3 Lessons from a Recent Pastoral Transition
“So are you the youth pastor or the college pastor?”
Whenever I meet someone new and they learn I’m a pastor, this is the question I get asked the most. The question makes sense! I serve in a church with three language congregations—English, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese—and in a cultural context where age tends to be valued highly. As a thirty-something young man, I don’t fit the typical senior pastor profile. Then again, the story of how I became a senior pastor wasn’t very typical, either.
In the summer 2015, I was finishing seminary in Kentucky when our former pastor in California called us. He’d been serving as the senior pastor for over 20 years and was thinking about the future. His proposal: come back and serve at the church, and he would slowly transition the senior pastor position to me. My wife and I were very humbled by the proposal, and after much prayer and counsel, we decided to say yes.
We initially planned for a 3–5 year transition, but the Lord had other plans. In 2017, our senior pastor received an amazing opportunity to serve overseas that more or less required him to leave immediately. As a result, with fifteen whole months of pastoral experience, the church called me to replace him as the English congregational pastor. They called me to be the senior pastor a year later.
God has been incredibly gracious throughout this transition. I won’t pretend that I have all the answers or that my ministry has been mistake-free. Nevertheless, in the hope that the grace I’ve received would benefit others, I offer a few of the lessons I have learned through this transition.
1. To the Incoming Pastor: Own Your Incompetence
A friend of mine gave me this counsel when I first entered pastoral ministry. As pastors, we rightly recognize the sacred duty we’ve been entrusted with (1 Tim 3:1–7). Nevertheless, the weight of that responsibility can tempt us to fake it until we make it, to pretend like we have it all together. In a Chinese cultural context, the temptation to hide weakness and save face can be especially strong.
As I stepped into the senior pastor role, I wanted to prove that the trust the church gave to me wasn’t in vain. But the truth is that no one—including me!—is competent in himself to steward the mysteries of Christ (2 Cor 2:10). More than this, it’s the risen Christ, not any pastor, who is the cornerstone of the church (Eph 2:20). By remembering this, I’m set free from the pressure to perform and may instead freely admit that I’m inexperienced, flawed, and weak. I’m free to ask for help, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Cor 12:9).
Pastor, if you find yourself in a position like mine, remember: own your incompetence, and point the church to Christ.
2. To the Transitioning Church: Offer Real Opportunities
Churches are sometimes reluctant to give too much responsibility to new pastors. In an immigrant context, youth and inexperience are often seen as liabilities. Many immigrant churches, therefore, prefer to bring in an older, more seasoned pastor to shepherd the flock. However, if shepherds are expected to progress in their ministry (1 Tim 4:15), they must start somewhere. I can think of nothing better for an inexperienced pastor’s growth in ministry than a church who comes alongside him in love and support.
Even before I became senior pastor, I had real opportunities to shepherd (1 Pet 5:2). I preached from the Sunday pulpit, I met with members, and I taught in various settings. Along the way, the church encouraged me and my family, and graciously endured my rookie mistakes and missteps. In doing this, our church taught me that they didn’t ultimately trust in my abilities or experience, but in Christ (2 Cor 4:7).
So church, if you find yourself in a position like ours, remember: offer real opportunities, and continue to point the church to Christ.
3. To the Outgoing Pastor: Open Your Hands
The idea of turning over the sacred responsibility of shepherding a local church to a young, inexperienced pastor can seem unthinkable, especially in an immigrant context. As a result, an outgoing senior pastor may be tempted to cling tightly to his position and resist helping another pastor take his place. He may subtly communicate to the church that he doesn’t quite trust the new pastor, resulting in the new pastor facing an uphill battle from the start.
Thankfully, I never felt any of this from our senior pastor. I could write multiple articles expressing my gratitude and admiration for him. With respect to this transition, it’s his mentorship and affirmation that stand out. He met with me every week and helped me grow as a pastor. He invited me to ask questions, and even to disagree with him. He encouraged me, and always sought to build me up in the eyes of the church. When he left, he turned everything over and kept nothing for himself. He modelled for me the truth: the church isn’t about any pastor, but about Christ (Eph 3:21).
Pastor, if you find yourself in a position where you can share of yourself to empower another pastor, remember: open your hands, and point the church to Christ.
Transitions aren’t easy, and your cultural context may present your church with unique challenges. Yet transitions also remind us that the church fundamentally belongs to Christ. He alone is her Savior. He gave himself up in love for her (Eph 5:25). A pastor, therefore, is but an instrument of grace used by Christ to shepherd his flock toward himself.
That’s why we ought to remember our leaders, those who spoke the Word of God to us. That’s why we ought to consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Yet in all this, when leaders transition as they one day must, we must also remember: Jesus Christ is the same—yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:7–8).