Lessons on leading by the executive pastor during pastoral transition

How an executive pastor twice led his churches when the senior pastor tendered his resignation

Chuck Olson

Nothing jolts a church quite like the resignation of its senior pastor. Shock, disbelief, confusion and disappointment reverberate through the church. While the inner circle of leadership may see it coming, for the most part, the church family is blindsided and is catapulted quickly into a deep sense of uncertainty and unsettledness. I should know, I’ve been there — twice, with a front row seat.

Leading a church during a season of transition from one senior pastor to the next can be a substantial challenge but it also can be a very valuable time in the life of your church.

Through the years, as an executive pastor, I’ve had the opportunity to lead two large churches (under very different circumstances), through such a season. Here are some of the lessons learned that I trust will provide you with both encouragement and direction as you lead those entrusted to your care.

Encouragement and direction

Keep perspective: Even under the best of circumstances, the departure of a senior pastor brings a measure of unsettledness throughout the church family. One of your priority tasks is to remind people repeatedly that God is intimately aware of your situation and more importantly, has a good plan for your church.

Provide continuity:
In seasons of change, people are uncertain and become anxious about the perceived amount of change that is on the horizon. It is the leader’s job to call this out (and live it out) and to speak directly to this anxiety. On the first weekend of our church’s senior pastor transition, I addressed this dynamic by affirming that though we are entering a season of change, there are many things that do not change. First, that our Gospel message of Christ crucified does not change. And second, our mission to expand the Kingdom by becoming and developing wholehearted, full-engaged followers of Christ does not change.

Provide stability: In transition, people need the assurance that the church and its ministries go on without interruption or compromise. Unless there are exceptional reasons, the life of the church needs to go on as it has in the past. A key part of providing stability is to determine your approach to the pulpit ministry. In the first transition that I led we employed the “rotation system” using a variety of staff and outside preachers; in the second transition that I was a part of, we brought in one person to do the majority of the preaching.

For the sake of stability I recommend the latter. With this approach we decided to have a couple of our senior pastoral leaders involved in each weekend service so that our people would see a 
familiar face and sense that we were in business-as-usual mode.

Look ahead: During a chapter of change it is normal for people to want to focus on the past and what they have lost. While appropriate time and attention needs to be given to the past, ultimately the prevailing focus needs to be on the future and how to prepare for it. One of the transitions I was a part of involved some very intense disagreements among both the leaders and the church members which in turn led to a lot of relationship fallout.

Given that reality, we needed to heal and to restore those relationships. In this endeavor, one of the many things we did included a message on how to restore fractured relationships. During that message, we announced that the following weekend, we would be celebrating communion with a clear call to use the upcoming week to repair relationships that had been broken.

Seek outside help:
When the departure of a senior pastor is attended by a great deal of disappointment or  hurt or anger, it is important to consider the use of a third party to create a context and process for how to move forward in a healthy manner. When trust is 
low, often the current leaders will not have enough credibility on deposit 
to navigate the church through stormy seas.

During one such transition, we brought in an organization (Peacemaker Ministries) with a strong track record in dealing with churches in our particular situation. Their partnership and effectiveness was an essential part of our preparing for the next chapter of ministry.

Emphasize prayer: If there is a silver lining in the occasional dark clouds of transition, it is the renewed desire of the church family to seek God in new and deeper ways. We launched a weekly prayer gathering. We also had a week of waiting, praying and fasting where we gathered each night to worship and cry out to the Lord.

Pray during change

Additionally, at the close of one of the first messages at the start of our transition, I asked for a commitment to pray daily for the church during this season of change. It was a powerful worship service when hundreds of people signed a commitment card and brought it to the altar. Each week during the transition, I would e-mail a prayer letter to those people throughout the two years of our search process.

Advance the mission: When transition comes, people need to know that it is not a time for retreating or place holding, but a time to move forward with God’s Kingdom purposes. This is particularly important for the staff of the church. They need to know that they are still on task; that the mission is still in play and not to throttle back. Finding a churchwide initiative is essential, something behind which everyone can rally.

