04 Conclusion



5 Marks of Successful Leadership Transition

By David Kinnaman, President of Barna Group


Here are five of the top factors—derived from regressions and outcome segmentation—associated with successful leadership transitions.

01. Communicate Clearly, Honestly & Often

It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of this first factor. Evidence of good communication, especially between a church’s leadership and congregation, is the single biggest factor in a smooth leadership transition— and the inverse is often true as well.

This trend persists regardless of the events that precipitate a transition. Even when a leader is leaving under tragic or scandalous circumstances, with all the delicate or unsavory details from which the leadership might want to shield their congregation, communication is key. Throughout this report, we see over and over that the best emotions, decisions and outcomes of a leadership transition are associated with churches that communicate well throughout the process. With this in mind, it’s encouraging that most churchgoers in Barna’s sample give solid scores to their leadership’s communication—and those who report overall positive outcomes score their leadership even higher than average.

02. Target Unity

This variable is a combination of perceptions about the relative strength or weakness of unity between the congregation and the church leadership; unity within the congregation; unity among the board of elders / governing body; and unity among other church staff / administration. A high level of church unity is associated with good communication, a smooth succession process and positive outcomes within one year after succession.

Some negative emotions consistently accompany a lack of unity— namely, worry, doubt and confusion. Across the board, the outcome of a transition corresponds to the emotional experience: A positive outcome goes hand in hand with positive emotions; mixed outcomes are accompanied by mixed emotions; and negative outcomes carry their share of negative feelings. Churchgoers who experience a difficult transition tend to feel worry, regret, nostalgia and confusion, and fewer positive feelings. These congregants also struggle to rebound or renew their energy post-transition, but instead see increases in regret, doubt and nostalgia, with a corresponding decrease in gratitude.

On the other hand, churchgoers and church staff members who have a sense that “we’re all in this together” are much more likely to feel hopeful.




“There were all these different layers to the transition, but what kept us anchored was that we were united. We were committed to a common outcome. We saw the future and knew that we were better together for going the distance. Because of that vision, we didn’t allow anything to divide us in the process.”


—Terry Crist, pastor of Hillsong Phoenix, AZ

03. If You Can, Plan

The reason for a pastor’s departure affects the experience, emotions and perceived outcomes of a transition. In short, planned departures go more smoothly, while forced or unplanned transitions are worse on multiple outcomes. And yet, pastors and staff members in this study are split on whether their church had a clear succession plan in place before their transition started. Only about half of churches, at best, appear to have a plan. And those plans are least apparent to staff.

Congregants have the best overall experience with planned transitions and / or those where the outgoing pastor chooses to retire. Thirty-six percent of churchgoers in these circumstances ultimately report a positive outcome within a year of the transition.

It’s not that other transition types are always a bad idea. Indeed, they are sometimes unavoidable—and, regardless of the precipitating circumstance, most ultimately turn out okay. As mentioned above, strong communication can cover a multitude of succession sins. But a “make-it-up-as-we-go” approach simply has less of a chance of going smoothly, and often fails to find time and intention for other steps that improve a transition, like including multiple types of input in the decision- making. If a governing body can plan ahead for a transition, the church is likely to come out ahead.

04. Aim for a Graceful Exit

Although controversial leadership transitions draw more attention, a majority of successions are prompted by a pastor’s retirement or unforced move. Yet regardless of the reason a pastor transitions out of their full-time role, they undergo a dramatic life shift. The outgoing pastor is at the center of succession—in more ways than one, and not always for the best. In many cases they are experiencing some level of trauma or crisis, even as they express a sense of nostalgia (33%) or relief (30%) about leaving their post. More than half say the succession process is tough on their family (53%), and some pastors and staff members indicate weakening relationships through a succession.

However vulnerable pastors may be in this season, their next steps often correlate with the overall outcome of a succession, and Barna finds that baby steps are the ideal. When pastors exit the pulpit gradually— assuming a co-pastor or associate role, if only for a time, rather than a sudden or permanent absence from the church body—the transition seems to go better for all involved. Ideally, a pastor’s period of stepping down overlaps with the stepping up of a new senior pastor, rather than an interim leader. (This scenario is obviously most likely in churches that have a succession plan in place.)



“You have to let go. You just absolutely must. I determined I wasn’t going to give Terry, my successor, any advice unless he asked me. If anybody told me they didn’t like something, I deflected it and simply replied that Terry and Judith have been so supportive and honoring of us.”


—Gary Kinnaman, former pastor of Hillsong Phoenix, AZ


. . .


“I think the greater burden is on the leader leaving more than the leader coming in. If you’re transitioning out, you have to be secure and patient enough to see this work. You can’t open your mouth any time you feel like it. You can’t micromanage. You can’t become that old guy who just doesn’t know how to let go. The older team member has to be willing to relinquish your hold and not have the final say. That’s just the bottom line—especially if you are going to stay at the church.”


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

05. Keep Asking Why

It’s important to be aware of the motivations behind a succession process, not just the out-front decisions. Leadership teams hold different concerns for their churches during a transition, and Barna asked about potential priorities. By far the most common priority—stated by leaders and observed by their congregations—is to maintain church unity, followed by a desire to see the vision sustained. These two goals tend to coincide with positive emotions, strong communication and healthy relationships among leader teams and members.

Only a minority of respondents indicates that financial stability or fresh growth were the top priority through a transition, and that appears to be for the best: A succession focused on finances or growth is likely to take longer (a common trait of difficult transitions) and have more negative side effects, like staff turnover. Further, concern over money isn’t necessarily the most effective rallying cry for incoming senior pastors, who feel more miserable and detect a weaker connection among the church’s lay leaders when the focus is on finances.

A church’s priority during a pastoral succession is another factor that, on its own, doesn’t make or break a church and that can be mitigated by robust communication and relationships. But the intent of a pastoral succession has repercussions that are significant enough to caution teams to be very intentional and prayerful about setting—and revisiting—their long-term transition goals.


“The values of the transition worked their way positively into the congregation. It changed the way we elders relate to the regular member. But it took a boatload of self-examination individually and collectively, speaking the truth in each other’s lives. It was worth it, but it was not easy.”


—A church elder at Intown Community Church, Atlanta, GA

. . .

These five themes pop up again and again throughout this report. They are the essentials of pastoral succession, as revealed by the data and reflected in secondary sources.

If you are a pastor, no matter your age or tenure at your current church, it’s time to think about future leadership. Who are the young adults and even teens in your congregation who are already leaders? Who among them demonstrates pastoral impulses to care for others, inspire action and speak up? Who do you see expressing a deep hunger to serve Christ? Make mentoring tomorrow’s church leaders a priority of your own ministry.

Whether you are a pastor or a lay leader, start the succession conversation now among your fellow leaders. It may be awkward at first, especially if the senior pastor is not planning to retire any time soon, but the only way to normalize talking about an uncertain future (even a very distant future) is to get started and then keep at it until it becomes normal. Long before a change is on the immediate horizon, working through Field Guide 1 together can help your church be ready when the day comes.

More than anything, good communication across teams and congregations is the heartbeat of healthy transition. Now is the time to assess communication strengths and weaknesses, to broaden and hone inadequate skills, and to deepen relational roots so that you thrive together in every season to come.




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Appendix A - Additional Contributors

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