Posts Tagged ‘pastoral transitions’

Several years ago, I had breakfast with the president of a seminary in Africa.

He told me that pastoral transitions are handled poorly almost everywhere … and much of the time, major conflict breaks out as a result.

Although I’m still a learner, let me share three brief guidelines for pastoral resignations:

First, make the announcement sooner rather than later.

There are at least two schools of thought on this point.  When a pastor definitely knows that he’s going to resign:

*Let the information leak out slowly.

*Make a public announcement and get it out in the open.

In most cases, I favor the latter approach.

If a pastor tells a few people in confidence that he’s leaving, one of them will invariably tell others … including their spouse … but few will share the pastor’s reasoning accurately.

The more people who know, the more they’ll speculate as to why he’s really leaving … and the pastor can easily lose control of the situation.

My first ministry as a youth pastor went well, but I was only part-time, and the church wanted to hire a full-time associate pastor … and I was too young for that position.

When I knew that I wasn’t going to be staying, I stood in front of the church, announced my resignation … effective a few months later … and ended all speculation that I would be the new associate.

This allowed me take control of the situation.  I announced my reasons for leaving publicly, and gave people plenty of time to adjust to my departure.

It’s hard to keep secrets in churches.  Better to just get it all out in the open than to play games.

Second, leave a gap between the last pastor and the next one.

I know a church where a staff member left one Sunday, and his replacement started the next Sunday.

That’s as disconcerting as having your mother die, and a week later, your father remarries.

People need time to grieve the departure of a pastor or staffer, especially someone who has meant a lot to them or been in the church for a long time.

And if people don’t have the time to grieve, guess who receives the brunt of their criticism?

That’s right … the new guy.

In the case of a staff member, it’s better to plug the gap with volunteers from inside the church … other staff members … board members … and even people hired from outside the church.

In the case of a senior pastor, it’s better to bring in special speakers until an interim arrives.

After a little while, people will start asking, “When’s the new guy coming?”

That’s far better than hearing them say, “This new staffer doesn’t compare to our beloved __________.”

Finally, leave the church completely.

Just yesterday, a former church leader told me what happened at his church.

The pastor of his church was retiring, so he resigned … and stayed in the church.

The result?

The church split.

Why would that happen?

I know why.

After I resigned from my first staff position, another position opened up … church custodian.  (The theological term is ecclesiastical engineer.)

I planned on getting married … needed a full-time job … and was hired to clean the church.

The church went on to hire an associate pastor, and we got along well.

But people began approaching me to complain about the youth program … and about the associate pastor.

I listened … but shouldn’t have.  Sometimes I commiserated … but should have kept my mouth shut.

The associate worked for the senior pastor … not for me.

But because I was a former staff member … and many people knew me … my opinion carried weight.

And I’m sure my opinions were shared with others.

Without thinking, I was undermining the associate pastor just by my presence on the church campus.

Pastors and staff members: please … when you resign … LEAVE THE CHURCH.

Only return if you’re invited.

It doesn’t matter how many of your friends or family members attend that church.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve served.

It doesn’t matter if your kids were dedicated and baptized there.

It doesn’t matter how cordial and kind you are.

Your presence will undermine your successor and confuse God’s people … so after your last day, pack up your things and go … please.

My second staff position was in a church that had existed for nearly a century.

In the back of the church, little plaques listed the name of each pastor, along with the years he served.

Back then, those names and dates meant nothing to me.

But today, I’d look at those names and ask:

I wonder how well each transition was handled?

If a quarterback fumbles a handoff, the other team may end up with the ball.

My prayer is that God’s servants will hand the ball off so wisely that the devil and his teammates never touch that ball.






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I’ve been reading an 8-year-old book on pastoral transitions called The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken About Pastoral Transitions by Carolyn Weese and J. Russell Crabtree.

The book’s first chapter lays out the principles Jesus used in ministry transition.

John the Baptist was Jesus’ predecessor, the apostles His successors.

One passage in this chapter really stood out for me:

“Jesus was not afraid to talk about His predecessor in public.  Yet many church members experience an eerie silence on the part of their new pastor regarding the work of his or her predecessor.  It would be refreshing and liberating for many members to hear their pastor speak, in positive terms, the name of the pastor who went before and was referred to as an instrument in God’s plan for building that church.”

