Influence

 the shape of leadership

Don’t Panic!

Dealing with transition on staff, Part 1

Chris Railey on November 2, 2018

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Often I receive emails or phone calls from pastors who are looking to hire new staff members. They want to make good hires, and they’re looking for a referral or a connection to someone who might be a good fit for their team. Word of mouth and personal referrals are still the most frequent ways churches fill staff positions.

I want to spend some time talking to you about how to transition staff members well, but I need to begin with this word of advice: Try to avoid desperation or panic mode when dealing with staff transition. When you do, it can lead to a quick hire who is just not the right fit — or, worse, one who is lacking in character, judgment or integrity.

When pastors focus on speed over quality of hire, they tend to overlook obvious flaws. You might think you can help someone build character later on, or that a candidate will eventually fit into the role. Maybe you can tell that person doesn’t have quite the level of skill you need for the position, but figure you can help train him or her on the job. Now you’ve just given yourself another job to do. Are you prepared to be a full-time mentor as well as a leader?

To keep from going into panic mode every time a staff member transitions away from your team, you need to be ready before that happens. Team members will leave for a variety of reasons, hopefully always positive ones. Some do leave because of a poor decision that disqualifies them, or they are asked to leave because of unmet expectations.

But most people who leave your team will likely go on to another church or ministry opportunity. How you succeed in transitions begins with accepting that you are a steward, not an owner, of the people God brings to your team.

Accept That Every Staff Team Will Have Turnover

It is rare that a staff person will stay with you for 20 years or more. You may be fully committed to your place of pastoring until past retirement age. But you can’t expect everyone on your staff to feel the same way.

I’ve talked to pastors who hired staff members and right away saw something special in them. They began to work closely with them, mentoring them and pouring into their lives. The pastors planned out careful succession strategies with those staff members in mind. But it didn’t work out the way the pastors planned. God called those staff people to go and become senior pastors earlier than anyone expected.

How you succeed in transitions begins with accepting that you are a steward, not an owner, of the people God brings to your team.

Accept that your team will have transitions. Build your ministry around values, not personalities or individuals. Realize that all good leaders want to lead on their own. When you shift how you see people who step out on their own, you’ll be more prepared when they do.

Embrace Growing Leaders

One way to shift that thinking is by embracing growing leaders. Find young men and women who are hungry to learn and want to move up. Seek out those people with entrepreneurial spirits, who are pioneers at heart and are never satisfied with the status quo.

Those leaders will bring a rich portfolio to your team that includes forward-thinking, people-focused and Kingdom-building attitudes. They will infect the rest of your team with motivation to keep striving for excellence.

Evaluate your staff regularly, and ask them, “Where do you see yourself five or 10 years from now?” If they say they’ll be in the same position doing the same job, they may lack the fire and assertiveness you really need.

But beware. They will also likely one day hear God’s call to leave your church and lead on their own. That’s OK. You should still embrace the opportunity to pour into their lives. Leaders who seek personal growth are never satisfied with where they are. That means they may eventually transition out.

Ask Before You Need

Once you accept the reality of transition, it should give you incentive to begin the search early and often. Before you need a staff member, start looking for one. Regularly engage with young leaders, and cultivate good relations with other churches and our colleges and universities. They are fertile ground for new recruits.

Next, look within. How can you find and build leaders who are already there? That begins with a discipleship pathway, but it can go further with internships, schools of ministry, or partnerships with local Christian nonprofits.

Finally, ask God to keep your eyes and heart open. Seek Him, and He will supply all your needs. That includes providing staff members when you need them. Remember, the church you’re building is God’s Church. He doesn’t want it to be understaffed. He knows the best fits, where to find them and how to get them to you. So just ask.

Shifting your view of staff who transition can be hard. It’s natural to take it personally when someone wants to leave your church, especially when that person is a close and trusted team member. But when you realize that part of your role is to invest in growing leaders, you can see staff departures as a payout of that investment.

That shift in view will also come with preparation. The best way to keep from panicking is to be prepared. Start today by instilling in your staff a desire to grow into new positions. Then work to backfill those lower ones. Keep the train moving, and you’ll never be left wondering how to fill your next vacancy.

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