03 After the Transition

After the Transition


Reflecting on the first year following a pastoral succession, varied perspectives surface among the four groups Barna surveyed. Staff members are split on how a leadership transition has impacted their church. Incoming pastors and their congregations perceive a very positive result, while outgoing pastors assume a more negative impact (though, granted, they might no longer be in a position to accurately assess the church’s health). Staff members and churchgoers, however—the largest and thus most statistically robust samples in the study—tend to occupy the middle and are largely content with the overall experience. Whatever their reasons, that’s good news! Separate from the more personal appraisals provided by incoming and outgoing pastors, there is reason to believe that most pastoral successions are ultimately of benefit to a church.

The outcomes metric we’ve relied on throughout this report is based in part on churchgoers’ assessments of four areas impacted by the transition: ministry priorities and style, the church’s finances, weekly attendance and retention of church staff. Let’s look at each of these and at how staff members and pastors compare with churchgoers’ perspectives.


Shifting Emotions

What emotions did you experience during the transition?


No matter how much you plan, pray or prepare, successions are going to evoke a range of emotions for everyone involved. Like most changes in life, they include both something to mourn and something to look forward to. The prevailing emotions, though—for everyone from outgoing pastors, incoming pastors, staff and the congregation—are positive ones. Outgoing pastors, probably naturally, feel negative emotions at higher levels than others going through the transition.

n=70 outgoing senior pastors, 259 incoming senior pastors, 129 church staff who experienced church transition, 1,517 practicing Christians who experienced church transition.


Ministry Priorities & Style

Three out of five congregants and church staff members feel that, within the first year, pastoral succession had an overall positive affect on the priorities and style of their church’s ministry. A significant percentage of congregants detects no change in this area—a continuity which might be seen either as a win or a loss, depending on the goals of the leadership transition. One-quarter of staff feels the first year had some kind of negative effect on ministry style, which is in sharp contrast to incoming pastors, who tend (as one might expect) to be bullish on their ministry impact.



“We were very internally focused for many years. Part of our change has been to be more outwardly open and find better balance.”


—Church elder at Intown Community Church, Atlanta, GA



Church Finances

When discussing money, incoming pastors are once again the most optimistic, with 60 percent saying that the church’s financial stability has improved since the leadership transition. Outgoing pastors give the least glowing report, and congregants fall somewhere in the middle—differences that could simply indicate a lack of awareness. These groups may not be “in the know” on the state of church finances after a pastoral succession, and so resort to their instincts: for congregants, to believe the best, and for outgoing pastors, to express some pessimism.


Church Attendance

The point on which the groups most struggle to agree is church attendance in the year following a leadership transition. Negative perceptions are strong among church staff, almost half of whom (45%) say there has been a negative impact on weekly attendance. The sunniest view comes from incoming pastors, suggesting there is a significant lack of consensus or communication on what is presumably a recorded (and thus difficult to quibble about) measure of success. Or, as the staff members surveyed tend to be from larger-than average churches, it’s possible that this 27-point gap is a result of the different church profiles represented by each group.

Outgoing pastors are particularly down on the state of attendance; nearly half believe there was a negative result. Those actually filling the pews—the congregants themselves—mostly perceive an uptick in numbers (50% positive), if they notice a change at all (27% no impact).


Staff Retention

Although church attendance totals generate some dispute, the groups generally agree that staff numbers remained healthy in the year following a leadership transition. Staff (38%) and incoming pastors (45%)—perhaps those with the most current information on this count—usually say there has been no impact. In fact, many say this across each set of participants, though outgoing pastors are somewhat divided on whether ministry teams stayed intact. Congregants also give a fairly good update on staff retention.



This data is not part of the outcomes metric, but take heart: Both congregants and church staff experience a decrease in negative emotions and an increase in positive emotions after a leadership transition. (See the infographic on pp. 68–69.) Half in both groups are optimistic. Half of staff members report a sense of renewed energy within the year following a transition. Even so, this is a season during which a small but significant minority of staff members experience worry, doubt and confusion—something for transition leaders to keep in mind.