This problem is so pervasive that some pastors won’t even allow churchgoers to talk about a previous pastor in their presence:

“Members need leaders to listen to them talk about their affection for their predecessor.  This enables them to integrate their past and present experiences rather than compartmentalize them.  If the leader is unwilling to do this, it places an emotional burden on the members.  In one church, members made an agreement with one another not to speak the name of a former pastor except in private for nearly twenty years after the pastor left the community and moved to another state!”

However, Jesus spoke about John the Baptizer – who was also His cousin – on many occasions in public (Matt. 11:11; 21:32; Mark 11:30; Luke 7:33).  Jesus provides a healthy example for pastors in that regard.  But not all pastors do this:

“In reality, the opposite is often the case.  A pastor is sometimes so threatened by the esteem paid to a predecessor that he or she gives the signal to members that they are not to speak about the predecessor in the pastor’s presence.”

We might expect this kind of behavior from an ex-wife, or an ego-driven politician, but a pastor?  Out of all professions, wouldn’t you think that a pastor could handle talk about his predecessor with grace and class?

Many years ago, I became a staff member in a church where the previous staffer was practically worshiped.

Not only did I know this man, but he recommended that I succeed him.

He was a dedicated man … a thoughtful man … a gifted man … but he’d be the first one to tell you he wasn’t a god.

But after he left, he assumed godlike status.  (Years later, we both had a good laugh over this.)

For my first six months in that church, I couldn’t do anything right.  I was criticized by some of the students and especially the adult leaders, who missed their friend terribly.

My sin?  I wasn’t him.

I didn’t understand the attachment they had to him, so I didn’t know how to handle matters.

They were grieving the loss of someone who meant a great deal to them.  If I had been more mature, I could have dealt with the issue openly … and mentioned his name out loud.

The problem wasn’t between the two of us … it was between his followers and me.

One day, while reading John 3, I came upon the passage where John the Baptist’s ministry was receding into the shadows while Jesus stepped into the limelight.

John’s disciples were pretty upset about this transition.  But John settled them down, climaxing in his famous statement in John 3:30:

“He must increase, but I must decrease.”

John was secure in his role.  He knew he wasn’t the Messiah … he was the forerunner to the Messiah.

The problem wasn’t between John and Jesus … it was between John’s followers and Jesus … as well as His newly-called disciples.

John defused things nicely and let Jesus take over … and Jesus returned the favor by openly mentioning and complimenting John on many occasions.

Isn’t this a great model for pastors today?

Every pastor will leave a church someday … even a beloved church.

A pastor might die in the pulpit … or suffer disability and quit … or be involuntarily terminated … or take a position in another church … or retire gracefully.

But every pastor will eventually leave a church.

If the next pastor won’t mention the name of his predecessor in public, and retains jealous feelings about his success, and tries to dismantle ministries the previous pastor constructed, then the new pastor’s ego is much too large … and God will have to work on shrinking it … just like He did with me in the story above.

(Just for kicks, mention the names of one or two of your church’s previous pastors to your current pastor, and see how he responds.)

While attending a class in my doctoral program, I jogged one day over to a megachurch in the area.

As I entered the lobby, I noticed a painting of the church’s present pastor, along with his two predecessors.

Predecessor Number One was a great preacher and an author who had written some books I had once read.

Predecessor Number Two was a friend of my father-in-law and an author as well.

The present pastor had taught a class that I took in college and had once led a retreat for 50 kids in my youth group.

The painting seemed to say, “We are all friends and colleagues.  No one of us is better than the other.  You cannot drive a wedge between us, so don’t even try.”

Maybe a church could invite all of its living pastors together sometime … for a church reunion, or a social event, or the installation of a new pastor.

The pastors could catch up … and swap stories with each other … and take a tour of the facility together … and begin to bond as leaders … and friends.

Someone might even commission a photograph or a painting that could be hung in a promiment place in the church as if to say:

“These are the pastors who have made us who we are today.”

Maybe they could even be asked to stand in front of the congregation and say nice things about each other.

What do you think about this issue?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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