Understanding the need in Preparing for Transition

davebook_web“You have a neuroendocrine tumor on your pancreas.”  These are the words that John, a pastor for over 20 years, was not expecting to hear.  But they were as real as the oncologist now standing before him, explaining in extreme medical jargon, that Pastor John in fact had cancer.  The life expectancy of patients with pancreatic cancer varies, but there was no question, getting ‘his house in order’ for John, took on a whole new sense of urgency.  One of his top priorities would be preparing his church for such news.  The Pentecostal church he had pastored since its inception had never gone through a pastoral transition.  Even without death staring him in the face, there would still come a day when he would no longer lead this work and John knew they weren’t prepared.  Being an independent congregation could only complicate matters.  What to do?

To his Presbyterian church and anyone who knew him, Reverend Matt was a pillar of the community, a moral paragon of virtue who had been leading his church for five solid years.  But by the time his adulterous affair to a woman in his church became known, Matt had left his wife and children and married his mistress.  His church was left in his wake, hurting and in shambles.  Whoever came in next would need to put the pieces back together.  The presbytery served as the normal course of action to help find his replacement.  But it was the presbytery that recommended Reverend Matt to the church in the first place.  Needless to say the church was leery of whom their presbytery might recommend next.

Pastor Bill’s church was one of the largest congregations in the city.  All the signs pointed to growth and blessing and the hard work, since the church split three years ago, was beginning to pay off.  But what no one knew was that Bill had been suffering through depression, was abusing prescription medicine and on the verge of a breakdown.  The pastoral work of holding his church together over the past three years left him alone, isolated and living a dual-life.  On the outside the expectation that he remain strong, able to steer the congregation through the mess they were in was crushing Bill on the inside. No one knew what was happening.  Even his staff was clueless to what was taking place.  When he could no longer take it, Bill reasoned it was better to quit than to tell his congregation what was going on.  At the next Sunday service, Bill stood before the 300+ congregation and revealed that this would be his last sermon and that he would be leaving.  The church, to say nothing of those in leadership, was in complete shock.  The church split they experienced was a three-year process that nearly crippled the church permanently.    Would they really have to start a search process to bring someone new in?  What would that process look like?  Although their congregation was healing, they were still fragile.  Would their members want to sit under a new pastor (and how long would that take?) or just call it quits and move on?  Why was their pastor leaving in the first place?  The 5-alarm situation now upon them was wrought with confusion. 

When Pastor Gene and Pastor Ronny began having conversations a year ago about merging their two congregations, it seemed like an ideal situation.  Gene pastored a young congregation with a lot of families driving their demographics but no property and no deep pockets to fund such a project.  Ronny’s church community had a beautiful church campus but his was an older congregation that had grown stagnant and did not want to move.  Both pastors talked about what it would look like to bring their two respective congregations together.  They both were warm to the idea, but their respective leadership was a little more suspect.  Questions that were being asked early on were not being fully vetted.  For instance, who would lead?  Pastor Ronny’s church wanted their pastor to lead.  After all, they were the ones holding the property and had the most to lose.  Pastor Gene’s leadership team disagreed.  Their church had more people and since their demographics were younger, they knew they were the future of the church.  Both groups plowed ahead and merged before all questions could be answered.  The good news was that the now-combined congregation began growing.  But less than two years after the merger there were cracks in the leadership foundation and the church was on the cusp of splitting apart.  It seemed that neither pastor was hip on working with the other.   Their last elder meeting had once again ended in another fight.  In fact in every meeting they had over the past six months, at least one elder would storm out of the meeting and continually threatened to call for a full vote of no confidence of one or the other pastors. It was becoming obvious that someone, perhaps both pastors, would have to go.

 One does not have to look far to see example upon example of churches working through the tedious process of filling a pastoral vacancy.  Each one of the examples given above really happened, and each thrust those churches into times of transition—none of which were expected. The vacancy could be the result of a former pastor, like ‘Bill’ dropping out because of burnout.  Perhaps, it is illness, like that of ‘Pastor John’ or church conflict like the one Gene and Ronny experienced, that force churches into transition.  Retirement is also an inevitable reality in pastoral work as it would be in any industry, but one that churches don’t often think about nor prepare for with regards to their pastor.  Of course the pastoral searches that usually get the most attention are the ones like ‘Reverend Matt’ that are brought on by a moral failure.  But there are also many other issues that can factor into a church facing crisis and needing to hire a new pastor.

