02 During the Transition

During the Transition


Barna’s findings among congregants, church staff members, incoming pastors and outgoing pastors highlight some interesting differences in perceptions of a pastoral succession. For example, a departing senior pastor on their way out may question the wisdom of a church’s leadership team, while incoming pastors and congregations tend to hope for and see the best.

Some aspects of church life, such as the teaching and a sense of unity, are likely to remain strong through the transition. Other aspects, such as financial stability and staff engagement, may weaken somewhat during the process.

Keep in mind, these perspectives are not real-time records but reflections on experience after the succession is complete. Regardless of how exact these judgments may be, they are valuable for understanding the paradigms and feelings of each group going through a transition so that transition leaders can plan and respond accordingly.


Let’s Keep Talking

What should you communicate during transitions?

It’s clear that communication is a strong factor in the experience during and success of a transition.


Unfortunately, communication with and to congregants is often neglected during transitions.

n=1,517 Congregation / Churchgoers; n=129 Church Staff; n=259 Incoming pastors; n=70 Outgoing pastors
Fielding Dates: Church Staff & Pastor Study: March 16, 2017 – April 27, 2017; Fielding Dates: Congregation (Vendor: Nielsen): March 17, 2017 – April 4, 2017.


Teaching & Ministry Style

About one-third of respondents describes the teaching and ministry style during the leadership transition as very strong (31% churchgoers, 33% church staff, 34% incoming pastors). Incoming pastors feel most assured of this. Outgoing pastors—perhaps concerned with the legacy of their own teaching approach—are somewhat less confident in how the ministry style was maintained throughout the succession process; just one-quarter gives it a strong review.


Church Finances

Roughly one-quarter of the various participants in a transition believes the church’s finances were very strong through this season. And when adding those who consider it at least somewhat strong, about two-thirds of church staff (67%), incoming pastors (67%) and outgoing pastors (65%) had a good feeling about finances during succession. The percentage of churchgoers who are unsure is understandably greater (24%), given that they are less likely to know behind-the-scenes details like a church’s financial condition.

Church Attendance

Church staff (63%) and congregants (63%) align in saying that church attendance was at least somewhat strong through their church’s leadership transition. Few incoming pastors say attendance was weak (18%)—in fact, three-quarters lean toward the strong side. Meanwhile, outgoing pastors are least positive in their assessment of church attendance. The gap between the perceptions of incoming and outgoing pastors is likely tied to personal emotions and expectations, and the mid-range report of staff and congregants is perhaps a more reliable indicator of church health.


Staff Engagement

As the two groups with a front-row seat to a succession from beginning to end, only staff members and outgoing pastors were asked to report on the level of staff involvement in the succession process. Less than half of church staff (45%) believe they played a key part in their church’s leadership transition, with an equal proportion (45%) saying staff engagement was somewhat or very weak. Outgoing pastors, on the other hand, are more likely to believe staff engagement was strong through the leadership transition (54%)—one example of outgoing pastors’ seeming tendency to overestimate (or overlook) the strength of their network.



“Watch your communication and deal with expectations and assumptions. Get clear on stuff. Never assume anything. Remember, this is about relational integrity and trust.”


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



Although a leadership transition seems like it may stir up infighting or rumors, church members actually tend to band together. Most congregants (70%) say church unity was at least somewhat strong through a succession. A majority of other respondent groups agrees (71% incoming pastors, 68% staff, 61% outgoing pastors). Staff members, however, sometimes detect strife in the community; three in 10 (29%) rate congregational unity as very or somewhat weak.

These data are strong indicators that priorities matter. Focusing on the right priorities during a transition can make a significant difference to the outcomes of a church’s pastoral succession.


Get Focused (but Not on Finances)

Churches sometimes face a financial crisis at the same time they are facing a leadership transition. That’s because financial troubles tend to go hand in hand with other troubles, whether in churches or elsewhere. Money is close to the human heart and is hard to extricate from relationships.

How should church leaders set priorities when they have not one but two crises on their hands? A good negotiating coach will tell trainees to keep asking why until they get to the bottom of a question. In response to Why do we want to get the church documents in order? “To comply with the law,” is quite a good enough answer. But in response to Why do we want to increase congregational giving? there could be many viable answers. We want to pay our senior pastor more. We want to engage in more mercy ministries. We want a new parking lot.

To these answers, church leaders need to ask why a few more times.

Out of leaders’ assumptions about why their church needs something (whether or not they’ve explored those assumptions) come priorities, goals and even the tone of the campaign to meet a challenge.

A perception of church unity and consistent, two-way communication are more significant in determining positive outcome than a church’s priorities, yet priorities do have a significant role to play in how well a transition goes and feels to those who experience it. Churches that focus on the big picture—vision and / or church unity—tend to have better transitions than those that focus on growth or finances.

The Downsides of a Financial Focus

How can a responsible church not focus on financial issues when they have a financial problem? Two answers: Focusing on finances does not fix a financial problem during a leadership transition. And overall, a focus on finances is more likely to be associated with an objectively troubled transition than is a focus on other priorities.


