A Healthy Transition Tells More than Just the Health of a Church and Its Leadership
After 11 years at Calvary Baptist Church in NYC as Pastor of Missions and Outreach, I accepted the position of Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church (FBC) in Metuchen, New Jersey. In preparation for my new role, in which the former Senior Pastor faithfully served for 45 years (and will continue to do so as an associate pastor), I began to look into resources to answer the big question: how does one prepare a congregation for a transition?
I quickly realized that a healthy transition is strongly correlated to the health of a congregation and its leadership. Further, a church’s capacity for a healthy transition can reveal more just the health of a church and its leadership. It tells how deep the congregation’s trust is in the Lord, and whether or not it is prepared to acknowledge God’s leading when a new pastor is elected. Above all, it shows the congregation’s willingness to obey the Lord. A healthy transition is no less than an act of obedience.
Leading Through Change
Any change is hard, and when it comes to church leadership transitions, change can be even more difficult. The natural reaction to change is resistance, whether that resistance is open rebellion by walking out on your church family or subtly undermining everything that the congregation and the leadership are attempting to do. This begs the question: is there any way to ease the transition?
Here is some practical advice for leading graciously but actively through change:
Be aware and be proactive: Whether you’re the senior pastor planning to step down, you’re on the search committee trying to help the congregation as you introduce a candidate, or you’re a potential new senior pastor, be aware that all of us are human and we all have our own pace to accept things. Knowing that helps us to be proactive. Knowing those in your congregation who struggle with any change will help. You should engage them in conversation well in advance. Recruit their opinion and help them to see and understand why the change is necessary. The burden of this lies more on the original senior pastor and the search committee.
Accept and expect resistance: Resistance to change is inevitable, so expect and accept the reality that you will face resistance. This acceptance will remove the need to combat resistance and/or preclude things that might help. For example, if you are on the search committee and you expect resistance, you may spend a lot of time from the get-go to make sure your congregation does not question the transparency of the process. In the end, you will not need to say to the congregation that your process was transparent, rather it should just be transparent. Welcome all kinds of questions and when you do not have the answer remind them that you are all in this together seeking after God. You cannot remove resistance to change completely, but you can reduce some or most of it by having regular dialogue with the congregation.
Over and wide communication: Communicate as much as possible and utilize all methods to talk about the change. A pulpit search committee is not a professional hiring agency or pastoral search agency, though often a church’s search committee searches out the best practices for hiring pastors. Thus, it is wise to host as many town hall meetings as necessary to avoid any doubt about how the pastoral selection process works including how involved the congregation will be in the process. Any questions that the search committee cannot answer will help everyone to go before God and ask for wisdom, seek help from others, and review the process more carefully. Often disagreements or questions from the congregation are not antagonistic behavior, but rather show a genuine interest in the subject matter. When a person disagrees with the pastoral selection process, he or she is at least agreeing on the principle of change, that a new pastor must be selected. After a search committee has found a good candidate, it should continue to communicate as much as possible about how that candidate was selected to show that the process decided upon was followed duly.
Healthy leaders introduce healthy practices: I have read and known a few cases where members have left churches when the senior pastor stepped down or retired. However, I have also read about and witnessed churches where the current senior pastor prepared the congregation well in advance for the coming change and transition. He led the congregation through the transition so that the incoming pastor did not have to deal with a divisive congregation. A church can be rescued from the pain of adjusting to change when the transition is initiated, talked about, and taught on from the Word by the senior pastor who intends to step down or retire.
Gradual change when necessary: The simple fact that a new senior pastor will be coming in can cause restlessness in the staff and congregation. This can be alleviated by following this simple timeline:
- First 100 days: Make sure the staff and congregation know that the new pastor is not intending to change anything in the first 100 days. I am committed to observing, learning, and connecting to my new church family and staff in this way. When I told a friend recently that I am not planning to change anything in the first 100 days he said, “that is exactly the opposite of what the president of the United States strives to do.”
- First six months: Make sure that you have clearly articulated to your elders, staff, and the congregation what your plan is for the first six months. For me, that plan is pretty simple, and I strongly recommend it to every new pastor. Do not rush, be patient; take your time; pray more; learn more; understand the culture and the make-up of your congregation, the office, the staff, and the leadership structure; know your congregation’s needs; develop relationships; find key people that you are going to lean on; and yes, focus on preaching and utilizing the pulpit to communicate God’s mission for believers and your vision for your congregation. Do not give in to the temptation to start new things or stop old things unless absolutely necessary. Try to follow the current ministry calendar. But most importantly, do not try to implement an un-communicated vision.
- The first year: Make sure that you are building relationships and forging new friendships both inside and outside the church. By the end of your first year, the community where your church is should know you. Meet shop keepers, teachers, coaches, other pastors, and religious leaders. In my case, I intend to meet with religious leaders of other faiths as well. This is when you can begin to introduce change.
A healthy transition most certainly reveals just about everything there is to know about the make-up of a church and how its leadership functions. If the church leadership has invested trust and mutual respect, it will be evident in a healthy transition where the congregation will follow the Lord by following their leaders. When God makes His will clear and an elected search committee with prayer and due diligence brings a candidate to the elders and they too are led by the Holy Spirit to propose the name to the congregation, then it is no longer a matter of discovering God’s will, but rather it is a matter of obedience to the Lord.
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