I’d say we focused on minimal organizational and stylistic or methodological changes. Instead, we targeted on a few big wins in our facility projects that people could be very excited about, as well as One Mission focused project that had been a dream of the church for years. These brought a sense of credibility while maintaining a sense of stability.
4. Know and honor the history of the church. Enhance the stated vision and focus people know. It might need to eventually morph to represent you and how to best meet the needs of your community, but start with what has been done and let people connect with your heart as pastor in the ministries, outreaches, etc. that they are familiar with. It will garner trust as you institute new or make shifts in present methods or ministries.
5. Demonstrate their support and their confidence in the successor.
New Life Church | Huntington, West Virginia
1. (This is definitely brief.) In January of 2019, my father shared news with my wife and I, that after 34 years, he would be stepping down as Senior Pastor of New Life Church. My wife and I, who were at that time serving as Associate Pastors, would be placed as the new Senior Pastor. In May, we began the planning process of sharing this news with elders, staff, and the congregation. The elders and staff were informed in June, the church congregation in July, and by August, the transition took place.
2. The greatest challenge initially (until Covid hit) was balancing my new role as Senior Pastor, while still fulfilling the responsibilities I had as an Associate Pastor. The amount of work was overwhelming. It took me well over a year and a half before I finally listened to advice and hired a wonderful Assistant Pastor.
3. By the time my wife and I transitioned as Senior Pastors, I was preaching nearly half of the weekend services and had been for 2 years prior. The church embraced us as the new lead pastors, while honoring my parents and their leadership. The transition couldn’t have gone smoother.
4. Over communicate with each other first. Ask the hard questions up front. I asked questions like this: “Will I be the Senior Pastor, or will I still be expected to filter vision/decisions through you?” “Is the staff still expected to respond to you?” “If I have a family member on staff, do I have the right to fire them if necessary, or do you expect me to get your permission first?” Tough questions. We had unfiltered, honest, and healthy conversations which ultimately helped prepare us to answer the questions presented by staff/elders and church congregation.
This may not be popular…but it’s my advice.
A) Spend the first year loving the people. Meet with each leader and their teams. My wife and I spent the first 3 months meeting with departments and teams sharing our heart, hearing theirs, and building relationships.
B) Find a tribe. You need friends. Real friends. Even just one. A friend who has gone through what you’re going through and can speak into you unfiltered. I prayed and asked God, he led me to a great group.
C) Learn this lesson right away…long time members will never love you like they loved their previous Senior Pastor…and that’s a good thing! HONOR that Senior Pastor as hard as well as you can. In time, as new people join, they’ll love you that way and you’ll have a foundation of honor in your church culture.
D) You can’t do it all. If it’s in the budget hire an Assistant Pastor. Make a list of everything that “ONLY” you can do…and give everything else to that Assistant Pastor. You need help. Trust me.
E) Change the appearance. Paint the walls. New carpet. New stage design. Do it right away (6-12 months). As long as it’s in the budget…give it a new look. Make sure it’s an improvement, not just different.
F) Define the role for the Senior Pastor who is stepping down (and his wife). Communicate that new role to the elders, staff, and congregation. It’s wise to redefine roles and expectations.
5. I told our church this: The greatest gift my father gave me was choosing to walk alongside me during this transition. Senior leaders bring love, wisdom, and seasoned ministry. Carve out the new role God has for you and embrace it! If necessary, meet monthly with the new Pastor to simply ask “is there anything I can do to help?” Or, “how are you doing?” My father knew that he and my mother would be traveling more as an itinerant minister. We discussed their role, and they embraced it. I regularly use him to speak and preach in the church (we coordinate schedules). My mother leads a monthly small group. They are both very much honored and available to minister, all while pointing to the new direction the church is moving. When we have conflict to resolve (which we have and so will you), we discuss it privately and work it out.
The Rock Church | San Bernardino, California
1. My transition was both gradual and abrupt. At our church we had a succession plan in place with shared leadership. It took around three years to develop a teaching team and shared responsibilities as well as lines of authority and communication. There were some issues in the areas of vision and organization that when we came together to meet about them God spoke to our Sr. Pastor that he was to retire, I was to be the Sr. Pastor, and the one who was sharing the leadership with me was to be the executive pastor.
2. My greatest challenge was in myself. There was tremendous pressure right from the onset to have new vision and direction for the church. I wrestled with the fact that I liked the vision and direction our church already had but felt I may be inadequate for the task if I didn’t present anything new. A lot of time with the Holy Spirit, encouragement from the founding pastors, and stubborn resistance to the pressures to stay the course helped to overcome the challenge.
3. Honor for the past as well as a faith filled hope for the future helped to keep us in the direction we were going while leaving room for God to make the changes needed for the changing world in which we live.
4. Play the long game. Don’t make too many changes at the onset of your pastorate. Just by nature of the fact that you are new and different, many will see the whole church in that light. Take time to communicate, to listen to key leaders and influencers, and most importantly to God. When He says go, then go.
5. Communicate. Lay out the plan and then stick to it. Have a process in place to transition the responsibilities of leadership both in practice and thought. Speak to the successor about what you see and let them do what is needed to be done. After they have a handle on things, then make the suggestion and let them decide on it. Finally, let them lead and give input when asked. Pray for them, encourage them, and if you’re in a position where you’re still in the ministry, then talk up the new leadership to others both in and out of the pulpit.