A Tale of Two Pastoral Transitions
The following two stories are true. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.
A SUCCESSFUL PASTORAL TRANSITION
Westside Baptist Church was blessed with a nearly 40-year ministry by the senior pastor Ken Perkins. His personal life was never in question, and while his preaching may have become a bit stale in the later years, he always brought a sense of security to the congregation. He had earned the respect of his people to the point where whatever he wanted to do, he could do. Ken knew that the day would come when Westside would need another pastor, so he kept his eyes out for a potential replacement.
Justin Davis had grown up at Westside Baptist, had recently finished his Master of Divinity, and was serving on the pastoral staff of a church across town. Ken knew Justin and knew his family, as did the church. Ken asked Justin to join the pastoral staff of Westside for the purpose of transitioning into the role of senior pastor in three years. During those three years Ken promised to decrease his pulpit time so that Justin could preach more. He also promised to let Justin lead staff meetings, board meetings, and other leadership meetings by the third year.
Ken communicated all of this to the other elders, who agreed to it. And he communicated it to the congregation, who, quite frankly, were glad to hear a younger voice, even though they respected Ken.
During those three years, Ken did exactly as he said he would. Justin was given regular and increasing opportunities to preach and lead. It wasn’t long before Justin was seen, accepted, and assumed as the man who would provide leadership for the church.
The time came for the formal transition. On that Sunday morning Ken presented the motion to the congregation to vote for Justin Davis as the senior pastor. Ken reminded the congregation that they had not only known Justin his entire life, but for the last three years they’d had the opportunity to sit under his ministry and be involved in his life. If they had any concerns or questions, there had been plenty of time to get those addressed. So he said, “All in favor of recognizing Justin Davis as the senior pastor of Westside Baptist Church effective today, please stand.” As you could imagine, every member (and even a non-member) stood.
Ken then told the congregation that as of that moment, Justin Davis was the new pastor. Therefore the congregation should call upon Justin to perform their weddings and funerals and visit them in the hospital, because he, Ken, would not. Besides, he was moving to Florida. And he did.
Meanwhile, across town…
AN UNSUCCESSFUL PASTORAL TRANSITION
Eastside Baptist Church was blessed with the 40-year ministry of Douglas Johnson. Between Doug’s careful preaching and the church’s impressive music ministry, Eastside became a well-known church with a prominent pulpit in the entire metro area. Doug was an institution. His habits of 40 years and gentle spirit endeared him to his people. He was an immaculate dresser, careful grammarian, and well-prepared speaker.
Doug, however, left the leadership of the church to the board. So, when it came time for Doug to step down, he retired with great recognition, but no transition plan. It was up to the board to find a replacement, and eventually they did.
Mark Engle had a good track record at the church he had pastored for six years. The church had experienced some growth during his ministry, and while Eastside had grown to be a dominant presence on the eastside, there was a clear lack of momentum in the last few years. The board thought Mark would bring that needed spark.
After a couple of weekends of meetings and preaching on a Sunday, Mark was presented to the congregation. The people were not really sure, but since the board thought it was good idea most of them voted for Mark.
It did not take long before it became clear that Mark really did not understand Eastside and Eastside did not really know Mark. A few off-the-cuff remarks that Mark made traveled through the congregation, while some ill-timed changes that he made drew the ire of many.
Meanwhile, Doug continued to attend Eastside, but it was difficult. He was constantly fielding questions and complaints from the people who loved him and longed for the “good old days.” Frankly, so did Doug. When it came time for weddings and funerals, the congregation’s lack of trust in Mark drove many of them to ask Doug if he would officiate. He found it increasingly difficult to support Mark, yet also discovered how quickly any criticism he made would get back to Mark and place even greater strain on their relationship. Mark quickly lost the good will of the congregation and many of them began to leave. After three tumultuous years, so did Mark.
Today, Westside Baptist Church is a healthy congregation that has planted four other churches in its area of the city. Justin has a few more pounds and a little less hair than he did 23 years ago, but he continues to provide his people with solid leadership. He has made a few changes along the way, but every change has come with a solid consensus from the congregation. There have been no splits, no crisis, and no embarrassments. As long as he was able, Ken Perkins came back about once a year to preach and enjoy the fruit of long-term ministry.
Today, Eastside Baptist Church no longer exists. A succession of pastors and programs did nothing to stop the bleeding. Now, another group meets in the former location and struggles to pay the utilities. The steeple only points back to days that have long since past.
There are a few conclusions we should draw:
- The longer the senior pastor serves, the longer the transition needs to be.
- Churches who love their current senior pastor need plenty of time and opportunity to develop affection for the man who will replace him. If a new man is given many opportunities to preach over a period of months or even years, the congregation will grow in affection and affinity with him, assuming he faithfully handles the text. Time allows the church to observe his life and family over time, the it protects them from the pressure of voting on someone they have only heard for two weekends as a candidate.
- Transition plans need to be established, communicated in detail to the entire church, and faithfully followed. This is a great opportunity to cultivate more trust in a church’s leaders. The transition plan should generally allow the new guy to assume more and more preaching responsibilities as well as leadership among the elders and the staff.
- A long-term senior pastor must take the leadership for this, and he needs to talk about it long before it happens. I tell parents that the moment they bring their newborn home from the hospital is the day they start preparing that little one to leave the nest. So, the day a man becomes the senior pastor, he needs to be thinking about how he prepares the church for the next guy. The senior pastor must love the church so much that he is willing to entrust the church to the care of someone else. He is in a unique position to be a mentor, then a cheerleader, and then a follower of the new pastor.
- A plurality of elders can be a wonderful help to minimize the inevitable personality change that comes from a transition of this nature.
- If there is a difficult situation that needs to be addressed, the long-term senior pastor must do it. It is cowardly and destructive to leave that to the next guy.
YOU WILL BE “OLD-WHAT’S-HIS-NAME”
This summer I took a mini-sabbatical and an uncharacteristic leave of absence from the pulpit for three Sundays. I was seated in my usual spot on the front row one of those Sunday mornings. At the conclusion of the service, one of the pastors invited some guests to meet Dave, the young guy who was preaching that morning, along with his wife. For over two decades the guests were always invited to meet me and Cathi. Now, in a matter of days, I was “Old-what’s-his-name.” I chuckled and thought, “Wow, that didn’t take long.”
The truth is, we are keeping the pulpit straight and true for the next guy. If he is faithful to the gospel, we will be “old-what’s-his-name,” and that is the way that it ought to be. If we care more about the church than we do about ourselves, we will work hard to ensure a smooth transition.
Therefore, even though I do not plan to change my role for another 13-15 years, I have already been discussing this openly with the elders for a couple of years. I have started to have other pastors preach a little bit more and have led the church into adopting a pastoral internship ministry so that we can help train from within the man who will replace me. Meanwhile, I have many years to prepare the congregation for the inevitable.
I do wonder if a long-term pastor has to leave the church that he has shepherded just because he is no longer in leadership. I would want the next guy to have all of the space that he needs to lead. If it would truly be for the better of the church that I serve, I must be willing to leave. However, I sure would miss these people and do not want to imagine life without them.