Transitioning a Church to a New Pastor :: Gospel Fellowship Association Missions

Transitioning a Church to a New Pastor

Marshall Fant
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I love to plan. I thoroughly enjoy setting goals. My goals are divided into three categories: 1–2 years, 3–5 years, and 6–10 years. I do this for my personal life as well as my ministry life. After pastoring at the same church for many years, I will never forget the first time I recorded that the church would have a different pastor in 6–10 years. It seemed so far in the future. Then that goal shifted to 3–5 years, and I began to question myself:  How can this be happening? Do I really want to go through with this? Am I ready? Is the church ready? What steps do I need to take to prepare my family and the church? What are the steps to clearly communicate this to our deacons and church? Where will my wife and I go, and what will we do?”

The Facts

Regardless of my hesitations and misgivings, there are some facts about the church and pastors that I could not ignore.

  • The church belongs to Jesus—not to me. I need to be willing to set aside my feelings and do what is best for the church.

“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

  • Churches age as their pastor ages. My wife and I started our ministry at Harvest Baptist in our early 40s with five children. Similar families joined the church, and we became a church of middle-aged adults with many children and youth. But twenty years later, it was very different. We still had some young families with children, but we suddenly realized we had a large group of senior saints! The church had grown older as we did. We saw firsthand that the age of the pastor is directly related to the age of the congregation.
  • The church is permanent, I am not. Pastors die, retire, resign, or transition to other ministries, but the church goes on.
  • Every pastor is an interim pastor.The Lord allows pastors to have seasons of ministry. The length of those seasons will vary by church and by men. But there is both a beginning and an ending point of your ministry at that church.
  • Churches without pastors are vulnerable. The prayer of Moses and the prayer of Jesus emphasize this fact:

“Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, Which may go out before them, and which may go in before them, and which may lead them out, and which may bring them in; that the congregation of the LORD be not as sheep which have no shepherd” (Numbers 27:16-17).

“And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:35-38).

I wanted stability, not vulnerability for our church. I loved our church and did not want them to experience a season without an undershepherd.

Preparing Your Family

In preparing your family for your ministry transition, there are some vital truths to keep in mind.  First, you and your wife are a ministry team, so you need to be extra careful to maintain unity in your relationship. Transitions are very emotional; the two of you should be in agreement about the transition and timing of it. You need to discuss this between yourselves years before it takes place.

Second, you should transition to a ministry and not just from a ministry. God is the One who has called you to vocational ministry, and you should continue in it as long as God gives you health and opportunity. You should be praying about your future ministry before you transition from your current ministry. You should be investigating ministry opportunities for this next season of life.

Last, you must make a commitment not to check out as you transition out. Your family should continue to serve faithfully during the transition. You must finish well. Both you and the church will benefit. Everyone will remember how you left—not how you came.

Preparing Your Church

There are two important aspects in preparing your church for a transition: one is philosophy and the other is process.

Philosophy

A smooth transition begins years in advance with a consistent philosophy of equipping the next generation of pastors and missionaries according to 2 Timothy 2:2. You should be continually teaching, preaching, and modeling this philosophy of ministry in your church. One way this can be done is with your church budget. Use the annual budget to cast a vision of mentoring men for ministry (intern, part-time staff, or full-time staff). Your successor might be a former intern or staff member. Another way is to delegate the responsibility of one of your services to a younger man who is already on staff. Our congregation committed to this philosophy years before our transition by having our youth pastor preach each Sunday evening service. This was a win-win situation for us; it gave the young man the opportunity to mature as a preacher and the church the opportunity to encourage the spiritual growth of the next generation.

Process

Both the church leadership and the congregation need to be involved in your transition.

Leadership

The lay leadership will need several months to work through the idea that you are leaving. You need to take the lead on this topic. Some may feel hurt or disappointed or may not want to deal with the idea until you have gone; it is your job to lead them so they can lead the congregation. The following are a few suggestions I have found helpful. First, purchase a copy of Vanderbloemen and Bird’s Next: Pastoral Succession that Works for each of your leaders. Have them read it and discuss different chapters in your deacons’ meetings. Help them see that a transition can be a time of spiritual unity in the church. Second, have someone from outside your church who has been through a successful transition —either a pastor or lay leader—come in and discuss his experience. Have him testify to the blessings as well as the unexpected challenges of a transition. Lastly and most importantly, have your men commit to a season of prayer. Praying together will build unity among the leadership, which will be essential as they lead the congregation in the search for their next pastor.

Congregation

There is no easy way to communicate your imminent departure to the people you love. It can be painfully difficult, and this reality underscores the necessity of being very cautious in the areas of timing and method. The timing of your announcement is crucial. It is best that your transition take place while ministry is going well as opposed to during a season of conflict. In addition, it should be done several months before you leave so everyone has a chance to digest the reality. Regarding your method, communication about your transition needs to be face to face. Both the leadership and congregation need to hear it directly from you, as opposed to through a letter or your church’s website. After you have fulfilled that responsibility well, get out of the way and let your leadership lead.

Churches are vulnerable during times of change. Transitioning to a new pastor is challenging to everyone involved. Yet the pastor who is armed with a knowledge of the facts, prepares his family and church, and wisely works through the process with his leadership and congregation, will ensure that this difficult time turns out to be a positive experience of unity and growth.

 


i Vanderbloemen, William and Bird, Warren. Next, Pastoral Succession That Works. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014.

Used by permission from FrontLine magazine. Subscribe here to FrontLine.

 

 

 

 

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