Relationship, Not Recipe

A Q&A with Darrell Hall

Rev. Darrell Hall is Campus Pastor of Elizabeth Baptist Church’s campus in Conyers, Georgia. Rev. Hall’s mission is to love all people into Christlikeness through the practice and preaching of the Word. He is married to Eboni and together they have three sons.

Going Out & Coming In: Two Different Views

Analysts wanted to compare how a leadership transition affects both incoming and outgoing pastors. Not surprisingly, the findings indicate these two groups experience succession distinctly from one another and have opposing views on how the church has progressed after the transition. Let’s take a look.

Views on the Overall Process

Overall, both incoming and outgoing pastors believe the transition went smoothly. That said, outgoing pastors are less likely to say the transition went at least relatively smoothly (69% vs. 81%).

Both incoming and outgoing pastors provide positive ratings when asked to look at the strength and weakness of different relational components. For example, both rate their relationship with the board of elders or directors during the transition as strong (79% incoming pastors vs. 75% outgoing pastors), as well as the relationship between the congregation and church leadership (74% vs. 72%).

There are, however, some stark differences between the two groups. Outgoing pastors are less likely to view the following as strengths during the transition: ministry style / teaching (58% vs. 85% incoming), church attendance (57% vs. 76%) and unity in the congregation (61% vs. 71%). Overall, outgoing pastors have a less positive view on the health of the church and the shift in teaching styles.

Emotions During the Transition

Given the differences in how they view the transition, it’s not surprising that incoming and outgoing pastors feel the experience quite differently as well. Overall, as one might expect, incoming pastors appear to have a heightened level of excitement and energy, looking forward to their new role. And while outgoing pastors are more apt to feel positive emotions than negative ones, they tend to be more reflective about the past during the transition. Indeed, incoming pastors report experiencing primarily higher levels of optimism (71% vs. 50% outgoing) and renewed energy (53% vs. 33%), while outgoing pastors are more likely to experience nostalgia (33% vs. 11% incoming). Interestingly, outgoing pastors are also more likely to experience a sense of relief during the transition (30% vs. 14%). This may be linked to the longer process that outgoing pastors face: informing the congregation, providing necessary assistance during the search process and then transitioning their duties to the next senior pastor.

While differences abound, incoming and outgoing pastors still share some key emotional experiences. (See the infographic on pp. 68–69.) Nearly half report feeling gratefulness (47% incoming vs. 46% outgoing). Both groups, however, also experience a similar level of worry (26% vs. 29%) and doubt (23% and 20%).

At the end of the day, both groups appear to believe they made the correct choice; only about one in seven experiences some sense of regret (13% incoming vs. 17% outgoing).

Differing Priorities

When asked to identify their highest priority during the succession, a plurality of both groups says maintaining church unity (39% incoming vs. 40% outgoing). However, incoming pastors are less likely to prioritize sustaining the vision and priorities (32% vs. 43%) and more likely to prioritize fresh growth (19% vs. 4%). Given that outgoing pastors are feeling nostalgia during the transition, it’s possible that seeing a lower priority on sustaining the vision is unsettling. After all, these are the vision and priorities they have been championing to the congregation for years.

This difference in perceived priorities may be linked to their contrasting beliefs about who initiated succession. Incoming pastors are less likely to say it was the previous senior pastor who initiated the process (46% vs. 61% outgoing). Since incoming pastors are apt to think the decision for a change in leadership came from elsewhere in the church, it’s possible that they correspondingly see sustaining the vision and priorities as less important during the succession.

Assessment of Impact

Perhaps the strongest contrast between incoming and outgoing pastors is the perceived impact the succession made on the church in the first year. As you’ll recall, the majority of outgoing pastors are no longer part of the congregation. Thus, their perceptions of the church in the year after the transition may be driven more by their experience during the transition or by anecdote.

Incoming pastors overwhelmingly believe the succession has had a net-positive impact on their church. Indeed, the majority of pastors views the succession as having a positive impact on ministry priorities and styles (77% positive vs. 13% negative), weekly attendance (72% vs. 18%) and financial stability (60% vs. 21%).

By comparison, outgoing pastors believe the succession has had a negative impact on weekly attendance (47% negative vs. 25% positive), financial stability (37% vs. 27%) and staff retention (36% vs. 27%). While the views of outgoing pastors may not be based on firsthand knowledge, they should not be ignored. Handing over leadership to another individual is inevitably tricky for outgoing pastors, but it is made even more difficult if they genuinely believe the church they shepherded is worse off now than when they were the pastor.



