the shape of leadership

Inheriting Staff: Keep Them or Let Them Go?

Two perspectives on handling leadership transitions

Influence Magazine on April 22, 2019

An incoming pastor has to make many difficult decisions. Some of these decisions can be exciting and even refreshing, like making changes to the worship service or the church’s branding. Others can be stressful, such as those involving budgets and boards.

Tempering the excitement and energy of a new position is among the immediate concerns of the church. The first few steps a new pastor makes are critical. One of the most important of these difficult decisions revolves around staffing.

When a pastor accepts the call to a church with an existing staff structure, staff members need clarity about their expected employment status. Should they tender their resignations, freeing up the pastor to replace any or all of them? Or does the pastor have an obligation to retain them all?

In this installment of Perspectives, we look at both sides of this issue. While there is value in both positions, it’s a decision we should never take lightly. Pastors lead people, not processes. How a pastor handles the question of staff retention within the first days of his or her tenure can set the tone for the entire church. Each church is different, and each pastor has a unique set of priorities. Considering both sides of this debate is helpful.

Let Them Go

Chemistry is key to any working relationship, especially between a senior pastor and staff members. With good chemistry comes a good chance the whole team will unify. And unity of vision and effort is essential to fulfilling a church’s mission.

But chemistry is not automatic. Churches should not assume the new pastor and existing staff will click. Personalities may clash. Philosophies of ministry may differ. Relationships take time to build, but incompatibility usually becomes apparent quickly. That’s why it’s important for an incoming pastor to have the freedom to choose staffing at will.

The easiest way to provide that freedom is to ask all staff members to tender their resignations. It sets a clear expectation that the incoming pastor has the right to decide whom to work with going forward.

Besides clearing up personality conflicts or ironing out philosophical differences, this also paves the way for the new pastor’s singular vision. For instance, he or she may feel that the church needs a family pastor who oversees all children and student ministries. But perhaps that position does not currently exist. To enact that vision, the pastor needs the freedom to release or reassign existing staff and hire new staff.

The new senior pastor may want to bring on ministers he or she knows and would be comfortable assigning responsibilities. And the church may be in need of a reshuffling that fresh faces can bring.

How a pastor handles the question of staff retention within the first days of his or her tenure can set the tone for the entire church.

How can a new pastor handle the needed changes without the freedom to release the previous pastor’s staff? A lack of liberty makes transition that much more difficult. But when every staff person offers to step aside, changes won’t catch anyone by surprise.

When a new senior pastor arrives, the church needs a united front. Rather than requesting resignations, the pastor needs the church to make the first move. The hiring committee and church board should be upfront with the staff about expectations. Putting that burden on the new pastor can result in pitting him or her against the staff. The worst outcome is a staff full of disgruntled employees.

However, when existing staff members offer their resignations, they are clearly identifying their intention to submit to the new leadership. Rather than harboring hard feelings, they accept the new reality and receive a chance to embrace the new vision. And that’s the end result any leader would want.

Keep Them

Staff members are committed to the churches they serve. That’s part of their call. Ministers have a calling not just to a particular role but to a specific place as well. That place is the local church body. Their calling doesn’t change when a new senior pastor arrives.

Good leaders can adapt to their environment. When a new senior pastor comes on board, he or she has a vision for the church. But that vision can and often does change over the course of the first few months. And a good staff is able to adapt to the pastor’s agenda and processes. No one should assume the new pastor and existing staff will be incompatible. In fact, their relationship is key to making the transition as smooth as possible.

Existing staff members know the church and community well. It wouldn’t make sense to eliminate that great insight and competency. Quite frankly, the continued presence of the staff makes the whole church better and strengthens the new pastor’s vision. A senior pastor who retains the staff already has a team of experts in his or her corner.

Requesting a staff’s resignation creates more problems than it may solve. The immediate concern would be hiring new staff or rehiring old staff. Also, it lays an unnecessary hardship on the backs of staff members. Whatever happened that resulted in the need for a new senior pastor, it’s not likely that the staff had a say in it. And now the leadership is asking them to leave, find new jobs and possibly even relocate.

More troubling is the dismissive attitude toward loyal workers. That can send a negative message. An organization can develop skills, teach competencies and create compatibility over time. But loyalty is a character trait that is hard to come by. A staff member who stands by the new pastor is showing a willingness to submit to leadership and God’s plan for the church.

When transitioning to a new senior pastor, the wise choice is to retain all staff. Granted, there may be some team members who will want to go. Maybe that’s inevitable. But those who are committed to staying should remain on board. Not only do they provide a great ministry to the church, but they can also provide a service to the pastor in the transition as they work together toward a new vision.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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