the shape of leadership

When, Not If

Planning now for pastoral transition

Ron McManus on May 8, 2024

Godly leaders have long struggled with transitions.

In the Old Testament, Moses successfully transferred his leadership to Joshua, under whom Israel experienced prosperity and military victories. But Joshua failed to orchestrate a similar transition, and after his death, Israel slid into immorality and idolatry.

This is a lesson of great urgency for churches navigating 21st-century challenges. If ever there was a time to plan for the Church’s future, it’s now.

The average age of Protestant senior pastors in the U.S. is 52, according to a 2022 Barna study. Only 16% are 40 or younger.

Another 2022 Barna survey found 42% of pastors had considered leaving full-time ministry during the previous year (compared to 29% who said the same in 2021). The top three reasons pastors cited for considering a departure were “the immense stress of the job” (56%); feelings of isolation and loneliness (43%); and “political divisions” (38%).

Each year, thousands of churches undergo pastoral transitions. Unfortunately, most congregations are unprepared for dealing with a leader’s departure. And many struggle when the moment inevitably arrives.

That is why every church should develop a succession plan, a roadmap for transitioning from one pastor to the next. The congregation’s future depends on a smooth and successful leadership baton handoff.


Spirit-Led Process

To set up the next leader for success, the pastor must be willing to submit to God’s timing. That includes knowing when to step aside, whether moving into retirement or another ministry position.

Transition is easier when someone the pastor has mentored is prepared to step in as successor. This helps ensure consistency with the church’s DNA and culture.

If a search process is necessary, church leaders will need guidance and a deliberate strategy. Whatever the transition circumstances, seeking outside expertise is helpful.

Over the past 24 years, I have had the privilege of serving as a transition pastor for 14 churches. I have remained at some of these locations for as long as two years, guiding congregations through the process of installing new leadership.

Unfortunately, many congregations rush the search process instead of preparing their churches to flourish.

Finding a speaker to fill the pulpit on weekends while looking for a new pastor is not enough. Churches in transition need someone who can provide spiritual leadership, work with staff and board members, evaluate ministry systems, and offer wise counsel.

The transition pastor’s goal should be moving a church toward greater health, while walking with members through the process of finding God’s person to lead them into the future.

This is not about personalities or egos. Rather, it should be a sacred, Spirit-led journey. Times of church transition are opportunities for everyone involved to grow in faith, prayerfulness, and dependence on God.


Five Transition Types

As I describe in my book, The Transition Leader, there are five types of pastoral transitions.

1. Legacy transition. This involves a lead pastor handing off leadership to a son, daughter, or close mentee. Family dynamics, as well as tenuous timelines and expectations, can make such transitions challenging.

2. Interim pastor transition. A plan that includes an interim or transition pastor for at least one year alleviates the pressure to select a candidate immediately. This provides space for organizational growth and increased health during the search process.

Such an approach also gives the transition pastor time to guide the board through a selection process. This type of transition is especially helpful when a pastor who has led the church for many years departs without naming a successor.

3. Catastrophe intervention. A rapid response is necessary when transition results from the moral failure, debilitation, or sudden death of a lead pastor. An interim or transition pastor leads the church during a pastoral search period.

Most congregations
are unprepared for
dealing with a leader’s
departure. And many
struggle when the moment inevitably arrives.

4. Planned transition. This process happens only when a church’s leaders are future-oriented enough to develop a transition plan before the pastor moves or retires. It may involve naming a successor while the outgoing pastor still serves the church.

A planned transition allows the pastor and board to establish a preferred profile of the ideal candidate and make measured decisions progressively. Most pastors who plan transitions allow one or two years for the process to unfold and do not have a successor in mind at the beginning.

5. Transition with district oversight. In some cases, district or ministry network leaders oversee the transition process, often in tandem with an outside consultant.


Managing Relationships

Many people expect the transition from one pastor to another to be a simple thing. This might be true if relationships, personalities, and feelings were not involved. The reality is, these things can impede or ease transition processes.

A legacy transition may work well if the relationship between the two parties is already healthy and leadership styles are similar. It becomes more challenging if temperaments and personalities are different.

I recently worked with a father and son legacy transition where the personalities were totally different. The father was outgoing and relational, while the son was more strategic and introspective.

Recognizing their differences, the two leaders worked to bridge any gaps. Months before congregants voted to affirm the son as their next lead pastor, the younger man began meeting with various groups throughout the church to develop warmer relationships. This included interacting with senior adults and others who had been part of the congregation for many years.

Even when the successor is not a relative, there may be family issues to consider. For example, problems sometimes arise when a pastor is ready to retire but his or her spouse isn’t. After years of service and sacrifice, letting go can be hard. That’s why ministry couples need to work through the succession process together.

Rather than focusing on what they are leaving behind, outgoing pastors and their families should look forward to new ministry opportunities. It is important for everyone involved in the transition process to catch a vision for the wonderful future God is leading them toward.

