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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Pastoral Transitions

Transitions[Dallas Morning News] Few things create more anxiety for a church than having to find a new pastor. Most congregations don't like to think about it, much less plan for it.

It's inevitable, of course, that pastors eventually will leave – whether they move, retire or die. Being unprepared for that day can cause chaos for those charged with finding a new leader. It can create rough sledding for whoever gets the job. It can even endanger the stability of a successful church. In particular, megachurches built on the personality of a dynamic preacher are at risk when that pastor departs, say church consultants. Imagine Saddleback Church without Rick Warren, or the Potter's House without T.D. Jakes.

Many churches don't realize they're "a heartbeat away from coming undone," said J. Russell Crabtree, a church consultant in Ohio and co-author of The Elephant in the Boardroom, a book that encourages churches to plan for a smooth pastoral transition.

One of the best-known cases of a transition gone awry was at First Baptist Church in Dallas in the early 1990s. The downtown landmark at the time was the largest Southern Baptist church in the world.

W.A. Criswell, First Baptist's pastor for almost 50 years, announced that he was ready to step down. In November 1990 the church appointed Joel Gregory as his successor.

But within two years, Dr. Gregory quit, saying he'd been misled. He said he expected Dr. Criswell to step aside right away. Instead, the white-haired pastor hung around – and cast a very long shadow.

Dr. Criswell, who has since died, said at the time that he never promised to turn over the reins immediately.

Two years after leaving – and after divorcing his wife of 26 years and marrying a woman who'd worked at First Baptist – Dr. Gregory made headlines with a book, Too Great a Temptation: The Seductive Power of America's Super Church, which chronicled the power struggles at First Baptist.

The church's members, he wrote, "had created an icon in Criswell, a man whom they venerated to the point of worship."

In the New Testament, Jesus provides a model for smooth transition. He accepted the mantle of evangelical leadership from John the Baptist, then prepared his disciples for his departure.

Yet few churches, even the largest and most sophisticated, follow that example.

In general, churches aren't great at planning, Mr. Crabtree said. And when it comes to pastoral transition, they really drop the ball.

Part of the reason, he said, may be subconscious denial: Worshippers don't want to think about the reality that their beloved pastor won't be with them forever.

And pastors often compound the problem, said Carolyn Weese, Mr. Crabtree's co-author and director of an Arizona consulting group.

Famous preachers sometimes grow to love the limelight, the ministries they've spent their lives building, the radio and television appearances, the lines at book signings. It's hard for some to imagine life without the attention.

"The pastor doesn't think about it or doesn't want to think about it," Ms. Weese said. "He doesn't raise it to the board, and the board is afraid to mention it. But it's often the subject in the parking lot after the meeting."

One who did plan his own succession is Gene Getz, longtime head of Fellowship Bible Church North in Plano. He stepped down as senior pastor in January 2004, after mentoring his successor, Jeff Jones.

Dr. Getz – who has written more than 60 books and who launched a movement of 350 Fellowship Bible Churches across the country – said a pastor has a "spiritual problem" if his or her ego gets in the way of the ministry. "In not letting go, you can destroy that very thing that you've worked so hard to build," he said.

He said he wanted his successor chosen well before he stepped down at 75. Whenever he'd go out of town, he'd let his associate pastors preach in his place, and church elders soon agreed that Mr. Jones stood out.

"Gene allowed my voice and my leadership to emerge," Mr. Jones said. Members saw the two men working side by side during a three-year transition phase, so when Mr. Jones took over, "it wasn't a jolt."

The church has thrived under its new leader. Members have pledged more than $16.5 million toward a new worship center and offices at Legacy Drive and the North Central Expressway.

Dr. Getz included a chapter on pastoral succession in his book, Elders and Leaders: God's Plan for Leading the Church. "Don't wait until it's too late to begin this process," he wrote. "The ongoing fruit that you've given your life to produce depends on your plans for succession. When I need the church more than the church needs me, I have stayed too long."

