Every pastor has that one shelf that’s filled with leadership books. I’ve got about 20 different books, both secular and church-focused, all devoted to helping me become a better leader. I’ve read books about being a shepherd-leader, a servant-leader, a leader like Jesus, and a spiritual leader. There are books on the laws of leadership, board development, and leading through change. These books are invaluable resources. One of the hardest parts of pastoral ministry is learning how to lead well.
Just about every angle of leadership is covered; except one. There is a void in pastoral leadership that has been created because of outdated traditions and fear. This leadership void is an ugly blind spot that has been the cause of deep pain within the church world. It’s an area where too many pastors simple fail to lead in a way that brings health to their church. I am referring to the void in pastoral leadership during a pastoral transition.
The change from one pastor to another is plagued with heartache and frustration and failure. We’ve all heard the stories of churches losing members, losing funding, losing their ministries in the wake of a pastor leaving. I believe that the biggest reason for this hardship is a lack of leadership. Leadership truly is important, and if a void in leadership is created at the point of transition, then the church will suffer. My hope is that more pastors will identify and fill this void.
This leadership void exists for a couple of reasons…
There is this weird, unwritten rule that many pastors believe that says that the old pastor isn’t supposed to be involved in finding, appointing, or equipping the next pastor. The idea is that the church can decide what it wants in its next leader. It’s almost like some pastors are afraid that apostolic succession will break out in their church if they help too much.
The fear of being a dictator or a monarch is understandable, but maybe there’s some happy middle ground between ruling with an iron fist and completely abandoning all responsibility? The church has looked to you as the pastor to help lead them through building projects and new ministries and countless changes, they need you to help lead them through what might be the most difficult change they have faced yet.
The unwritten rule that the pastor shouldn’t be involved is a bad one. It’s not biblical, it’s not practical, and it just doesn’t work. Don’t stop leading your church just because you are nearing the end of your tenure there.
Many pastors don’t talk about their departure because it’s scary. What if I bring it up and everyone gets excited about me leaving? What if they force me out? And no pastor wants to think about leaving a place they love. I’ve met a lot of older men who fear what life will be like for them once they are no longer “The Pastor”. Fear makes it easy to just avoid the conversation until there’s no choice.
Failure to plan
Perhaps the greatest reason for so much hardship during the point of pastoral transitions is because most pastors fail to plan for their departure. Unless you kill the church, you won’t be their last pastor. You’re just a temporary leader. There’s a guy coming up behind you.
One of the things that we must do as faithful leaders is to ensure that our church will be OK when we are gone. Just like Paul made sure that Timothy was there to take care of the church in Ephesus. Just like a good parent who appoints a guardian to raise their kids in the event of an emergency.
Prepare for your eventual departure by having an emergency plan for your church. Who will be in charge if you get hit by a bus? Prepare by training up leaders. Prepare by making sure you have a retirement fund so you don’t hurt the church by hanging on until you are 80.
If you are the pastor of a church then you already know this truth… committees don’t lead. Right? You’ve witnessed firsthand how a committee that tries to lead will end up a mile away from the mission of the church, or making rookie mistakes, or just stalled out. Committees are not designed to lead. It’s like trying to use a minivan to race the Indy500, that’s not its sweet spot. Committees are great for managing resources, enacting a plan, and accomplishing certain goals. This reality is what led G.K. Chesterton to point out that there are no statues of committees.
Every pastor I’ve ever met will affirm this truth and then give me a whole list of humorous or horrifying examples from their own church. But for some reason, those same pastors will hand the responsibility of leading the church through transition over to a search committee or a church board! A search committee can’t lead the church! That’s not its job!
If you want to use the help of a search committee that’s great, but lead it! The search committee doesn’t know what the pastor does all day long. They don’t know the theological makeup of the church. They don’t have a big picture perspective of the church. They don’t even know what qualities to look for in a replacement pastor! You, as the senior pastor, are the only one who knows those things. If you exit the process and leave the church in the hands of a committee you are creating a huge leadership void.
Failure to pass on authority
I don’t believe in apostolic succession, but I do believe that it is possible for one leader to pass one some of his authority to the next leader. In Numbers 27:18-21 God tells Moses to lay his hands on Joshua, in front of everyone, and “put some of your authority on him, in order that all the congregation of the sons of Israel may obey him.” Elijah tossed his mantle on Elisha. The best leadership transitions will involve a humble, gracious transfer of authority.
This doesn’t happen often enough. Young men need the blessing that comes from older pastors who have served well and are willing to give their blessing.
If the outgoing senior pastor is not involved with the search process, not involved in the selection process, and not involved in the training process it will be very difficult for him to be able to pass on his blessing in a sincere way.
Pastors, let’s make a commitment to plug up this leadership void. Failure to lead through succession can do irreparable damage to the congregation that we love. Make a commitment to finish strong!
If you need a book about leadership through a pastoral transition check out this one (that I wrote!)… Leading Through Succession: Why Pastoral Leadership is the Key to a Healthy Transition.
About Andy Flowers
Andy has served as the senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Woodland, California since 2007. He graduated from the Doctor of Ministry program at Western Seminary in 2016. Andy is the author of Leading Through Succession: Why Pastoral Leadership is the Key to a Healthy Transition.