Leadership Transitions

Leadership Transitions


We are nearing a crucial juncture in church leadership. As the average age of pastors increases, there is growing concern about the need to identify and develop a new generation of leaders. In 1 Peter 5, God commands church leaders to shepherd his people. I believe a big part of shepherding is planning for the continuation of ministry after a pastor leaves the role. If your pastor stepped down from ministry today, how would your church respond?

Through this study, David Kinnaman and the team at Barna examine the pressing topic of leadership transition. While it’s true that with every season there is change, change is difficult. It’s often disruptive. Leadership change, in particular, represents a critical intersection of the old and new, the past and future which, while exciting for some, is unsettling for many. This research focuses on how pastors, church staff and congregations view the health of a church before, during and after leadership transition and highlights important issues to address during this pivotal time in the life of a ministry.

In our more than 100-year history, Brotherhood Mutual has experienced several leadership changes. I am privileged to follow four previous presidents. It’s been humbling to continue the work of those who came before and to prepare the next generation to lead our company into the future. With each transition, we focused on communicating the vision and future of our company, while never losing sight of why we began.

Our mission is “Advancing the Kingdom by serving the Church.” As we go about our daily work of insuring and protecting church buildings and ministry activities, our staff and independent agents see pastors struggling with the challenges of being a shepherd and leader. Leadership Transitions sheds important light on caring for outgoing and incoming pastors. It reminds us that pastors are human and provides us with opportunities to understand how local congregations can care for spiritual leaders and their families. The study also reveals that passing the baton from one generation to the next should be something pastors plan for as part of their ongoing ministry.

It’s our prayer that this information will inspire current leaders to invest in future leaders and help congregations to care for their leaders. We hope this starts a conversation that ensures church leadership vitality now and until Christ’s return.


Mark A. Robison
Chairman & President
Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company


Leadership Transitions in Context

Barna analysts believe a shortage of pastors is on the horizon unless leaders and churches start now to identify, equip and release future church leaders. Here are three of the most significant factors that should put this issue on the front burner.

Aging Clergy

Half of all current senior pastors are over the age of 55. Twenty-five years ago—as young and middle adults—they made up three-quarters of all Protestant clergy. Twenty-five years from now, who will fill their shoes?

Shrinking Candidate Pool

Two out of three pastors say it’s hard to identify future church leaders. Young Christians, many current pastors say, lack the necessary maturity or aren’t interested in vocational ministry. Plus, only 14 percent of senior leaders rate themselves as “excellent” when it comes to mentoring younger leaders.

Diminishing Cultural Credibility

Just one in five U.S. adults believes that pastors are a very credible source of insight on the most important issues of our day. It may become increasingly difficult to convince young leaders that pastoring a church is the best way to influence culture for the sake of God’s kingdom.


Barna often aims the lens of its research on topics that church leaders are concerned with today: the risk of burnout among senior pastors, churchgoers’ views and habits related to evangelism, faith-sharing in the digital age, the logistics of adding a church campus, and so on. For the most part, these studies pertain to special interests or specific denominations, or perhaps highlight areas of outreach or growth that merit more attention and action from U.S. ministries. This particular report, however, based on a multifaceted study conducted in partnership with Brotherhood Mutual, is focused on an urgent reality that faces all ministries, whether or not they are actively considering it today: Someday, your current senior leader will no longer be there. As William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird insist in Next: Pastoral Succession That Works, “Every pastor is an interim pastor.” (1)

This inevitability—that no one will stay in a pulpit forever—eclipses other factors that differentiate ministry experiences, such as location, church size, primary ethnicity, denomination and so on. Whether because of retirement, scandal, health complications, a change in calling or some other shift in a pastor’s life or career, every church will walk through a pastoral succession of some kind; most likely, multiple times.

This fact alone lends weight to the need for this research.

Beyond the necessity for individual churches to consider upcoming leadership transitions, the North American church as a whole is rapidly approaching a mass pastoral succession. In previous studies, Barna has examined the “graying” or aging of U.S. clergy; indeed, the median age of a Protestant senior pastor today is 54—up from age 44 in 1992. U.S. church leaders are primarily white male Boomers. What’s more, the data indicates there has been some neglect in identifying, mentoring and raising up potential pastors for the future. Only one in seven pastors is under 40. This leaves driven, diverse younger generations—largely formed by the pressures of a secularizing society—untapped for ministry callings, or even unconvinced of these vocations’ importance.

All things considered, pastoral succession is one of the most pressing issues in the Church today. How a church navigates a leadership transition impacts its ability to be effective on every other front: caring for those in need, providing theological instruction, confronting injustice, cultivating deep community, facilitating meaningful worship experiences and, ultimately, drawing people to know and follow Christ. An unsuccessful or messy pastoral succession process can compromise these mission-critical efforts. On the other hand, a positive process of transition can propel a church into a new season of fruitfulness.



“I was done. I had been there for 25 years, and the church needed new leadership. We needed fundamental, not just incremental, changes. The reality is that, when you lose momentum, there’s virtually no example of the current pastor and his team being able to turn it around. I needed to get out of the way.”


