Replacing a beloved minister who is retiring after 25 years in the pulpit is a daunting task””just ask Aaron Brockett. At age 31, Aaron was called to be lead pastor of Traders Point Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, succeeding Howard Brammer. The church had finished a building program shortly before Aaron”s arrival, and he helped make the most of it, growing from averaging 1,600 when Aaron arrived (November 2007) to more than 2,700 this January. Aaron is a graduate of Ozark Christian College in his hometown of Joplin, Missouri. He and his wife, Lindsay, have been married 10 years and have three children.
Did the Traders Point leadership have a transition plan in place before you arrived?
I think their preferred plan was to bring in someone who would serve alongside Howard and to whom he would hand leadership, but mostly due to his health, his retirement came faster than anticipated. That, together with the expansion of the campus, made it so that a plan was never formalized. Howard said, in retrospect, he”s glad everything happened as it has.
Would you have preferred a transition period?
I”m glad this is the way it worked out. For me””this is purely my opinion””it really feels like the way you get introduced to the church as the lead pastor is often the way the congregation thinks of you for a long time. If I had come in as the “junior varsity” or as an apprentice, how long would it have taken for the church to see me as the leader after the former lead pastor is gone? Part of what has made this work so well is Howard”s gracious and trusting spirit to let go. It doesn”t mean he isn”t involved. I want him to be involved. But he has shown a great amount of trust in our leaders, and in turn, I”ve learned so much from his example.
Did Howard play a part in your selection as his successor?
Howard and I didn”t even meet until about two weeks before the congregation affirmed me with the vote. His role was more indirect. He helped the elders define their goals during the search, so when they zeroed in on me he was fully supportive. I”ll never forget the first time we met on the campus of Cincinnati Christian University. Talking with him, I could tell he wanted me to know how much he loved this church. It was the same feeling I had years ago when I asked my wife”s father if I could marry her!
How has Howard transitioned out of leadership?
He retired and moved to Cincinnati and he is the pastor emeritus here now. He”s still on the board of Traders Point Christian Academy and he preaches once or twice a year. He”s listed on our bulletins and other publications. He”s available to members of the congregation and he”ll come in to do an occasional funeral, but there”s no other official role. Anytime anyone e-mails him or he gets invited to do a funeral or comes to town, he gives me a heads-up. He doesn”t really need to do that, but I appreciate that gesture of respect. Through his support he”s given me the leverage to lead and be comfortable in my own skin.
Did you feel like you had the support of the congregation coming in after such a long-tenured leader?
I received a great vote of confidence from the elders and there was a 99 percent affirmation from the congregation, so they saw me as one who was uniquely called to this time and this position. I”m grateful for that. When I first arrived here I had two groups of people bending my ear””those inside the church and those outside. One group was saying, “Where are you going to take us?” and another was saying, “Are you going to derail the things that have been done in the past three decades because you”re young?”
Was there some trepidation in the church about bringing in a young guy for such a big job?
In the very early stages some people in the congregation were wondering, What”s going on here? What does this mean for the future of the church? Some people saw Howard Brammer being replaced with a 31-year-old “kid” and said they didn”t know if they were going to stay around anymore. That may be one of the things that initially alarmed me””the fragile nature of what we were dealing with due to the transition of leadership, relocation of the campus, and all the dominoes attached with that. I remember being very at peace with things. Maybe I should have been more afraid than I was!
Did you see your age as an issue?
The last thing I wanted to do was take the controls and nosedive this church into the ground. I was talking to a mentor of mine and said, “Do you think I”m too young? It”s a great church, an important church in our movement, and I don”t want to mess things up.” He told me about a significant leadership responsibility he had acquired when he was the same age I was. He said, if God is calling you to this, God is the one who will make you adequate regardless of your age. There is much to learn. I”m not talented enough or smart enough to do this. I need more leadership tools, but if God has called me to do this, I”m going to lean into him pretty heavily. God has proven faithful.
Do you think there”s a “best way” to transition?
