Pastoral transitions may be one of the most difficult events in the life of a church as well as the pastors involved. More times than I can count I have received a call from a pastor asking for advice on how to properly transition into a new pastorate. What are the pitfalls? What should be considered, and what should be avoided?
There are many different scenarios. A pastor dies and the church is seeking a new pastor. A pastor quits or is fired and the church is left to navigate through the process of finding a new pastor to lead them. The one that I write about in this blog is an older pastor who seeks to retire and bring in his replacement. He takes it on as his personal responsibility to ensure he finds the “right” man, and helps by overseeing this process. In some cases, this may work, but in many cases, this has proven to be a very difficult road for all involved to walk. Far too often it doesn’t end well. The church is hurt, the retiring pastor is hurt, or the new pastor coming in is hurt, but worst of all, the work of the Lord is hurt. So, with so many older pastors retiring and the need for younger pastors to fill these positions, how can we minimize the hurt that is so often caused during these transitions?
No back room deals. In too many cases the older pastor is planning for his departure but the church leadership and the church don’t know this is happening. The pastor has formulated a timeline in his mind and begins to look for a young man that he can mentor and train to fill his shoes. If I have heard this scenario once, I have heard it a hundred times. A pastor approached a younger man and shared his desire to pass the church on to him. They begin to plan and pray and set timelines. The problem with this scenario is that no one else is invited in the decision making. It is a private deal that is made and it has all of the makings for a potential problem if things begin to go south in the near future. If plans are being made and families and church members are going to be affected, then it needs to be upfront and all leadership and the church should be made aware of what has been discussed before any decisions are formulated.
Be sure that what is discussed is documented and clearly communicated to the church leadership. If a family is moving to a new church with the intent to be the next pastor, the church leadership should be aware of this. The transition has a greater rate of success if multiple people are on the same page and aware of the details. There is nothing wrong with putting all communication in writing and having all parties involved sign. It is so that there is no confusion. Accountability is always the best course of action when moving forward. In most churches, a pastor cannot guarantee a position to a young man coming in, the church must vote on this. The product of including the church leadership in the details of what is being discussed is trust and transparency. If trust and transparency are established during the transition time, a new pastor has a better chance of leading this church. If things are in writing and everyone has agreed to this in the beginning, there is a better chance to reconcile disagreements in the future when they come. Yes, they will come. They always do, and well documented communication helps when navigating through those times. It’s a reminder of what was agreed on and a great resource to get people back on track during difficult transitions.
Have the church vote on everything before the new pastor comes. This is the most important thing in my mind. Many guys come on a “promise.” The retiring pastor says “I want to transition out, retire in the next year to 18 months. I would like you to come in as my assistant and you will start to phase in and I will start to phase out.” The new pastor moves his family and begins ministry. Once he gets there, he has big dreams and sets his goals. He has different ideas and different ways of doing things. Some of this is just generational differences. What he sees as old and outdated, the pastor sees as his life work. He has invested years into what this new guy wants to come and change overnight. The two men realize they think differently in areas. They have different views of how the church should move forward and the pastor has second thoughts of resigning. He thinks he may need to stay a little longer than agreed upon, or worst-case scenario, he has the dreaded sit down with this young, eager, make-changes-too-quick guy. “This isn’t working out; you’ve got to go!”
How can we avoid this? Have the new pastor coming in candidate just like a new pastor would. Bring him in to preach on several occasions. Have him meet with the pulpit committee. Vet him just like you would if you were without a pastor and searching for a new one. Present him to the church and have the church vote on him as their new pastor, instead of him coming in as a pastor. He then comes in with everyone expecting him to lead and make changes. The church in their vote also determines the timeline, and votes on that at the same time for the retiring pastor. It is all clear who was voted in, and all parties are on the same page. The new pastor coming in starts day one caring for and loving the people. The retiring pastor can enjoy his last agreed upon months mentoring and giving mature guidance. There is an end date in sight that has already been determined. When that day arrives, the church can celebrate and transition well into the next chapter of ministry. In most cases, not all, but most of the retiring pastors move on, saying goodbye to the church the Lord allowed them to pastor and allow the new pastor to lead under the authority and direction of Jesus Christ. It is best, most of the time, for the retiring pastor to not be around. It’s hard to say goodbye, but it is necessary so that the church can move forward without interference.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If you are a pastor going through this type of ministry transition, I’d love to talk with you and help you in this process.
Monclova Road Baptist Church - Monclova , Ohio
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