By Bob Mink
I had the privilege of planting Discovery Christian Church (originally Moreno Valley Christian Church) in 1984 in a small but rapidly growing distant suburb of Los Angeles. I was 33 years old at the time, and our family moved from the Greater Philadelphia area. On our 30th anniversary in 2014, I stepped down as senior pastor.
Looking back, I now realize the transition began in 2011, when one of our associate pastors left our church to become campus minister at his alma mater. I was fully supportive of the move, but after almost 27 years, I was worn down and looking forward to eight weeks away reading, resting, and reflecting. I had scheduled a two-month sabbatical for that fall, but with our associate’s leaving, it had to be canceled.
Rather than simply postponing my sabbatical, I began to seriously think about stepping down from ministry. As we began the work of finding a new associate pastor, I suggested to our elders that we look for someone who would eventually succeed me. Early on, none of the elders was as interested in thinking about transition as I was, but everyone agreed to make it a part of our search criteria.
After almost a year of reviewing résumés and interviewing candidates, we brought a candidate and his wife to California for a face-to-face interview with our elders and staff and their spouses. The elders and I had not shared our thoughts with the rest of the staff about this new associate being my eventual replacement.
In the interview, someone asked the candidate to explain what most interested him about the position; he replied that he liked the idea of eventually becoming senior pastor. His answer forced us to share our thinking about transition with everyone present, but we assured them it was not imminent, and the matter was dropped.
We eventually called Dan Clemens to join our staff, and his family moved to Moreno Valley in August 2012.
One of the first things I did to begin paving the way for our eventual transition was to insist that our new associate pastor and our executive pastor attend a three-day meeting in Phoenix for pastors and staff of churches in our size range. I opted not to go, which allowed them to connect on a deeper level. I was convinced it was important for Clemens and Joe Anderson, our executive pastor, to have a strong relationship, as I eventually would be leaving the picture.
At the same time, I began to talk with a few pastor friends who had recently transitioned out of senior pastorates. I also started to read books and articles about the process. A plan began to form in my mind. I raised the issue with our elders and started a discussion about timing.
In our meetings from March through June, I presented a variety of options for the transition. We decided to announce the transition on our church’s 29th anniversary in October 2013, and for my last Sunday to be one year later on our 30th anniversary in October 2014.
Prior to the announcement, we also began to discuss increasing my retirement benefits, as it was clear I was in no position financially to completely retire. We sought expert outside advice with regard to financial matters, and our executive pastor took the lead in presenting a package to the elders that was unanimously approved. In connection with the announcement of my stepping down in a year, we also announced that Clemens would become our lead pastor at that time.
As we approached the Sunday of the announcement, I felt the rest of our staff and some key volunteers and longtime members should hear about it in smaller, more personal gatherings. I set up a Friday afternoon pizza lunch for our staff and a Saturday evening dessert for key volunteers and longtime members. At both meetings I made a brief statement, then entertained questions.
Both meetings went well; most people were surprised, but generally supportive of the plan. There was one misstep, however, that still troubles me: a couple who was not invited to the Saturday dessert meeting, but learned about it later, stopped attending, and would not accept my apology for failing to include them.
I made the Sunday announcement as part of our Lord’s Supper preparation. The response of the church body was similar to the response the previous evening. After the Lord’s Supper, I preached as usual, and we concluded the worship celebration without belaboring the point. After all, we had an entire year!
Taking a Step Back
After the announcement, we stepped up efforts to build a platform for Clemens, in anticipation of his new role. He preached about once every other month, as well as leading our Thanksgiving eve celebration and our Good Friday service. We shared the pulpit and interacted in messages two other times.
While I was not present every time he preached, I thought it important to be there as much as possible. I felt my attendance when he spoke demonstrated my support of him as our next lead pastor.
