Pastoral transitions are common.
My intent isn’t to discourage you.
Instead, my goal is to splash cold water on your face—to wake you up to the reality that pastors often transition in the United States.
Again, this isn’t meant to be a dig at pastors.
Far from it.
I simply want to let you know that if your church is going through a pastoral transition, you’re not alone.
The frequency of pastoral transitions
It’s common knowledge that pastors often transition, and studies actually validate this point.
According to one survey conducted by LifeWay Research, the average tenure for a full-time pastor is six years. This frequency of change may sound alarming, but when you take into consideration that the average employee tenure is 4.6 years, pastors aren’t doing so bad after all.
There are times when a pastor will transition for negative reasons, such as a moral failing. There are also times when a pastor transitions for less sinister reasons, such as a change in calling, conflict, or problems with their finances. What’s more, some denominations, like the United Methodist Church, reevaluate their pastors every year.
What’s the bottom line?
Pastoral transitions are frequent, and they can occur for good or bad reasons.
One key to pastoral transitions
Pastoral transitions can lead your church to lose one key thing: momentum.
I’m not talking about when a pastor is fired for a moral failure. I'm talking about normal pastoral transitions and the average amount of time it takes a church to call a new pastor, which can crush your church’s momentum.
According to pastoral succession expert William Vanderbloemen, it takes the average church 12 to 24 months to find a new pastor. If your church experiences such an extended gap in leadership, you’ll run into a host of problems, including:
- Lack of vision
- Lost momentum
- Decrease in membership
- Lack of small group participation
- Decrease in giving
- Decline in volunteers
Not only will a vacancy in leadership lead to these problems, so too will a mismanaged pastoral transition, which leads us to the next point.
6 ways to lead your church through a pastoral transition
Remember, pastoral transitions take on all sorts of shapes and sizes—both good and bad.
Here’s what you need to know:
If you don’t handle your pastoral transition well, you’ll create an entirely different set of problems.
To help lead your church well through this season, here are 6 steps you’ll need to take:
- Continue your ministry
- Make a plan
- Clarify roles
- Be patient
- Follow Jesus’ lead
Let’s dig in!
#1 – Continue your ministry
There's one reality you must embrace during a pastoral transition:
The life of your church marches on.
For a variety of reasons, it’s difficult when a senior pastor transitions off staff. But the life of your church is not limited to this one man or woman. Your church is made up of every member who places their faith in Jesus Christ.
This is what the Apostle Paul emphasizes in his letter to the church in Corinth:
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ … For the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Cor. 12:12, 14).
As the body of Christ, your church—for better or worse—possesses a church culture. In other words, your church has unique characteristics, behaviors, and ministries. So, when there’s a pastoral change, what makes up the culture of your church may change, which will cause anxiety among many of your members.
When there’s a pastoral transition, your church will be nervously questioning things like:
Will the style of worship change?
Will we continue this or that ministry?
Will other pastors, staff, or key volunteers leave?
What will become of my small group?
These thoughts and more will race through the minds of your church members.
If your church’s leadership does not address these anxieties, they will grow into more significant fears and may lead to gossip, slander, and division.
During a pastoral transition, it’s essential that the life of your church continues without interruption. There’s no need to make sweeping changes, and it’s best to let everyone know that life in your church will continue.
#2 – Make a plan
It’s easy to skip planning your church’s next steps during a pastoral transition.
Regardless of how well the transition takes place, this is still a difficult time for your church. You may be experiencing a sense of loss or feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work that needs to be done. Taking the time to plan for your future can feel daunting.
Hear me loud and clear:
Make a pastoral transition plan and work your plan.
Writing for the Vanderbloemen Search Group, Tracey Smith said, “Many transitions go strangely wrong because the leader(s) does not have a plan.” As I pointed out above, this is something you don’t want to go strangely wrong.
In your plan, there are several short- and long-term tasks you’ll need to think through and outline, such as:
- Creating a job description
- Planning for pastoral care
- Providing pulpit replacement
- Forming a search committee
- Establishing milestones
- Promoting the open position
- Interviewing candidates
In your plan, there’s one additional item you’ll need to include: clarify roles.
Since this last step is nuanced, let’s tackle it individually next.
#3 – Clarify roles
In team sports, when a player is unable to play in a game, his or her position is filled by someone who can assume the responsibilities.
For example, in football, if your quarterback is injured, you need a replacement who can play quarterback—not a different position.
What do team sports have to do with pastoral transitions?
A senior pastor serves as the leader of the church. From providing spiritual leadership to strategic guidance, a senior pastor provides oversight for your church.
During a pastoral transition, your church will experience a gap in leadership. When this happens, your church will be concerned about how these responsibilities will be fulfilled moving forward. Also, your staff and volunteers will be curious to know how their responsibilities may change.
To help create a healthy pastoral transition, you’ll need to do the following:
- Identify interim leaders
- Clarify roles
- Empower your staff and volunteers
Interim leaders for your church can be an interim pastor, assistant pastor or staff member, or even shared responsibility among your board, session, or staff. Whether it’s an individual or group who’s assuming leadership responsibilities, make sure all roles are clearly communicated to your church and staff.