“When you become a successor, you step into an established environment of relationships, behaviors and systems, and people choose to stay or leave based on what you bring to the culture and whether or not they connect to it. It was midway through the second year that the full weight of the transition hit me: I found myself dealing with a lot of comparison between me and my successful predecessor and it triggered some unresolved rejection in me. In the midst of a really painful season of self-doubt I discovered that God’s grace is always sufficient, whether you’re letting go of your current position, or stepping into a new role to lead. And, on a practical level, I also learned, after the fact, to let someone filter your email for you during times of transition. Getting input from the right people will keep you healthy and help you to stay focused on the most important things.”


Terry Crist, pastor of Hillsong Phoenix, AZ


Don’t Waste Your Crisis

A Q&A with Doug Sauder

Before becoming a youth pastor, Doug Sauder worked as a teacher and a coach. He
joined the staff of Calvary in January 2000 and served as a family pastor and President of 4KIDS of South Florida. Doug currently serves as Lead Pastor at Calvary Chapel, joining Calvary’s Board of Directors in May of 2014. Doug and his wife, Suzanne, have
three sons.

Caring for Pastors

One thing incoming and outgoing pastors have in common is that the process of transition can be a strain for them and their families.

The transition tends to be hectic time for incoming pastors across a number of fronts. Three-quarters are relocating for their new role (76%), and two in five of those are moving from out of state (41%). Nine out of 10 incoming pastors are married (91%), and more than half have children under the age of 18 living with them (54%). Given the need to uproot their families to a new location, it’s not surprising that half of incoming pastors agree that the transition was difficult for their family (49%).

Two in five incoming pastors were at their previous church for over 10 years (40%), with one-quarter having more than 15 years in their previous role (23%). These leaders are not just leaving their former jobs behind; in many cases they are physically moving away from friends and neighbors they have cared for over a span of many years.

Amid uprooting their families and leaving behind friends, incoming pastors do not always arrive at their new churches to an environment that makes the transition process easy for them. Only one in five has a period of overlap with the previous pastor (19%) before assuming full duties. Moreover, just half agree that a clear plan for succession was in place before the transition started (51%).



“It was in both our hearts to have a multigenerational church where we didn’t ‘kick grandpa out of the house.’ What would it look like to have a founding pastor who hands off the church but doesn’t leave? The founding pastor becomes a ‘grandparent,’ and because we were able to navigate that in a healthy way, it put to rest natural feelings, like ‘Wow, this church is radically different all of a sudden,’ or, ‘Where is my pastor for the last 30 years?’ Well, actually, he’s still here. He’s still on staff. He still gets paid. He’s still on the team. That made the transition smooth for our congregation.”


—Dave Frincke, senior pastor of Heartland Parish, Fort Wayne, IN


On the flip side, the transition process can be a difficult time for outgoing pastors as well. A similarly high number of outgoing pastors are married (94%), though they are less likely to have children under the age of 18 living with them (21%). Despite differing family compositions, outgoing pastors are equally likely to agree the transition was difficult for their family (53% vs. 49% of incoming pastors).

Nearly half of outgoing pastors have been the senior pastor at the church they are leaving for more than 10 years (44%), with three in 10 having a tenure that spanned more than 15 years (31%). Three out of five left their congregation entirely after the succession (59%). Similar to incoming pastors, outgoing pastors are leaving more than just a job; they are adjusting to changes in relationships with friends and neighbors they have cared over for many years.

In addition to all of that, outgoing pastors also have to grapple with passing their legacy on to someone else—in many cases, to someone they do not know personally, since four out of five incoming pastors were not previously involved with the congregation (82%).

So how can transition leaders and churchgoers assist and support both incoming and outgoing pastors? In two key ways.

