By Andy Flowers
Most pastors really love their church. They understand their calling as under-shepherds tasked with guarding the bride of Christ. Caring for the thing that Jesus died for is a heavy responsibility. Pastors will endure stress and criticism, they will work long hours, and they will sacrifice to protect the church.
Yet, I’ve seen these same men inadvertently bring their church to the brink of ruin. They are good preachers, caring counselors, and men of prayer, yet their church suffered. These pastors followed the play book, but their church nearly closed the doors. It wasn’t on purpose. They never meant any harm to come. But they sat and watched as the church they loved crumbled.
The weakness was not in how they served the church, but how they left the church.
It is as inevitable as death and housing allowances; all senior pastors will eventually move on. No one preaches forever. They will either retire or expire or go to a church where people are nicer. Every church must face this dreaded transition.
But most pastors don’t really think much about that day. They are too busy preaching and leading and serving. It’s not something a normal pastor wants to think about. It’s scary and sad. But planning for a healthy transition is something that any good leader must do.
I am amazed at how many pastors don’t think that the process of pastoral transition is their job. They run a great race all the way up to the last lap, and then just drop the baton in the dirt and walk away. The church is left with a huge void in leadership. The new guy has the near impossible task of guiding them through the change.
We’ve all seen it happen. The old guy leaves, the new guy comes, and then everything falls apart. Usually the blame lands on the new guy. He’s just too different. He’s not as good as the old guy. He does things wrong. He’s the reason people are leaving and giving is down. There is even a name for the replacement pastor- “sacrificial lamb”. A church might go through two or three “sacrificial lambs” before a pastor is able to stick.
Sometimes the blame lands on the search committee. They were the ones who recommended the new guy. They should have screened him better. They are responsible for the decline.
Often the church becomes divided with some people supportive of the new guy and some opposed to him. The two groups blame each other for the church decline. “Those petty, shallow people have ruined the church!”
This scenario is so common that new ministries have been established that provide an intentional interim to serve as the sacrificial lamb. These are guys that are hired for a short time to help prepare the way for a permanent pastor. That’s a great solution for churches that are unprepared, but whenever possible it is the outgoing pastor’s responsibility to prepare the way for the new pastor!
There is vulnerability to which every church is exposed at the point of transition. Satan has exploited this weakness for far too long. He will sow discord, demoralize new ministers, and render ministries ineffective; all because pastors don’t finish the race.
There are a number of reasons why pastors fail to lead through the transition. It’s hard to think about leaving, some guys just ignore the whole thing right up until the retirement party. Some think that it’s the search committee’s job to find a replacement. I had one guy tell me that the reason he wasn’t more involved in the transition was because he doesn’t believe in apostolic succession. Another guy wanted the church to be able to decide what direction they wanted to go next.
All those arguments are lame! I know it’s sad to think about leaving, but it’s inevitable. You need to put a plan in place. A search committee is not a transition strategy! It might be a part of a transition strategy, but if that’s your whole plan then you are putting your church in grave danger.
If you’ve spent the past few decades casting vision and establishing the direction for the church, why would you all of a sudden stop doing those things when the church needs you the most? You know the strengths and weaknesses and needs of that church better than any other person. If you remove yourself from the transition process you are setting them up for failure.
Pastors, God has called you to protect that church. Part of the job of pastoral leadership is finishing well. I don’t think Paul believed in apostolic succession, but he took the time to train and mentor the next generation of church leaders. He invested in guys like Timothy and Titus, helping to establish them as leaders in the church, and then left them to carry on the work.
Here are a few things that you can do to make sure that you don’t accidently ruin your church when you leave…
- Understand that it is your job to hand the baton off to the next guy. It is your job to train and equip a replacement. It is perhaps one of the most important aspects of pastoral leadership. A good leader will leave the church in good hands!
- Start planning right now, even if you are young. Talk to your board about a transition plan. What would happen if you suddenly die? What would happen if God called you to a different church? What are some things that the church can do to prepare for the inevitable? Pastoral transitions will cost money. It is way cheaper to invest up front than to see the budget dry up as people leave. Don’t let fear or insecurity keep you from planning wisely.
- Prepare the church. That means preaching grace so that people will be patient with the new guy. It means building in structures that rely on a ministry team, not just you. It means constantly pointing to Jesus so that people learn to put their hope in Him, not you.
- Train your replacement. Hire him well in advance. Work with him after he’s called. Allow the transition to be a gradual one. Point out landmines. Explain the culture. Allow people to form relationships with him. Do whatever you can to help him succeed.
- Humble yourself. The guy who takes your place will be different than you; that is not only hard on the congregation, but it will be hard on you at times. It will take a huge amount of humility on your part to hand over control. You must be a model for the rest of the church to follow.
- Get out of the way. At some point it will be necessary for you to step away from the center stage so that the new guy has a chance to be seen as the leader. Make yourself available as a resource for guidance and support, but hand the keys over and back off.
- Pray for wisdom and grace and strength and unity. Pray for God to protect and guard His church during the transition.
As Paul sat in a cold damp prison with martyrdom looming, he wrote one last letter. He could have written to the other apostles, or to one of the churches he helped plant, but he chose to write to Timothy. The letter is filled with encouragement to lead and preach well. It was his last chance to help Timothy be a better pastor so that the church would be strong and secure.
Paul says, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” What a simple transition plan. Entrust the gospel message to reliable men who will keep the ball rolling.
Paul understood that an important part of his ministry was not just building churches, but making sure that they were left in good hands. Let us follow Paul’s example!
Andy Flowers, a Western Seminary graduate, is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Woodland, California and Adjunct Professor at Western Seminary Sacramento.