Prior to my election as pastor, I had been with the church and senior pastor for seventeen years, practically from the founding of the church. And although we had a long history together, we did not have a plan for succession. The senior pastor was too young for retirement, and we were too close in age for a traditional transition. (We are twelve years apart.)
However, unforeseen circumstances forced us both to quickly plan for a transition. God began to deal with me about the end of my tenure as associate pastor, and shortly thereafter, people began to ask Brother Bernard if he would consider serving as general superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church. This was during the summer preceding the General Conference. Neither of us had anticipated this.
The most critical factor in our transition was the confirmation of God’s will.
A transition cannot be forced or coerced; it must unfold according to God’s will, for we are merely under shepherds of God’s flock.
We both were able to discern God’s will personally and jointly, and it was a package deal: my decision was clearly contingent on Brother Bernard’s decision, and his decision was contingent on my decision. God’s will is the most important factor in a pastoral transition. A transition cannot be forced or coerced; it must unfold according to God’s will, for we are merely under shepherds of God’s flock. Ultimately, He chooses who cares for His people.
The second greatest factor was mutual trust and respect. We had seventeen years to draw from as we navigated the tedious details of our transition. We both had concerns and requests, but we both anticipated what the other’s concerns and requests would be, and we both honored these.
The success of a transition depends on a well-thought-out plan. Although we did not have a lot of time for advance planning, we put together a detailed plan in approximately sixty days. A promise is not a plan. Too many transitions have faltered because they were based on promises rather than a plan.
The success of a transition depends on a well-thought-out plan.
A plan should be in writing, include dates, and include a provision to resolve conflict. Although we did not expect any issues with our transition, we mutually identified people who could mediate in the event of a conflict.
A pastoral transition must be a complete transition. Although this may involve a process which unfolds over time, there must be a complete relinquishing of power by the outgoing pastor. A pastor must control four things to fully be the pastor: the pulpit, the money, the calendar, and the leaders. So long as the outgoing pastor controls these things, the new pastor is not fully the pastor.There is an ongoing transition that is as important as the initial transition, and this is the transition in the minds and hearts of the people. Click To Tweet
The transition of these elements should be included in the plan. In short, if a person is going to be the pastor, he needs all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities as the former pastor. Anything less will hinder his work and therefore hinder the church.
There are times when a pastoral transition is abrupt as in the case of death. However, a planned succession often includes a transition period. In our situation, we built in a transition to reassure the church and provide stability, to help me move into the new role, and to ease Brother and Sister Bernard’s transition.
We had a business meeting and voted on the entire transition as a package. We agreed to serve as co-pastors for eighteen months. During this time I was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the church, and we shared preaching responsibilities as scheduling allowed. We also served as co-chairmen of our board. We were truly co-pastors in every sense of the word. This arrangement clearly was risky, but it was based on our mutual trust and respect.
Due to Brother Bernard’s new responsibilities and schedule, I functioned more as a solo pastor, but this was the intent. The idea of serving as co-pastor was a way to build in security in case I needed help, in case something went wrong, and also as a way to bring comfort to the church. We chose eighteen months so that I would become the sole senior pastor before the next election of the general superintendent. Again, this was risky for everyone, but it was our commitment to make a permanent pastoral change. We would deal with future issues as they arose.
After eighteen months, I automatically became sole senior pastor. The package also included naming Brother Bernard as bishop. We were not completely satisfied with the title due the frequent misuse of the term, but we defined bishop as an advisory role with an honorary seat on our church board. Brother Bernard serves at my pleasure preaching, providing counsel, and assisting at my request. Bishop is not an additional layer of authority, but a way to leverage his experience and wisdom, and also a way to honor him as the founding pastor of the church.
There is an ongoing transition that is as important as the initial transition, and this is the transition in the minds and hearts of the people.
This grieving takes time, and it cannot be ignored.
Although I had been with the church for seventeen years and deeply involved, people still grieved the loss of their pastor. This grieving takes time, and it cannot be ignored. It is healthy, and an incoming pastor must encourage people to move at their own pace and respect the legacy upon which he is standing.
As associate pastor, I had worked very closely with our leadership team, and I was personally close to many of them. Even so, some of them experienced a lot of anxiety throughout the transition. There were others who had been contemplating changing churches due to family situations and other factors, and the pastoral transition was the impetus for them to proceed with their personal transitions. An incoming pastor cannot take this personally. Change breeds change, and people will grieve when they lose a good pastor. Those who chose our church because of the pastor now had to decide if this was still the church for them.
We only pastor by permission, and just because there is an election (in my case by ninety-nine percent of the vote) this does not mean a person actually is received as pastor. You will not be seen as the pastor by some or move out from under the great shadow of the past until you have fought your own battles and led the church to new victories.
(Part 2 will be posted next week.)
Rodney Shaw is senior pastor of New Life United Pentecostal Church of Austin.
Resources and Links
To read more by Rodney Shaw, click here. We hear the word “faith” a lot, but what does it mean practically and how can we grow in faith. This gifted communicator helps us do just that.