Family Support

Given that most incoming pastors are moving to a new location and have families, church leaders and congregants should do all they can ease the burdens that come with uprooting a family and replanting it in a new location. This might include putting together a task force of congregants with the purpose of assisting the incoming pastor’s family during the move. Help could include:


  • Providing the family with information about potential neighborhoods to move into and information about potential schools
  • Connecting the family with real estate professionals from the congregation or community
  • If the spouse is employed, surveying the congregation for contacts that work in his or her field


Many outgoing pastors are leaving to take a new role in a different church elsewhere. Likewise, church leaders and congregations could put together a task force to provide the same type of assistance for the outgoing pastor’s family as they prepare to relocate to a new city. It may also be wise, depending on the circumstances that led to the transition, to provide professional counseling support to the pastor and their family.

Work Support

Perhaps the best thing church leaders can do for incoming pastors is to have a succession plan in place that overlaps with the outgoing pastor. Indeed, regression analysis shows that having the outgoing pastor stay in the church as an associate pastor or attendee is a top factor that leads to a more successful transition. At the very least, having a clear plan in place removes another item off the list for incoming pastors and can allow them to better focus on their family during the change, and learn more about the congregation during the transition.

If the outgoing pastor is retiring, consider asking them to stay on as an associate pastor or honorary pastor-at-large. The ongoing presence of the outgoing pastor not only increases the likelihood of a successful transition, but may also allay any notion that the church is worse off post-transition. Such a move also allows the outgoing pastor to maintain the relationships and support they have built up over the years and communicates the value congregants have for the outgoing pastor’s legacy at the church.



Field Guide 03: After the Transition

Transitions can make everyone nervous. This field guide is focused on helping you and your team think through your specific context and begin to plan for inevitable change. The four sections below overlap with one another to help you think through transitions in different ways. This is best used in groups, or as an individual in preparation for sharing with the whole leadership team.

The ultimate goal of Field Guide 3 is to help your team think through issues that arise after transition. It’s important to keep in mind that finding / hiring a new senior pastor doesn’t end the transition; rather, transitions are long processes that need to be attended to even after the new pastor is officially installed.

Team Assessment

There are always unintended consequences or unforeseen impacts of a transition. Use the tool below to help identify some of these in your particular context.



Reflection Questions

  • In what ways has this transition been a benefit for the mission God has called your congregation to? In what ways has it been an obstacle to your mission?
  • A new senior leader can have a significant impact on the church staff who work with him or her regularly. How has the transition impacted your staff? Try to think of specific examples.
  • Have you thought about a post-transition plan? What should the first year look like for the new pastor, for the staff, for church ministry? What goals have you set and how are you going to care for the congregation and staff after walking through this transition?

Activities & Action

Taking the Emotional Temperature
Often people act out of emotion more than reason, and thus it is important to understand the emotional place people occupy. Consider doing an emotional survey of your church staff and congregation six months and then 12 months after the transition. You may want to use the emotional categories listed in the infographic on pp. 68–69 of this report.

Caring for Pastors
Change is hard for everyone, but especially on pastors’ families. Appoint a small group of leaders to be the “pastors to the pastor” in the year following the transition. Follow up with them and their families; look for ways to bless them unexpectedly.

Focus on the Players

Many congregations express optimism and renewed energy after a transition. This can be a great tool for kingdom advancement. Try to leverage this while also recognizing that even the best transitions carry some sense of loss.

Church Staff
Staff may still have lingering negative emotions after a transition. Consider ways in which you can care for and support the church staff in learning to lead with a new lead pastor.

Incoming Pastor
Incoming pastors are often very positive about the transition. Consider how you can help them settle into their new position while giving them space and freedom to use their gifting with the staff and church.

Outgoing Pastor
Connections with the outgoing pastor will depend on a variety of factors, including if they retired, moved churches or left under negative circumstances. If possible and appropriate, consider how their work and labor can be remembered and honored within the community, and how you can support them and their family emotionally and spiritually.


Predicting Negative, Mixed & Positive Transition Outcomes


What factors lead to succession success in the eyes of the congregation? The outcomes metric suggests that poor communication, disunity in the congregation and financial uncertainty correlate with a person’s negative assessment of the transition. Meanwhile, responsive leaders, a unified ministry staff and the former pastor’s ongoing involvement in the church are associated with more positive perceptions of the ultimate outcome.


n=1,517 U.S. practicing Christians 18 and older who have experienced pastoral transition within the past five years.
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