Halfway through the year, we had a congregational approval vote of “our elders’ recommendation that Pastor Dan become Discovery’s lead pastor after Pastor Bob steps down October 6.” This vote in April was a reminder to people of what was coming, as well as a call and opportunity for them to participate in the process. The vote was overwhelmingly positive with more than 99 percent affirming Clemens.
I invited both Clemens and Anderson to join our June elder meeting. I suggested that for our July meeting, the two of them meet with the elders without me. By doing this, Clemens could share some of his ideas and plans for the future with the elders without any concern for what I might think. I also thought it would be an opportunity for these key leaders to begin to develop camaraderie for the future without me.
Finishing the Transition
We made the transition the focus of the teaching time during my final three Sundays. The first of those Sundays we had “A Conversation between Pastors Bob and Dan.” The two of us sat in comfortable chairs on the stage and asked each other questions. We talked about our feelings as the big day approached and let people see we genuinely liked and respected one another.
During this conversation, Clemens asked me to share again exactly why I was stepping down. My answer—which had remained consistent—was that “after 30 years it was time for a change.” But many people wanted more. The key phrase I used that morning was, “I’m out of gas.”
Years earlier I had read a Leadership Journal article by Angie Ward entitled “Leader’s Insight: Ministry Gone Stale”1 in which she observed, “Some leaders have a shelf life.” Even though lots of things were going well in our church, and new people were regularly being added, we were not experiencing a net gain statistically. I felt I was doing the best preaching of my life, but there is more to effective pastoral leadership than just preaching. I had concluded I didn’t want “to stay beyond my shelf life.” It was time for a change.
The next week I preached a message entitled “Talking about Transition.” Early in this message I acknowledged that, at times, the last year had been both unsettling and awkward for many of us because a transition in pastoral leadership was a new thing for our church. My plan was to look at the biblical transitions of Moses to Joshua, Elijah to Elisha, and Paul to Timothy to gain some insight for our transition.
Studying these transitions, I noticed a few key elements. Transitions are inevitable. Every leader’s tenure eventually comes to an end. The ending of one leader’s leadership requires the raising up and appointing of a new leader.
When that transition is done right, the work of God continues. If one of God’s leaders leaves, God doesn’t leave that ministry or his people. Because no two leaders are alike in terms of personality, style, or gifts, a ministry in transition can grow in ways that wouldn’t have been possible under the previous leader.
My final observation: in a good and appropriate transition, both leaders could and should be appreciated, supported, and encouraged. I warned that everyone must be careful not to think they had to be loyal to one or the other. It is good, healthy, and appropriate to mourn the conclusion of a leader’s tenure. I also stressed it was appropriate to celebrate the new leader. I told our church that Dan and I felt we were both being appreciated, supported, and encouraged through this process. I reminded the congregation that God was in control of this whole process, and he deserved the praise and honor.
My final Sunday was filled with emotion, gratitude, and celebration. In the morning message, I borrowed Paul’s words in Philippians 1 to convey my gratitude, love, and confidence in the future for Discovery and its ministry. In the evening, executive pastor Joe Anderson took the lead in putting together a “Celebrating the Legacy” gathering to honor my wife, Jan, and me. Several times during the evening, we were brought to tears of joy and gratitude by what people said.
Most meaningful was placement of a “treasure box” in the lobby that day in which people deposited cards and notes expressing their appreciation to us for our years of service. Many gifts were included. While we appreciated every gift, we cherish and have kept the heartfelt notes so many wrote telling us thanks and that they loved us.
Discovery was the third church I have left in my 44 years of pastoral ministry, but it was my first real transition process. If we had it to do all over again (and I’m glad we don’t), I’m sure we would tweak a few things, but overall the path God led us through was one of joy and genuine excitement for what he will do in the future.
Bob Mink serves as adjunct professor with Hope International University, Anaheim, California. His new book, A Pastor and the People: An Inside Look through Letters, was released in May 2015.
A version of this transition story appeared at www.christianitytoday.com/le/2015/february-online-only/handing-off-pastorate.html.