There”s a bit of a debate about this, and we”ll see more debate taking place over the next decade as more megachurch pastors retire. There are different ways of looking at this. Many senior ministers say they need to mentor the guy anywhere from a year to eight years. Others say, “I need to make a clean break.” I don”t think there”s a hard-and-fast rule. You need to take into consideration how the new leader and former pastor are wired, the culture of your eldership””how they operate””the temperament of the congregation. You shouldn”t force anything. Transition plan or not, the truth is, it can work both ways. One of the things to remember is the sovereignty of God in the whole situation.
What has gone well in your transition?
Understanding that Howard and the rest of the leaders had set me up to succeed””that”s one of the strengths of Traders Point. I remember my first ministry; I would try to make a change, and people said, “Why should we change, you”ll be gone in three years?” Howard was here almost 25 years and his predecessor, Dave Roberts, was here for 12 years, so this church has known stability, which pays huge dividends for me.
Has your role at Traders Point met your expectations?
Yes, absolutely. It almost feels a bit strange. I was 31 when I got here. For the first 30 years of my life I felt like I was always preparing for the next “something.” Once we arrived at Traders Point, that whole tension wasn”t there. It felt like God had uniquely called us to this. There was no doubt in my mind.
So it won”t be “three years and out”?
I would love to serve here for the next 30 years. When I dream of what God could do here, I sometimes wonder if I have enough life left to fit it all in! The church matches my gifting really well. There”s a great deal at stake here, yet I sleep well at night knowing a godly group of elders and a great staff allow me to invest my time in the right things. It”s almost been too good to be true. After I got here, I was talking to a minister friend who took me to the side and said, “How”s it really going?” I said there”s no “back story,” it”s just really healthy.
Have you led the church to make significant changes to its vision?
In the first six months there wasn”t much change, but then about a year ago we started to implement some more changes. I didn”t set out to change lots of things. I”ve never been one to change for the sake of change. If we implement change, it”s because we sense God moving us in a direction that will help us to be more effective in the mission. After hearing collectively from those whom we needed to hear from, we would go forward with a change. It”s like moving into a new house. There are certain boxes you need to unpack first. You start with the kitchen and the bedrooms. It doesn”t mean the living room is any less important. That”s similar to how this operates.
Were you able to come in with certainty, with respect to vision?
When I arrived, I felt if I didn”t know the flock well, the last thing I wanted was to wake up in three years and realize I”ve cast the wrong vision. That”s a mistake a lot of young leaders make””understandably, but not inexcusably. I felt that tension and told a lot of people that. And there was that group nervous because they thought I would change the culture of Traders Point because I was a younger leader. I wanted to observe and spend my time rubbing shoulders with people and getting to know the staff, feeding people through the Sunday sermon; and that”s how I was going to lead.
Have you done any specific teaching on the need for change, or has it just happened?
It”s probably been a little bit of both. I made some transitions in our philosophy of Sunday morning worship, and that”s prominent because that”s one of the most visible things. After praying over how we will implement our specific strategy to fulfill the mission and vision, I”ll teach on it. I”ll make that one of the applications of the sermon. Most of the time, when our people see the need for change theologically and practically, they get on board, even if they didn”t understand it at first.
What have you done to bring staff onboard with your plans?
There”s a variety of things, not necessarily equally distributed among all staff. One minor thing I”ve done is to e-mail my sermon manuscript to several on staff to see, “What do you think?” We”ve retooled our staff meetings over and over again to make the most effective use of our time. There are some staff I don”t naturally cross paths with; therefore I schedule times to touch base with them without waiting for an agenda or a problem. It”s helpful to sit down with them, hear them out, and see what I can do to make their job easier.
Are there some formulaic things a church could do to plan for a transition, or is it more of a “case-by-case” kind of thing?
The leader always needs to let his congregation know that he”s “smoke,” just a vapor. You can put together the best transition plan in the world and then go out and get hit by a bus. I”ve said I want to be the pastor here for the next 30 years, but that”s just a drop in the bucket. TPCC is in its 176th year of ministry. I need to continually remind our people that Jesus is the true senior pastor here regardless of personalities that come and go. The mistake I”ve seen some leaders make is falling into the trap of depending too much on themselves. It”s really recognizing this is God”s church and he”s raising up the next leader. Let me let God do what he”s going to do and not meddle in it.
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.