Church leadership transitions can be some of the most crazy, awkward, and hurtful things in ministry. It doesn’t matter if you’re the transitioner, transitionee, or the bystanders; transitions can hurt. How can we do them better?
Why is it so hard?
In business, transitions are generally seen as normal and accepted. More money, better opportunities, nicer location; these are all accepted and understood.
Not so in church leadership. Church relationships tend to be more personal and interwoven; the more personal a relationship, the more personal the pain. Also longevity in ministry, especially in one position or organization, is still regarded honorably. That means transitions in ministry (especially good ones) are rare. As a result, I’ve noticed church transitions often turn out like this:
Too many divorces, not enough weddings.
I’ve been through several transitions in ministry. I did each of them as well as I knew at the time; a euphemism for “I screwed up bad when I was younger and tried to mature.” As I grew older, I tried to model my personal church transitions following a “wedding” paradigm so I could do it with honor. I’m going to speak from a guy’s point of view since well, I’m a guy. Here goes:
- Son = person wanting to transition
- Dad = pastor/boss
- Bride = new job, role, position, season of life
Stage 1: ”I want to get married.”
Son turns of age. He feels it’s time for him to settle down, maybe get married. He doesn’t know who the girl (job, next season of life) is, but he is looking. Essentially the son is saying, “Dad, I think I want to get married. Would you pray with me?”
Stage 2: “I think I’ve found the girl.”
Son finds a prospect, isn’t sure she’s the one but he really digs her. He can’t stop thinking about her. “Dad, I think she might be the one. Would you pray with me?” Dad is supportive, gives advice, provides short and long-term perspective.
Stage 3. “We’re getting married.”
Son believes this is the next step. He’s done his homework and gotten to know the prospect. The confirmation is there. “Dad, she said yes! She IS the one! Would you keep praying with me?
Stage 4. “It’s wedding time.”
This is an extension of the family. Weddings are bittersweet; there’s a leaving and a cleaving. But it should be celebrated. “Dad, I’m moving out. Thanks for everything you’ve done. Would you pray with me?”
It takes two.
Of course, this all sounds a bit idealistic and it’s no guarantee the process will be pain-free. But if any group of people should strive to handle transitions well, it should probably be Christians.
- If you’re the Dad: Fight against feeling rejection, abandonment, or even betrayal. Love and pray unconditionally for your staff member, employee, or volunteer through each stage. It can hurt, but if junior is now JUNIOR (grown up), you can’t keep him cooped up forever. He’s got grow and go.
- If you’re the son: Keep “Dad” involved in every step. Ask for his prayers and heed his advice. Don’t overreact if Dad seems sad you’re leaving. He’s still human, after all. Do it honorably.
For every vocational (paid) ministerial position transition, I’ve followed this model. Even if my pastor and I weren’t close, I always broached the subject several months (not two weeks) in advance. Stepping down from a ministry position deserves more than a two-week notice.
NOTE: I’ve had false starts. I thought I was going to step down or take up a different position but didn’t. It equated to “I thought that was the girl. Guess it wasn’t.” My bosses never fired me because of that.
This is worth the price.
Most people don’t think they can have a talk like this with their pastor. Most pastors might not think their staff would have this kind of talk with them. The bottom line is someone needs to get the ball moving. If no one speaks up, this is what will happen (on both sides of the fence):
- Son: Every position you step down from results in a complete burning of relationships because you were an immature kid that ran off and got married without telling anyone.
- Dad: Every capable person on your staff leaves without ever saying anything to you because you were an insecure leader that shut them down anytime they considered an opportunity other than yours.
We have too many divorces in church leadership transition. Let’s do it better. Let’s model it better. Let’s celebrate each other. Let’s realize the family is getting bigger.
Question: How do you think we can make church leadership transitions better? Start the conversation below.
Liked this post? Here are a few personal posts from my ministry transitions: