History tells sad stories of good churches that are calcified as monuments to former pastors.
When is the right time to begin thinking about pastoral transition? From day one, when a pastor first begins her or his tenure as the pastor of a local church! While the life of a local church may well be seen in terms of a long marathon, the pastoral leadership—regardless of how long any one pastor serves a particular church—is best seen as a relay race, in which the current pastor prepares to pass the baton on to a successor in that crucial segment of time and space called the changeover zone. That is why Bruce Miller says, “Pastoring a church is not getting a trophy to keep; it is getting a baton to pass.”
Biblical history is a testimony to leaders of God’s people moving through changeover zones, passing their batons to successors. Whether it was Elijah passing the mantel to Elisha or Moses giving way to Joshua, wise leaders know their leadership won’t last forever, nor should it. Belief that ministry is a journey into God’s future compels us to pass the baton in a way that makes possible even more success under the leadership of the successor.
When Jesus handed off the baton to Peter, it was with an ultimately victorious church in mind. When pastors—from day one—begin to pray for and prepare their successor, it does not lead (as supervisors sometimes fear) to shortsightedness, or lack of total commitment. Rather, it leads to a cultural mindset that, as the pastor, one of my main jobs is to prepare the church to do even greater ministry when my successor arrives.
Pastoral leadership is a relay race. In The United Methodist Church, bishops, and cabinets invest long hours and a lot of emotional energy to match a church and its mission field’s needs with the right pastor. They pray about, agonize over, and deliberate on how to successfully make appointments. Ironically, the time demands and myriad duties of district superintendents allow them far less time to make the appointment successful.
We wrote our book, The Changeover Zone, to help streamline and provide some tools to improve the transition process—to pass the baton in a smooth, seamless transition that allows the successor to get off to a running start. We took our experience from working with dozens of transition situations and distilled them into best practices for pastors, supervisors, and churches to help create a culture and common language to plan and execute a successful transition. There are many pitfalls and mistakes that can derail a new pastor from getting off to a running start, but there are many techniques and strategies that can help churches go beyond “surviving it” to actually accelerate growth during the transition.
Each role plays an important part—supervisors, judicatory leaders, exiting founder, new pastor, and the church—in the execution of carefully thought-out, prepared-for, practiced roles coming together. Perhaps you are that new pastor, or the exiting founder. Perhaps you are in a supervisory role, or are a member of the church going through its first pastoral change. Whatever part you may be playing in the transition, understand that this is a momentous—and often fragile—time in a congregation’s life; help everyone navigate through the imminent changes and changeovers that ensure your church gets it right.
Excerpt adapted from The Changeover Zone: Successful Pastoral Transitions
Copyright 2016 by Abingdon Press All rights reserved.
In addition to coaching, consulting, and conducting workshops in more than thirty annual conferences of The United Methodist Church, Jim Ozier has served on the Appointive Cabinet of the North Texas Conference for seven years. Jim (Griffith) has worked with hundreds of churches and a multitude of tribal judicatories and independent churches and nondenominational churches for over twenty years. Their book, The Changeover Zone, provides insights and strategies to help churches prepare for smoother pastor transitions.