01 Before the Transition

Before the Transition


Let’s start before the transition gets going. Why? Because planning ahead, as we will see, can smooth the succession process for everyone involved. Emotions often run hot during a season of change, and the more decisions made beforehand, outside the heat of the moment, the better.

Barna analysts grouped pastoral successions into three major types based on the circumstances leading up to the leadership change:

  • Planned transitions which, as you might guess, are planned in advance of the change
  • Pastor-initiated transitions, set into motion by a decision from the outgoing pastor
  • Forced transitions, commenced by unexpected circumstances such as illness, death or crisis



Researchers also looked at three directions of pastoral transition:

  • Pastors who step back from the senior pastor role and move into a co-pastor or associate pastor role
  • Pastors who withdraw from the senior pastor role into lay leadership, such as eldership or teaching, or regular membership in the congregation (a majority of the time, the impetus for moving in this direction is a pastor’s retirement)
  • Pastors who depart the congregation entirely


Across the board, departing entirely is the most common transitional direction, but it’s more common when the transition is unplanned. When a transition is planned in advance, more than half of outgoing pastors stick around, whether they step back to continue on staff or withdraw to a lay role.



Why is this important? Because planned transitions are more likely to lead to positive outcomes once all is said and done. In general, churches where the pastor departs entirely—most common in unplanned transitions—have more tumultuous outcomes.

As you might expect, pastors who depart entirely are most likely to move on to pastor another church (34%). More prominent in the news but not as common in everyday life is the pastor who totally leaves ministry. Occasionally this is a move into a secular professional role, but often such departures are associated with personal crisis.



“Transitioning out of the senior pastoral role freed our founding pastor for new ministry. We’ve worked out language and a position that frees him up to start new congregations and new missions that are still connected to our church, without having to be bogged down with day-to-day pastoral concerns. He can still be a part of everything we’re doing, but have a clearer playing field, using more of his energy and time.”


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


These are some of the most difficult and heartbreaking situations for a church, where members often feel hurt or betrayed and the church loses its credibility in the community.

Taken together, these data drive home one of the big takeaways from this research: If you can, plan.


Plan for Change

Again: Planning a leadership succession in advance is more likely than average to end in positive outcomes, and less likely to see negative results.


Leadership teams that plan ahead—as in, long before a transition is initiated—can shorten the overall time of a transition (once the process is kicked off ), which appears to be a factor in positive outcomes. Asked about the length of their church’s transition (from succession plan to completed transition) about seven in 10 church staff members report that, with advanced planning, the process was completed within a year (73%); including one-third who says transition was concluded in three months or less (34%). Conversely, transitions with no plan tend to be lengthier. In the absence of a plan, half of church staff say the transition was accomplished in under a year (53%), while one in three reports the process taking longer than one year (35%).

Involving a “multitude of counselors” in the planning process can also positively affect a pastoral transition—and, in good news, most church transitions involve multiple inputs. Most churchgoers report their transition involved teams of people, whether on a local level—such as church elders / board of directors (25%) or church members (32%)—or assembled from the leadership of a denomination (23%) or an outside church consultancy (9%). As a general rule, the higher the degree of congregants’ involvement, the more positive they feel about the final outcome. Eight out of 10 churchgoers with positive outcomes agree that “the congregation had a high degree of input in the succession process” (81%), compared to six in 10 with mixed (61%) and half of those with negative outcomes (53%).



“Taking time to do things right was vital, but patience was hard. This transition was urgent—we were in financial distress and in danger of losing our building. Our instinct after our last pastor left was to put together a search committee immediately. But our interim pastor focused us, slowing us down to the point where we could step back and assess what was vital. We took time to talk, to build relationship, reconciliation and repentance that could create congregational engagement. It was radically different, and communicated serious connection to the congregation, as if we were saying, ‘Folks, you can really contribute.’”


—Church elder at Intown Community Church, Atlanta, GA


Half of incoming pastors say there was no plan before the previous pastor began to transition out (51%). In addition, one-third of incoming pastors reports that a lack of planning created extreme difficulty (12%) or major obstacles (21%) to achieving a smooth and successful transition. Even so, it does not appear that their predecessor’s lack of planning has inspired them to do things differently. A majority of incoming pastors—who will, sometime in the future, be outgoing pastors—do not consider developing future leaders a high personal priority.