It is my contention that the church needs to recapture the importance of preparing the local congregation for pastoral transition—whenever and however it may happen. This need must not wait until ‘transition’ is upon the church.  I also believe this preparation must come before the need has even presented itself. I would argue that the church must be proactive and intentional in preparing for the future—today.  The preparation must come before transition in order to prevent (or perhaps cope with and work through) crisis that could cripple the church.  

Here, I am defining transition as passing on the church orthodoxy/orthopraxy from one pastor to the next.  This ‘proactive and intentional’ understanding of pastoral succession that I am persuaded is necessary is already starting to take root in some well-known corners of The Church at large. Sovereign Grace pastor, Dave Harvey understood the proper need to be forward-thinking when he stepped down from his pulpit in 2008.  His successor, Pastor Jared Mellinger, was asked to make this vow at his own ordination service: 

Rescuing Ambition (Harvey)Do you promise to begin praying now for your ultimate replacement in ministry (emphasis mine), with the hope of one day identifying, training, and transferring your responsibilities to him, so that this church may continue to grow and mature in future generations, for the glory and honor of God?” 

By covenanting with Pastor Mellinger, Pastor Harvey was not only passing on the vision, continuity and momentum that were already established at the church but preparing Pastor Mellinger (and the current congregation) to continue thinking about the future before it was yet realized.  All this on Mellinger’s first day on the job!  But Pastor Harvey and Sovereign Grace Church is not the only one thinking along these lines. 

Redeemer Logo (Keller)Dr. Tim Keller, Senior Pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church and New York Times best-selling author, whose services run easily over 5,000 in attendance each weekend, is also preparing for the future today.  He explained that while he is only in his sixties and nowhere near retirement, he is beginning the transition process now. Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian are committed to training up a half dozen to a dozen men for succession recognizing that this transition should take eight to ten years.

Sadly, most churches either do not possess the same theology of succession or perhaps lack the time, resources and vision that is necessary to prepare for the future before the future arrives. 

The result is when a pastor suddenly leaves, for whatever the reasons may be, the local church, if she is not prepared to weather that storm, immediately begins to calcify, and more times then not, churches that suffer from lack of vision cannot recover (Proverbs 28:19). This calcifying is what happened to Charles Spurgeon’s church, Metropolitan Tabernacle.

davebook_webThis web portal stands at the cross-section of all these transition scenarios to provide resources that help churches navigate the difficult waters of pastoral succession.

You can begin by checking out my doctoral study entitled:  Transition:  Developing a Theology of Pastoral Succession.  

The structure of this study is divided up into three parts.  The first section will examine eight individual case studies that cover many of the crises that can happen when pastors leave and churches find themselves in transition.  The case studies range from the good (i.e. retirement), to the bad (i.e. burn out) to the ugly (i.e. conflict). Each case study will offer both ‘coping methodology’ (i.e. dealing with the reality of the crisis) as well as ‘prevention methodology’ (i.e. strategies on preparing for crisis before it happens).

In part two, I will examine the general principles that we find in scripture that give us a basic framework for succession and pastoral leadership; as well as offering a compare and contrast of the pros and cons to the different models of succession that we see happening in the church-at-large today. The purpose of the first and second sections of this study is to recognize not only what select churches have faced, but also to better inform churches who have yet to find themselves in the same position.  

The third and final section will focus as a general ‘how-to’ guide for churches looking to prepare for pastoral transition in general whether they find themselves in ‘crisis transition’ or not.  I am persuaded that taking a forward-thinking approach will always allow a church to remain fluid as she grows in her identity, works towards continuity and progresses in her vision.  While it is impossible to prepare for any and every contingency that may happen in the life of a church, the hope is to eliminate any obvious weaknesses and to formulate a general plan that will serve as a guide for any church seeking to make the most of pastoral transition. 


"Dave Lescalleet has devoted careful thought and insight to this vital issue for local church life, and the fruits of his work are highly recommended."

Michael Allen, Ph.D.
Kennedy Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
Dean of Faculty
Knox Theological Seminary

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