When there’s a pastoral transition, there’s also a need for someone else to pick up the work left behind. The size of your church will determine how much work you’ll need to delegate to your staff and volunteers.
To clarify roles, you must first identify what work will need to be accomplished in the absence of your pastor. Take the time to jot down everything your pastor did—from preaching, to pastoral care, to administrative work.
Now, with your list of tasks in hand, it’s time to delegate among your staff or volunteers. Don’t feel obligated to make sure everything is passed along. If your team doesn’t have the additional bandwidth, there’s a good chance you can postpone non-essential work.
Finally, empower your staff and volunteers in their roles and responsibilities. Encourage them to continue doing what they’re doing.
If you need to make any adjustments to someone’s responsibilities, meet with them individually to work this out. Laying this out up front will minimize stress with your team and reduce the risk of team members vying for a different position or higher authority.
#4 – Overcommunicate
There’s one thing you cannot do enough during a pastoral transition: communicate.
As I shared above, pastoral transitions will naturally lead your church to experience anxiety and stress. Often, these feelings are exasperated when there’s a lack of communication. It’s human nature to fill in the blanks when questions are left unanswered.
Communication with your church will need to be a two-way street.
On the one hand, you’ll need to continuously share with your church about what’s going on. On the other hand, you’ll need to be open to receiving feedback and listening to the concerns of your church.
Let’s explore both of these in detail.
Here’s the deal:
In pastoral transitions, your church members and staff will be anxious.
What you share with the members of your church and staff will differ.
For example, the members of your church will be curious about many things, and fearful about others.
What led to this transition?
How significantly will this affect my family and me?
Is there anything we need to be worried about?
As for your staff, they’ll likely have similar questions, but they’re also going to be concerned about their job security.
In the plan you were encouraged to make in step 2 above, think through the questions and concerns your members and staff will have. It’s also a good idea to develop a response to these questions to ensure consistent communication with everyone involved.
In a transitional period, your members and staff will experience a variety of feelings.
They’ll feel the loss of a pastor, friend, or boss.
They’ll feel stress at adjusting to the change.
They’ll be concerned about the future of the church and their job.
Whatever your church feels, it's okay. Transitions are hard for most people.
Give them room to breathe, and let them know who they can talk to if they have questions. Providing people with a clear line of communication will be a comfort for everyone—even if they don’t take advantage of the opportunity.
#5 – Be patient
Let’s face it: Transitions are messy.
In the midst of transitions, your entire church experiences change—and it’s hard.
How your church—both members and staff—navigates this change will be different.
Know ahead of time that you’ll run into a variety of opinions, and it’s essential to exercise patience. In other words, be ready to encounter different views—even from people who won’t accept the new reality.
To prepare yourself, know that your church will fall into one of three categories when it comes to working through the transition:
- Early adopters
Knowing how your church will (or will not) accept change, will help you be better prepared to handle the different opinions. Let’s break this down a bit.
When it comes to change, early adopters are people in your church who are aware of the pastoral transition, and are comfortable with the changes taking place. This doesn’t mean this group of people has hard feelings toward the previous pastor or are not fighting loss. But it does mean they are the first group to embrace this transition.
In dealing with this group, you may not have to work hard to convince them to accept the transition. A strategy that works well with this group is sharing information and answering their questions.
What is more, consider leveraging the influence of early adopters by encouraging them to be champions of the church. It’s always helpful to have a group of non-staff people who act as a supportive voice.
As for the majority, this group represents the members of your church who are battling the loss of their pastor, but understand things change, and they will fight for the well-being of the entire church.
Expect this group to be slower in accepting the transition. In working with them, be informative and answer their questions. But be patient in forcing them to “fall into line.” Quick moves with this group can lead them to become combative, rather than supportive, which isn’t a good idea.
Finally, in any transition, you’ll have a group of laggards. This group of people is committed to the previous pastor, and they will fall into one of two categories.
First, there’s a portion of this group who will not accept the transition under any circumstances. Regardless of how you deal with this group of people, they will not be willing to stick around to see what happens, and that’s okay. Don’t force this group to be different than who they are. Be ready to part ways on good terms.
Second, there’s a portion of this group who will accept the transition and embrace a future pastor, but they’re skeptical and waiting to see how things work out. In working with this group, practice extreme patience. Don’t worry about when they choose to come on board.
Also, encourage early adopters to be aware of this group, build strong relationships, and be an encouragement for the church during this transition.
In leading your church through a pastoral transition, there’s one final point to make.
#6 – Follow Jesus’ lead
Jesus is the head of the Church, and he is the leader of your church (Col. 1:17–18; Eph. 5:22–25).
Over, and over again, remind your church of these truths:
- Jesus is alive
- Jesus is in control
- Jesus loves your church
- God is involved in your situation
- God will work things out
- God has good plans for you
By opening up the Bible and fearlessly sharing from its pages, God will change the hearts and minds of your church to see things from his point of view.
This is not only helpful during pastoral transitions, but there are many common themes—change, vision, faith—that will also help people grow in their faith in Christ.
Over to you
In the end, I want to leave you with this reminder:
You’re not alone.
What you're going through isn’t uncommon, and most importantly of all—God is involved in your situation.
If you still feel overwhelmed after reading through this process, consider reaching out to a third-party to help you work through the situation.