By Ken Idleman
I call it “ecclesiastical matchmaking,” playing cupid to help a local church get together with a minister or a minister together with a church. Part of the experience involves coaching leaders and churches through the courting/calling process. And I’ve done quite a bit of it.
After decades of church consulting, including 30 years of helping churches and leaders as a Christian college president, I’ve logged some experiences and come to some conclusions about ministerial succession in local churches.
Here are my observations.
First let’s define some terms. Pastoral transition and pastoral succession are not the same thing.
Transition happens when the leadership change is not anticipated by the leader or the church elders. This may follow the termination of the senior leader (forced out), his resignation (walked out), or death (carried out).
Succession happens when the leadership change is anticipated. Usually it is the approaching retirement of a senior leader that calls for a well-planned and carefully executed necessary ending. Ideally, succession is the most positive climate in which to make a leadership change because it often indicates a longer-term ministry being concluded with the common understanding that no one is being terminated or resigning to accept a new ministry calling.
Whether leadership transition or succession, such a season is a time of substantive change for any church. The pastor-teacher is the primary preaching voice and the recognized catalytic leader of the church. He is also the “parson,” or the “person,” who represents the church in the larger community. He is certainly not indispensible, but he is critical to helping facilitate church health and growth.
In his groundbreaking book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, author Thom Rainer cites research showing why the unchurched choose a church: 90 percent of more than 350 respondents said their number one factor was “the pastor and his preaching.”
All this underlines how a change of ministers is very important. Whether you guide or participate in the process, whether you’re an elder or a ministry candidate, treat your role as a sacred trust. Handled properly, this process can honor the Lord Jesus as well as advancing his purpose through the church.
Here are four guidelines to follow whether you’re dealing with leadership transition or succession.
1. This Happens Only Once
How you say “hello” and how you say “goodbye” are the two most important times in any relationship.
And you don’t get any do-overs when it comes to these moments, so handle them well the first time every time. We have been saved by grace, and that ought to make us all gracious.
Too often pastors come in the front door fired with enthusiasm and then leave within two years the same way! Too often church leaders withhold full ministry partnership and genuine friendship . . . superimposing a bad past experience over the present.
So, if you are the pastor coming in (or going out), remember the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?” (Matthew 5:46*). And also remember the words of the beloved apostle: “And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers” (1 John 4:21).
Or, if you are a church leader who is saying welcome (or farewell), remember the words of Jesus, “I tell you the truth, anyone who welcomes my messenger is welcoming me” (John 13:20), and the encouraging testimony of Luke, “When we arrived, the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem welcomed us warmly” (Acts 21:17).
2. The Church Comes First
Put the unity and stability of the church above all other considerations.
Some of my peers may disagree with me on this, but I believe this ethic is paramount. Jesus suffered and died for his church. And as servants of the church, we should not only “do no harm,” but also be willing to suffer, even unjustly, if we are called on to do so.
I have heard too many sad-but-true stories resulting from the disregard for this guideline. An outgoing pastor dresses in a bright red suit and sits on the front row in worship for six weeks after a requested resignation. Elders withhold pay to control “anticipated” slights. An outgoing pastor charges electronics and books on the church’s tab on his way out the door.
In stark contrast, Paul writes to the early church: “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18); “Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3); “And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace” (Colossians 3:15).
3. Make Prayer Your Primary Resource
Depend on prayer above human engineering.
The transition or succession process must be awash in prayer from start to finish. This is true both for the pastor making and communicating the decision to move his ministry as well as the lay leadership searching and calling a candidate to fill the ministry vacancy.
Someone should rise up, or should be recruited, to be a catalytic standard-bearer to infuse the change season with adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. I am not talking about token or perfunctory prayer here. I am talking about prayer in a dark room, on your knees, without distractions or time consciousness.
Jesus rose up at daybreak to pray before choosing his disciples. The apostles prioritized prayer before, during, and after the choice of those who would assist them by protecting their time for ministering the Word of God and prayer.
I have noticed something I consider to be potentially harmful to the health of the church, and to the pastor’s own family—and that’s when a legacy leader tries to hand off his ministry to his son. This may occur more often in larger churches or ministries, but . . . can I just say it? The church is not a family business, even if you are the founding pastor. There should not be the slightest attitude of entitlement on the part of the outgoing pastor when it comes to choosing his successor.
Scripture says, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us” (3 John 9, New International Version, ©1984). I know I am reading between the lines, but I think this early church leader had an agenda for his congregation that was self-serving in some way, and he would not be accountable to anyone for what he wanted to see happen. He loved to be first. He expected deference. He was into controlling processes and driving outcomes.
I see strong Christian leader dads out there today, some of whom I respect, who put subtle or overt pressure on their sons to carry on their work. And I want to say to them: set your sons free to pursue the calling God may have for them.
4. Resist Hidden Agendas
Embrace open communication.
Strategic, thorough communication is vital. I am talking here about communication between the outgoing pastor and the elders, the elders and the congregation, the elders and the candidate, and the outgoing and incoming pastors. Communication builds trust, and trust is the most valuable capital to pass between Christian leaders.
It may not matter in political or judicial circles these days, but trust is still foundationally significant when it comes to church leadership. And it is critically important in certain seasons in the life of the church.
“For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34, NIV, ©1984). We might also add, out of that same overflow “the pen writes,” “the keyboard clicks,” and “the phone texts.” So recruit your most positive and capable communicators to speak or write publicly, keeping people as up-to-date as possible. Confidentiality about some data is advisable of course, but you can still communicate a spirit of joyful anticipation and hopeful expectation about what God has in store.
And here is the best news: If the transition or succession process is handled in a spirit of humility and with grace and truth, the predictable outcome will be unprecedented momentum for the next season in the life of the church.
*Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation, unless otherwise noted.
Ken Idleman serves as senior pastor with Crossroads Christian Church, Newburgh, Indiana.