—Gary Kinnaman, former pastor of Hillsong, Phoenix, AZ


Barna designed a multi-pronged study to explore the process of leadership succession in U.S. Protestant churches, analyzing perspectives from the pulpit to the pew (incoming and outgoing pastors, as well as church staff and congregants) about each phase of a transition. While the conclusions of this study will be useful to churches in the midst of or looking back on a leadership change, they are best intended as insights for those anticipating and preparing for an upcoming pastoral succession.



If you or your church see a transition in your future, first of all, try not to worry. Yes, stakes are high, but under most circumstances— including abrupt and crisis transitions—a senior pastor’s departure does not totally wreck a church. For nearly one-third of churches that undergo a leadership transition, the results are a clear gain. For most, outcomes are mixed, with only a small proportion experiencing negative results. And whatever a leadership team gets right or wrong about its succession approach, chances are the congregants are going to be okay; consistently, out of all four groups Barna surveyed about the process, churchgoers are the most buoyant witnesses to a leadership transition.

Although pastors and their teams are often reluctant to talk about it, succession should be an essential sign of the resilience and renewal of a church (and the Church) that is greater than any one personality or period. If you’re thinking at all about the right agenda and method for a future succession, you are not wasting your time—any preparation at all appears to be an advantage to the eventual outcome. But, as other researchers and experts have found, Barna finds that “healthy succession is much more art than science.” (2) As such, this report doesn’t so much prescribe an exact plan as point to some powerful yet commonsense principles to guide and improve your church’s leadership transition. The research reflects a wide range of church sizes, contexts and settings, which gives a broad base of insights for congregations of all types.

Analyzing the Data

Barna researchers mined the mountain of data gathered from the four groups (churchgoers, church staff, and incoming and outgoing pastors) with a variety of analytic tools. Two that proved most helpful for gathering insights are regression and outcome segmentation.

A church’s progress through a transition is the result of a tangle of events and responses, each of which appears important in isolation. No church, however, is defined by just one feature or action. Churches vary in experiences and outcomes of a transition by many factors—sometimes, it seems, by all of them. Thus, many insights from this study are generated from regression analysis—basically, long equations that show how different pieces of data interact with each other. Regressions allow analysts to untangle the many factors of a transition and look at multiple variables at the same time, better answering questions such as:

  • What factors of a transition are important? Which factors reliably make a statistically significant impact, and which don’t seem to matter?
  • How well do these factors explain the differences among churches’ transitions?
  • What happens to those results when looking at traits like church size or a church’s type of governance?

The regression method is useful in allowing researchers not only to test hypotheses, but also to predict or estimate what the results might be if a church takes certain steps or has certain characteristics. After data analysis, we are left with some ideas about the best steps for churches going through a pastoral succession process—and it turns out that most recommendations are similar, regardless of the type of church or its context.



“How happy everyone in the transition is all comes down to relationships.”

— Ron Allen, founder and former senior pastor, now apostolic missioner,
of Heartland Parish, Fort Wayne, IN


Segmentation is a way of grouping people according to things they have in common. Outcome segmentation, then, groups people according to how their leadership transition turned out (in their self assessment). In other words, if you put all the people who say they had an overwhelmingly positive outcome in a room together, what other things would they have in common? To find out, Barna grouped

churchgoers into three groups, based on a combination of questions in the survey that assessed the ultimate transition outcome: those who report a positive outcome (29% of all churchgoers), those who report a negative outcome (22%) and those whose transition outcome was mixed (49%). Throughout this report, we look closely at outcomes and specific factors, and share relevant insights from practitioners and pastors who have walked through succession.

Putting the Research to Work: Field Guides

Context is important for making decisions, especially those informed by data like that contained in this report. Because we want our research to help leaders turn insights into action, we have included three “Field Guides” at the end of each section (Before, During and After the Transition). The goal is to help you and your team take the information and start thinking about what it means for your unique context.

The report and the Field Guides can be used in any order, according to what stage of transition you and your team are in. You don’t have to read from front to back, cover to cover; feel free to jump around based on your needs and interests.

The Field Guides contain four parts:


  • Team Assessment
    This section allows you and your team to do a bit of self-assessment. We define “team” broadly to include pastors, elders, board members or other decision makers and leaders within the church.
  • Reflection Questions
    This is an opportunity to think through the data in light of your own context.
  • Activities & Actions
    These are some ideas for next steps or ways in which you can put the research to use in your situation.
  • Focus on the Players
    Here you will find things that are important for the four key players in a transition: churchgoers, church staff, incoming pastor and outgoing pastor.



The Field Guides are intended to be just that: a guide that helps you in the field. Guides cannot tell you exactly what to do, but they can be a useful tool as you and your team work toward and through transitions, both now and in the future.

Whether you’re in the before, during or after of a pastoral change, you can make wise decisions and strategic course corrections toward a better outcome. Let’s get going!



Be Prepared for Anything

What effect does advanced planning have on transitions?



While the majority of church transitions occur because a pastor initiates their departure, planning ahead for an inevitable transition makes a big difference in congregants’ experiences. Barna analyzed three types of transitions: pastor-initiated, planned and forced. Transitions that are forced because of a crisis are, of course, the most difficult, but even unplanned transitions that happen for benign reasons can cause a crisis for congregants and for incoming pastors. Putting a plan in place (and acting on that plan) leads to the most positive outcomes in church transitions.


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