Mentoring Tomorrow’s Pastors

As pastors of today’s churches age, the need to mentor younger leaders who can lead into the future is becoming ever more acute. According to Barna tracking data published in The State of Pastors (2017), the average age of pastors increased by 10 years between 1992 and 2017 (from 44 to 54). The generational spread also shifted during that time. While one in three pastors in 1992 was under 40, by 2017 the proportion had shrunk to one in seven. Meanwhile, the percentage of those over 65 increased more than three times; today, there are more pastors over 65 than under 40.


Two out of three current pastors believe identifying suitable candidates is becoming more difficult (69%). About one-quarter agrees strongly that “it’s harder to find mature young Christians who want to be pastors” (24%), and a larger contingent agrees somewhat (45%).

While only 18 percent strongly agree that “a lot of young leaders seem to think other kinds of work are more important than vocational ministry,” more than half agree somewhat (52%).

Developing suitable young candidates for vocational ministry requires a concerted effort on the part of current pastors and churchgoers, and roughly one in five pastors strongly agrees their church “puts a significant priority on training and developing the next generation of church leaders” (22%). Almost half agree somewhat (47%).

How are they developing future leaders? Nearly three in 10 say they hired young staff and / or elected young members to leadership roles (28%), or offered training classes, camps or conferences (27%). One in six reports mentoring a young potential leader (19%), one in nine offered internships or “shadow” roles (11%) and one in 10 led small groups on discipleship and leadership (10%). Slightly rarer actions include giving encouragement and guidance to those who are considering leadership (9%) and putting resources into the youth ministry (7%).

However church leaders put it into action, identifying and training future leaders must be one aspect of preparing for eventual succession.

When Success Means More Than Succession

A Q&A with Bruce Terrell

Redeemer Presbyterian Church, founded by pastor and bestselling author Tim Keller, is one of the most influential Protestant churches in America. More than seven years ago, when Keller expressed his desire to eventually step down as senior pastor, he and his staff began preparing the church for his transition away from Redeemer and into a full-time role at the nonprofit organization City to City.

As executive director of Redeemer for the past 11 years, Bruce Terrell has overseen that transition. He reflects here on the process of moving from one church under a well-known leader to a family of three churches serving New York City.

Forcing the Issue

Pastors, staff members and churchgoers involved in a forced leadership transition have a unique set of challenges and opportunities. These transitions are not initiated according to an existing plan, but because of sudden difficult circumstances such as scandal or trauma. The good news is that, while churches going through forced successions are more likely to encounter hurdles, their congregants often emerge on the other side with a positive outlook on the future.

Not surprisingly, forced transitions are more likely than other circumstances to be fraught with issues. One in five congregants in a forced transition says there were major obstacles that had to be overcome or that the transition was “extremely difficult” (19% vs. 7% for planned and 11% for pastor-initiated transitions).

However, most congregants in forced transition churches perceive the succession as having a net-positive impact on their churches. Within a year since the transition began, congregants are much more likely to view the succession as having a positive impact on ministry priorities / styles (56% positive vs. 18% negative), staff retention (43% vs. 21%) and financial stability (39% vs. 21%). The only area where congregants have mixed feelings is weekly attendance (41% vs. 33%).

Positive perceptions among congregants are lower in forced transitions than in other types of succession. For example, forced transition churchgoers are less likely to report seeing a positive impact on financial stability (39% vs. 57% for planned and 48% for pastor-initiated transitions) and weekly attendance (41% vs. 61% and 50%).

Asked what emotions they primarily experienced after the succession, half of forced-transition congregants report feeling optimism (50%). Further, one third (34%) primarily experienced relief, while three in 10 report gratefulness (31%) and renewed energy (29%). These emotions closely reflect the feelings of congregants who went through other types of succession, although forced transition congregants are more likely to experience relief (34% vs. 23% for planned transitions) and regret (10% vs. 5% for both planned and pastor-initiated transitions).

While the initial shock of a forced transition may cause uncertainty, completing the process reduces negative emotions among congregants and increases positive sentiments (see graph). Communication is one of the strongest drivers of a successful succession and, overall, forced-transition churchgoers believe their


church leadership was effective in communicating the succession process. Indeed, three-quarters say the reason for the transition was communicated at least somewhat well (74%). Moreover, seven in 10 feel the same about how leadership communicated the requirements for a replacement (70%), the process for finding a replacement (69%) and the timeline of the transition (69%).