The longer a church avoids the subject of a successor, Ms. Weese said, the more likely it is that the transition will be rocky.

Members rely on their church for spiritual and emotional support, she said, and they won't stick around if they sense instability at the top. She said a church can lose 20 percent of its members, and their dollars, if the search for a new leader lasts more than a year

"Church staffs will look at me aghast and say, 'Oh, no. Not in our church,' " she said. "Six months later they come back and tell me, 'It was much worse than you said it would be.' "

Members of Scofield Memorial Church would agree. The church, on Abrams Road south of Royal Lane, ended up losing half its members during what became a five-year search for a pastor. Its finances, predictably, "took a terrible blow," said Matthew St. John, who became senior pastor in 2002.

"People are rather resilient. They understand that transition can be difficult, but after a while, they're ready to say, 'Enough is enough,' " Mr. St. John said. "One can't blame them."


Tips from pastors and church consultants on how to ensure an efficient transition:

•Have a succession plan in place before you need it. Don't wait until you have a vacancy to start searching for a pastor.

•If an aging pastor won't broach the subject of his departure, church elders may have to. Denying the inevitable won't make it go away.

•During the transition, the outgoing pastor should share public duties with his successor, demonstrating to the congregation his trust in the new person.

•Defer important decisions if possible, so the new pastor can make them. He's the one who'll have to live with them.

•Once the new pastor takes office, the old pastor needs to step aside. Be available for consultation, but don't get in the way.

•The new pastor should show public respect for his predecessor – and for the pastor's family.

•Don't expect the new pastor to be a clone of the old one, or to do things the way they've always been done. Every leader is different. Change can be healthy.

•Everyone involved should remember that succession is about the sustained life of the church, not about any individual.

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May 16, 2006 in Personnel Issues | Permalink

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This is how I view it.....

1. The church... Which is the people not the building. Place to much trust in a person and not enough trust in Christ. Christ should be the icon of the church not a man. This becomes dictatorship, pride, and coveteness. They should be willing to accept the new pastor with open loving arms. They should not expect him to be like the former pastor because they are two different people.
Example: My dad is my worst critic of my preaching. He tells me I am not Falwell, Billy Graham, B.R. Lakin, or a Billy Sunday. I told him "Thank God I am not dad. Besides I am better than all these preachers because I am being who God made me to be. Jeff Ruble."

2. The former minister- He should be a man who is humble and should not allow himself to become a icon. He should do as John the Baptizer did, "He must increase but I must decrease."

3. New Pastor- Should not feel overwhelmed by stepping into the shoes of the former pastor. He should rely on God to use him in a powerful and different way.

Last, As for Saddleback... If Rick Warren left or if he passed away, God forbid.. Would carry on. As to T.D. Jakes. Don't know but I believe it would fall. With all of that said... Was the ministry built upon Jesus Christ or man... If it is Christ it is a strong foundation.. If man nothing but hay and stubble.

Posted by: Clairvoyant 1 | May 16, 2006 11:21:39 AM


I agree with what you have said. They SHOULD be focused on Jesus and not the man...the new pastor should rely on God...the old pastor should be humble.

But the reality is that we are all human. It is hard to let go. It is hard not to feel overwhelmed in the shadow of a good previous pastor...it is hard when things change. And we all know that two people can do the exact same thing and both of them have a very different feel because of the person who is doing them. It is not that God is with one more than the other, but that God, for some reason, chooses to work through the personalities of people. And each person's personality is different.

You preach the Gospel, and every one of the people whom you listed preached the Gospel. You each have your own style of presenting the Gospel. Some people like your style better than the people you listed. They hear God through you. They may not hear God through your successor the same way they heard Him through you. Is that wrong? No, I don't think it is.

Neither do I think it has anything bad to say about their commitment to God. There are some that this is true for, but not all. God works through us and our personality. I can reach people, because of my personality, that you cannot reach, and vice versa. We do need to avoid setting ourselves up as something we are not.