Unfortunately, post-transition interference is a common problem. The outgoing pastor should attend services elsewhere for at least three to six months after the arrival of a new leader. This gives congregants time to bond with their new pastor. Otherwise, the people of the church may continue seeking counsel from the previous pastor.

A written agreement between the former and incoming pastor is beneficial. Such a document should spell out expectations of both leaders, which can help eliminate misunderstandings. This is especially important when the outgoing pastor has served the church for 20 years or longer. Walking away is hard, but it is a necessary part of transition.

I have seen interference from former pastors create major problems for new pastors and their churches. Clear communication and boundaries are absolutely vital.


Honor and Generosity

Leaving a ministry position is not just emotionally difficult. For many pastors, transition can seem financially out of reach. In fact, some would resign their churches today if they could find a way out.

Part of my work at Legacy Transition Group is working with church boards and finance committees to put together severance agreements for outgoing pastors. We have helped many church leaders overcome the financial obstacles of moving or retiring.

Providing benefits such as retirement contributions is not always easy for smaller churches. However, these investments ultimately benefit the entire congregation. No one wants a burned-out pastor clinging to leadership for purely financial reasons.

The best time to plan for pastoral transition is long before the moment arrives.

Two values that should permeate leadership transitions are honor and generosity. In such an environment, change is easier for everyone. It can become a time of celebrating what the Lord has done and anticipating all that He will do.


Transition Timeline

Once a pastor decides to step down, a planned transition may follow. Below is an example of what that might look like.

Typically, the outgoing pastor begins a conversation with the board about a year in advance. Within about nine months, the board nominates a candidate it will recommend to the congregation.

The next step is planning a business meeting, sharing the information with the congregation six to eight weeks ahead of time. After learning about the candidate and hearing him or her preach, members vote.

Don’t wait until a departure is imminent to start thinking about how your congregation will navigate it.

Within six months of the congregation choosing a pastor-elect, a farewell event takes place for the outgoing pastor. The following week, official installation of the new pastor takes place.

The period between the new pastor’s election and outgoing pastor’s farewell is a strategic time of mentoring.

Six months is usually adequate for an effective transition. In addition to facilitating training and communication between leaders, this period gives congregants space for emotionally processing the upcoming change.


In Between

When a church board or committee starts a pastoral search, the first step is developing a profile of what the congregation is seeking.

This is one place where challenges can arise. Some members may hope to find a carbon copy of their current pastor. Others, eager for something new, might look for the exact opposite.

It is important to remain objective and consider the church’s DNA when putting together a profile. For example, if the church has always maintained a strong missional emphasis, the next pastor should likewise have a heart for missions.

I am currently working with a church whose founding pastor recently retired after 38 years. Although the congregation has been in the transition process for several months, the search committee is not yet prepared to present a candidate. This could be a blessing since churches often need some space between the past and future.

When following quickly on the heels of leaders with long tenures, new pastors often struggle to gain support and acceptance. Too often, these pastors head for the exits after only two or three years.

A transition pastor can help the next pastor succeed by serving as a buffer during the in-between time.

Change is unsettling. When a pastor leaves, some congregants will feel sad or anxious. Others may grow impatient and frustrated with the search process.

People have different needs during this unusual season. In addition to sound preaching and teaching, they need peace and healing.

Sometimes I imagine what the apostle Paul would write to someone serving as a transition pastor. I think Paul might say something like this: “Remember this is Christ’s church, a part of His living body. You are called to lead this church only for a season, but do it with all your might, for God’s glory. Don’t let anything harm or weaken it.”

For transition pastors, the assignments are simple and straightforward: Bring spiritual peace and direction; cast an interim vision plan; prepare the congregation for the future; and help members develop an outward focus.


Coming Together

Some say Americans are so divided people can’t agree on anything these days. Yet I’ve seen Christians come together time and again during periods of pastoral transition.

After preparing congregations for such transitions, all the elections I’ve overseen have come out at least 90% in favor of the new leaders. Such outcomes demonstrate the power of believers embracing a unified vision and seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

It’s not a matter of if your church will face a pastoral change, but when. The only question is whether it will happen by default or design. The good news is you can plan now for a smooth and efficient transition.

Don’t wait until a departure is imminent to start thinking about how your congregation will navigate it. Take steps today to develop a plan that will outlast your leadership and that of your staff members.

There are many things in life we cannot anticipate. The recent COVID-19 pandemic certainly taught us that lesson. That’s why I’m glad keeping ministry going is ultimately not up to you or me. The Lord is the One who builds and sustains His church.

Jesus told Peter, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).

The pandemic brought a number of unforeseen problems that are still affecting many congregations today. No doubt, churches will face new, equally daunting challenges in the years ahead. Yet we can rest in the knowledge that God loves the Church and will continue building and growing it.

Through good times and bad, the Spirit empowers us in our ministry calling. My experience in leading pastoral transitions over the past 25 years gives me faith that we can be victorious, even amid the toughest challenges.


This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Influence magazine.

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