Navigating Leadership Transitions in the Church

Navigating Leadership Transitions in the Church

Expectations of the Canadian men’s 4x100 relay team at the 2012 Olympics were low. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Consequently, the team’s third-place finish caused a national celebration. But that celebration lasted only minutes. While runners were still catching their breath, officials announced an official race review. They found irrefutable proof that in the third transition zone, when the baton was passed from one runner to the next, a foul had occurred. Post-race analysis was peppered with versions of a single thought: The transition zone is crucial. It is the moment where races are won and lost.
Churches face transition zones too.

At some point, every congregation will navigate the transition of pastoral leadership. The genesis of these pastoral leadership transitions vary. Some are the natural byproduct of a pastor sensing a call to minister in a new context. Others are the result of a generalized incompatibility between the pastor and congregation. Congregations also experience transitions because of tragedy, illness, or even death. Perhaps most devastating, however, are leadership transitions brought about by moral failures. These transitions explode like grenades in the life of a congregation.

Life in the transition zone can be costly. Research shows that the interpersonal costs of failing to navigate the transition zone well can include physical or mental illness for church leaders, social and relational breakdowns, a growing climate of alienation and distrust, and even betrayal. These dynamics can result in ministry passivity, reactionary pendulum swings in ministry and vision, and outright division within the congregation. And they can deaden even the most vibrant congregation’s pursuit of God’s mission, giving rise to power plays, coups, and battles for control. Many of these costs are entirely avoidable.

Given the inevitability of pastoral leadership transitions, what’s a congregation to do? The good news is that there are some helpful postures and actions churches can take to maintain congregational health. Wise church leaders would also do well to comprehend the cost of poorly executed pastoral transitions and to identify predictable patterns to avoid.

Predictable Patterns

The most common of these predictable patterns to avoid could be called the Saul Model. The key issue is identified in 1 Samuel 9:1-3 which reads, “There was a Benjamite, a man of standing, whose name was Kish. . . . Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.” In short, Saul looked good. But while we understand that the Bible is referring to Saul’s physical appearance, we also know that there may be a broader application.

Potential pastoral leaders may display flashes of preaching brilliance on a weekend tour. Candidates often woo interviewers with well-rehearsed ministry stories. Prospects for pastoral leadership can endear themselves with written material that has been crafted and nuanced with precision. The allure of Saul-like candidates can be intoxicating. Many are the congregations wowed by a rock-star preacher who inspires visions of full pews, budgetary surpluses, the ability to win back prodigals, and more. In contrast, few are the search teams who press the Saul-like candidates with behavioral questions asking for multiple instances of effective kingdom leadership in every facet of ministry.

A second unhelpful model for leadership succession is the Solomon Model. The convoluted story of Solomon’s inherited kingship is told in 1 Kings 1. It is a story of half truths, guilt-driven promises, and family politics all vying for their place in the transition zone. In the Solomon Model, politics and palace intrigue exert influence on the choice for a particular pastoral leader who is best able to calm the political waters. But pastoral leadership born out of this process rarely leads to thriving ministry.

A third unhelpful model in the transition zone is the Timothy Model. In this scenario, the potential pastoral leader is often younger and less experienced; he or she may struggle with internal questions of success or failure in ministry. This dynamic was central in the relationship between the apostle Paul and his apprentice, Timothy. Paul encouraged Timothy to overcome his fear of others’ perceptions of him as a foundation of his leadership. This is a goal worthy of rigorous pursuit by all emerging leaders through mentoring and other formative relationships. Congregations should eagerly engage emerging leaders who are invested in this vital work and should be equally wary of emerging leaders who refuse to wade deeply into the waters of self-awareness and formation.

Preparing for Transitions

Congregations can take a number of steps to ensure smooth transitions when it’s time for new pastoral leadership. First, every congregation and its leadership should talk about succession plans. They should do so with their pastor and staff regularly and candidly. Initiating conversation about the transition zone when the outgoing pastor has preached his last sermon and packed his office is far too late to avoid paying a steep price.
Second, make succession planning part of the job for all church leadership, including elders, deacons, and ministry leaders. What if faithful leadership required identifying and equipping your own ministry successor as an elder, deacon, ministry leader, and even pastor?

Third, be vigilant about articulating and following your congregation’s vision at all times, not just in the transition zone. Investing in frequent vision conversations can keep these vital matters alive and well even during times of change.

Fourth, give regular, constructive feedback to your pastor. Arguably, some transition zones could be circumvented by offering honest, helpful, and supportive feedback in ways that the pastor can hear and appreciate.

Fifth, when speaking with candidates for pastoral leadership, be sure to press hard on behavioral questions, insisting on three, four, or even five examples of key leadership behaviors. Most leaders can tell you about one conflict that resolved well. But ask leaders to recount the last four or five times they were at odds with others, and the picture will go from black and white to color.

Sixth, use resources—including Christian Reformed Pastor Church Resources—wisely. In addition to helping negotiate transitions in pastoral leadership, Pastor Church Resources may be able to direct you toward interim pastoral solutions to maintain congregation health.

Finally, when going through the transition zone, refuse to give up any sense of urgency for the mission of God to which your congregation has been called. The absence of pastoral leadership has no bearing on the need for passionate, thoughtful followers of Jesus who speak out against injustice, love unconditionally, and who serve with the conviction of Jesus himself. The apostle Peter reminds us that we have been given “everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Pet. 1:3). Given this biblical promise, one can hope that when a new pastoral leader arrives, she or he will be able to keep up with the kingdom pursuits with which your congregation is so passionately engaged—even while living in the transition zone.

 

Discussion Questions

  1. What is your own congregation’s most recent experience with some kind of transition? How did you feel about that experience?
  2. How would you summarize, in your own words, the flaws in each of the Saul, Solomon, and Timothy Models of leadership transition the author identifies?
  3. Describe “the mission of God to which your congregation has been called”? And do you feel there is a “sense of urgency” for that mission in your congregation? Why or why not?
  4. How many of the seven steps the author identifies has your church taken in order to ensure smooth leadership transitions? Which next step might your congregation need to take?

About the Author

Geoff Vandermolen has been an associate pastor, church planter, and lead pastor. He now serves as director of vocational formation at Calvin Seminary.

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