Just my thoughts.

Posted by: eirc | May 16, 2006 11:49:58 AM

Good article maybe unrealistic. Our denomination has this written out for us, so we know how the process goes. I don't believe there are very many smooth transitions. They all take time. However I think the transition does not have to be horrible, as longs as both parties agree to grow up. Just my take.
my dad once when I was starting out critizied a sermon I gave once. In the sermon I had mentioned that I too had faults. He said a preacher should never say on the pulpit they have faults, which I thought and still think is silly. My dad is plumber. I told him, I don't tell you how to fix a pipe, so don't tell me how to preach a sermon. (that is God's job) Might have been harsh, but I was young and immature (18 years old). It worked however and he has not said anything since.

Posted by: Jade | May 16, 2006 11:50:40 AM

As I'm preparing my last sermon at my current congregation I found this post timely and interesting. Thanks Todd for throwing this out for discussion.

I'm in a tradition where the church doesn't really get their search going until the current pastor is gone. I was actually shocked and almost felt a little uncomfortable when the search committee asked me to sit in on a meeting with the executive director of our fellowship to get some direction on their search. It actually was productive in I was able to offer some words of advice while not trying to dictate to them what they should do and who to talk to.

Unlike some of the "mega-churches" who are driven by a personality, the church I'm in is driven by a tradition, quite possibly imho a dying tradition. Priority is given to tradition over the moving of the Holy Spirit. While tradition is an important part of where you come from, allowing for the movement of the Holy Spirit allows for new life and growth spiritually.

I agree with one of the final points in the post about change being healthy. I just pray that those who don't understand that change can be healthy can eventually see that change in leadership, change in worship style, change in how you approach "church" doesn't mean compromising God, the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ but can often spark growth in this area.

Sorry about the rambling. I should get back to work on this, my final sermon. Preaching on Jeremiah 29.


Posted by: Tony | May 16, 2006 12:31:36 PM

I think that pastoral transitions are more difficult in a mega church, or in an independent church where there are no policies to guidelines to follow. In our denomination there are procedures that help make the transition work reasonable well. But again I still think when you have a mega church situation where the lead pastor is more of a central figure and the tenure is so much longer the transition is harder. The churfdc hwas built around that personality, how do you make the switch in a 12 momnths? There is no way. But in the overwhelming majority of churches under 200, the transitions can be much easier because they are more accustomed to it, and the pastor is not the personality it is built around.

Posted by: Kent | May 16, 2006 1:08:02 PM

I believe the cost of change can be high no matter the size. It is the philisophical mindset. The senior pastor should see that his responsibilty extends beyond even his time as shepherd of the church. The article clearly presents the idea that you can't just clean out your office and let the church figure out where they are going to go. I have been to churches that are forward thinking and have planned for such transitions as Getz did. I greatly respect his responsibility and humility in the process. Its not easy to think that we are replacable. But we are and the sooner we realize it the more useful to God we will become.

Posted by: Aaron | May 16, 2006 4:05:52 PM

Regardless of how good a succession plan a church has, everyone needs to be prepared for changes. In a multi-staff church, a change in Sr. Pastor will almost inevitably have a ripple effect; over time, almost everyone's "favorite" pastor will move on. The question is not so much if, but when...and how. This is the reality that people in the church need to be prepared for, because if they're not, the new Sr. Pastor is going to wind up in hot water. Responsibility for preparing the congregation for such changes rests primarily on the shoulders of the elders/board/staff that remain.

A principle I learned from my Dad, a missionary of sorts, has been very helpful to me in the business world and should be helpful in just about every position: One of my top priorities should always be to work myself out of a job. That means that I need to train someone to carry on when I leave. Even if they never replace me here, it's just plain good sense...and good stewardship of the (human) resources entrusted to me. By the way, this principle can also be called "discipleship." 2 Tim 2:2

Posted by: Randy Ehle | May 16, 2006 5:32:40 PM

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