For us, it was a community day where hundreds of us showed up at one of our local middle schools and spent the day doing a campus makeover. We also developed a friendship with a church in New Orleans where its members’ homes had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina and over two years’ time sent dozens of our members there to rebuild homes and more importantly, hearts.

In times of change, it is human nature to fill in the proverbial blanks of life with a narrative that is faulty or jaded. In such a season, clear and frequent communication is essential. Each weekend as people gathered for worship, they would be met by a letter in our worship program from either our church chair or executive pastor.

This letter would serve two primary purposes. First, it was designed to rally around a renewed commitment to pray, around an upcoming churchwide ministry, etc. And second, it was a platform to let people know what was going on behind the scenes — an attempt to pull back the curtain on discussions and decisions that were taking place among the church leaders.

Seek counsel: If you are the point person tasked to lead your church through a season of transition, then job one is to surround yourself with the wisdom and safety of many counselors. In addition to regular dialogue with our congregational leaders, one of the ways that I sought out wisdom was in appointing an advisory team made up of people with a variety of gifts and strengths.

Each week, I would meet with this group of trusted people. In those meetings, we vetted practically every major aspect of the ministry with a commitment to sustain the momentum of the Holy Spirit wherever possible. It was also a place where I could get a wide “pulse beat” of the church family. And it was a safe place to talk about our fears and concerns and to remind ourselves that we are not on our own.

Whatever the storyline is of the transition you lead, go with the confidence that God wants to take your season of change and transform it into a season of significance.

Chuck Olson is the executive pastor at Lake Avenue Church, Pasadena, CA, where he has served since 2002. [lakeave.org] He also consults on church leadership and management. [LeadWithYourLife.com]

Words from the heart

One of the highlights that God orchestrated to bring healing to our fractured and hurting church family took place at one of the first mid-week prayer gatherings that we had initiated during our time of transition. At the close of the time, one of our long-time members asked if he could address the group.

With words delivered from deep within, he confessed the hardness of his heart towards those in church leadership. Following his words, and without rehearsal, both our church chair and myself simultaneously got out of our seats and went up to embrace our brother and to extend grace — the same kind that God has given us.

“The Tonight Show” featuring exit planning

After hosting The Tonight Show for 17 years, Jay Leno says he’ll pass the baton to Conan O’Brien in 2009. Leno understands the value of succession planning. Peter Drucker said, “People pay little attention to the succession process, though it is, in fact, the ultimate test of good management.” Someone once said there is no success without a successor.

Churches are more familiar with “resignation management planning” — how to react when the pastor announces his or her resignation — than they are with succession planning. Succession planning has a long history in America. The framers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 foresaw the need to establish a contingency plan in the event of a sitting president’s death, disability or resignation, and thus the office of the vice president was born.  Likewise every church should have a developed plan to insure a seamless leadership transition.

Leno has already overcome one of the greatest hurdles to succession planning — the ownership issue. Every senior pastor needs to be reminded that the church belongs to God and not to them. Leno openly acknowledges that “Tonight” isn’t his; he’s just borrowing it. Leno said, “The real trick is you never really do own these shows. You try not to screw it up for the next person. It’s like the America’s Cup [sailing trophy]. You want to win it and you want to keep it No. 1, and when it’s over, you say, ‘Whew, OK, your problem now.’”

As every good comedian realizes and Leno acknowledges, “Timing is everything.” Too many senior pastors wait until they are ready to retire to start thinking about succession and a successor and then it is too late to avoid a negative impact on the organization.

Some leaders mistakenly think that a few years in advance are sufficient, but Joseph L. Bower, Harvard Professor of Business Administration said, “You need 10 years to develop a great CEO.” Churches and church leaders should have both an emergency succession plan and a planned succession process in place now regardless of the tenure or age of the current senior pastor.

Another obstacle to effective succession planning is when a senior pastor stays too long and stalls the momentum or stifles the vision. Again, knowing when and how to leave are critical. Leno added, “Here’s this giant pie. You can try and eat all the pie and make yourself sick. Or you can eat as much pie as you can finish and then offer the rest to other people.”

— Kent E. Fillinger, president, 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, IN. [3strandsconsulting.com] — Chuck Olson


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