However, it’s in the area of communication that leaders in forced transitions have the largest gap to close with their counterparts from planned- or pastor-initiated-transition churches. This gap in communication effectiveness likely contributes to fewer positive outcomes. Specifically, forced-transition churchgoers are less likely to say their church leaders effectively communicated the timeline of transition (69% vs. 80% for planned and 83% for pastor-initiated transitions) and the process for finding a replacement (69% vs. 81% and 83%).



“It wasn’t just about a leadership transition, it was about healing from a church crisis. By the time the previous pastor had left, people felt excluded and had seen their church get more and more unhealthy. There was a sense of helplessness. That turned into a positive by having so many people get involved in the transition process—even though it took a while to overcome the skepticism. Besides engaging so many people with meaningful work, they suddenly felt like they could contribute to helping make this better. That turned our two-year period of not having a pastor into a period of growth. We were busy doing meaningful things, not just busywork, but the soft relational rebuilding, working together again.”


—Church elder at Intown Community Church, Atlanta, GA


While they’re more likely to cause problems than other types of succession, forced transitions can have an overall positive impact on church congregants. It may not be the ideal type of succession, but the findings suggest that if managed properly and gracefully, forced transitions can result in healthy outcomes for a congregation.

Avoid (but Prepare for) the Nightmare Scenario

A Q&A with Boz Tchividjian

Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, the third-eldest grandchild of Billy Graham, is a former prosecutor personally responsible for prosecuting hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse. He’s also the founder and executive director of GRACE, or Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, an organization that educates and equips faith communities to respond well to sexual abuse disclosures, while also providing practical guidance on how to protect children and serve survivors. Their work includes conducting independent investigations into allegations of abuse by pastors and church leaders.

Field Guide 01: Before 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 preparing for 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 1 is to start your team thinking and planning for the future of the church and of pastoral leadership.

Team Assessment

Part 1 provides a general introduction to many of the themes of this report and discusses preliminary ideas concerning a transition. Indicate where your team is in light of what you read in this section. Consider doing this exercise individually, then compare your assessments in discussion.

Reflection Questions

  • After reading this section, what are the findings or themes (good or bad) that stick out to you? How do these connect with your own unique situation and context?
  • Most pastors have not thought about, taken action toward or prioritized transition planning. How often is this a topic of conversation among the wider leadership team? What are the concerns, fears, plans and goals for these conversations? How can you make this a normal piece of the leadership culture?
  • The importance of good communication is a key theme that emerges from the data. How good are the communication structures and patterns of your church? When it comes to transitions, have you discussed how to communicate information and to what groups should be involved at different points in time?

Activities in Action

Mapping it Out
It’s time to put it on paper. What is the transition plan? It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of a transition or a transition is still five-plus years away; starting now to map it out will help your team navigate the process. Include as much detail as you can: timeline goals, communication patterns, new roles and responsibilities, involvement and input at different levels. As much as possible, have open discussion and make prayerful decisions before things get stressful and urgent.

The Emergency Plan
Some transitions are unforeseen. Talk through how you would handle an unforeseen or emergency pastoral transition. Actually write out a plan of who will fill leadership gaps and who will lead what aspects of the transition. Who will your team turn to for outside help? Make those contacts now. The emergency plan can be reviewed annually or every two years by a leadership team.

Focus on the Players

Communication is key! Even in the early stages it’s important to communicate clearly and often with church members. Transitions can be times of uncertainty and confusion. Communication is a key tool to help care for people during this time.

Church Staff
Transitions can be difficult for ministry leaders as well as parishioners. Communication within the team is important. As you work toward a plan, include staff members in the process. This will help shore up unity, particularly with regard to mission, purpose and relationships.

Incoming Pastor
At this point you may have no idea who the incoming pastor will be, especially if you’re considering someone from outside the existing leadership. Start praying for and planning for the new pastor now. Plan for resources and relationships this person will need as they transition into your community.

Outgoing Pastor
As the current pastor transitions out of leadership or out of the community, they need care. Consider appointing a person or people to care for them and their family (don’t forget the spouse!) during this time. This could be someone either within the church or outside, but should be someone who is willing to walk through this process with them to help them grow through the process.

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During the Transition

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