Transitions focused on finances see worse relationships between the congregation and church leadership during the transition; just 55 percent are strong, compared to about three-quarters among churches with other goals. Likewise, transitions focused on finances and growth provoke more negative emotions during the transition. Incoming pastors whose church leadership focused on finances are much less likely to feel optimism, renewed energy or gratefulness and more likely to experience worry, regret, confusion and even nostalgia—likely for the church they left behind. Where the church prioritizes sustained vision, church unity or fresh growth (as opposed to financial stability or another goal), the congregations’ emotions also tend to be more positive.

In sum, new senior pastors and congregants feel more miserable on several dimensions when their transition leaders focus on finances. With no objective gains and clear subjective strains, church leaders should consider a primary focus on finances during a leadership succession to be suboptimal.


The Upsides of a Unity Focus

If communication is king, unity is queen. Churches in all transition types benefit when there is unity between people in different roles during the process. Relationships are strong and unity is high among and between congregants, incoming pastors, staff members and elder boards. More than half of all the groups surveyed say that these relationships are strong or very strong. Meanwhile, churches with low unity tend to have other big problems, such as a lack of planning, that predictably lead to worse outcomes.

The relationships most likely to be ranked very strong by church staff are between the incoming pastor and the board of elders or directors (43%) and the incoming pastor and the church staff (40%). This indicates that staff are generally supportive of and endorse the new pastor rather than viewing him or her with skepticism.

The picture for the other groups is more varied across people in different roles and is less rosy—though still positive overall. Church staff members are consistently less positive about church relationships during a leadership transition.

There is a notable difference between staff and outgoing pastors in how weak they perceive the relationship between the outgoing pastor and the board, with 42 percent of staff saying the relationship was weak or very weak and half that proportion of outgoing pastors saying so (20%). (See chart on p. 51.)

Why is the difference in perception so big? And why is there observable friction between the outgoing pastor and the board such that two out of five staff members see it? It appears that the relationship with the outgoing pastor can be hard to maintain during a transition. If strength in that relationship is a goal, then extra effort is required; miscommunications and frustrations and hurt feelings can be very hard to overcome. Board members and staff need to recognize that outgoing pastors (even in a planned transition) are likely to be sensitive to change, nostalgic about leaving, concerned about their legacy, wanting to preserve what they built, and so on. Even when board members and staff feel like everything is going to be okay, outgoing pastors are wrestling with a lot of their own emotions.


More than one-quarter of church staff members perceive weakness in congregational unity (29%) and in the relationship between church leadership and the congregation (27%). Churchgoers, however, are less likely to say there are problems. (It’s also possible that congregants with strong feelings approach church staff and pastors, while those who are more or less content are silent.)

Most churchgoers feel close to their leadership through a transition. When members of congregations speak for themselves, about three-quarters express satisfaction with their relationship with the leadership by saying that it was very strong (35%) or strong (38%) through the transition. Likewise, most churchgoers say congregational unity is strong through a leadership transition (71%).


A Case Study in Priorities

Even “unity,” though, can be unhealthy—if it is the wrong kind of unity.

Elders from Intown Community Church in Atlanta, GA have a good deal of hindsight on this issue of developing toxic loyalty. Several years ago, their second senior pastor in two years stepped down. At the same time, they were experiencing radical losses of attendees and church leaders. The church went from 700 to 300 members. There were financial problems, big enough that one elder thought the church would lose their building because banks weren’t willing to refinance. Their first attempt to repair relational damage in the church and to establish a senior pastor didn’t go well.

The elders describe giving the congregation updates on the situation but not giving them a role in offering feedback or in addressing the problems themselves. One elder remembers a “growing sense of us versus them” accompanied by disconnection from the congregation.

“And then the staff also got in a foxhole, and the divisions were sharper.” Since then, the elders at the church admit to a “failure to shepherd,” an “inclination to circle the wagons rather than reach out” and “pursuing peace at all costs”—all common reactions by teams under stress.

Sadly, this is not an uncommon scenario. Leadership teams often pull back in emergencies, becoming more like-minded and more disconnected from those they are supposed to lead.

Group unity goes wrong when there is no dissent in a group. This may be because an authority figure is assumed to be correct in all his or her judgments—engendering a sort of “yes man” culture. This can lead to a “Team of Unrivals, in which internal diversity and dissent [are] squelched as disloyal,” as Cass Sunstein wrote in Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide.



“The uncomfortable conversations do happen. But if you’ve been putting equity into relationship and building trust, you can make a choice to be vulnerable and transparent with each other. It works. Of course you’re going to have problems. But like in any relationship, it’s an issue of communication and then conflict resolution.”


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


Group unity goes wrong when information is limited. This may be because an elder board has neglected to listen to church staff and congregants, as in the case of Intown Community Church. It may also be because members of a board have failed to speak up when they differ from what they see as the majority. (3) Everyone loses when church leaders only hear one version of events or one strategy for leadership succession.

Group unity goes wrong when people’s opinions become labels of identity, as in “Oh, he’s hard-headed” or “She’s one of the complainers.” Once people equate group membership with types of opinions, they tend to stop listening to each other.

Group unity goes wrong when misinformation and rumors have not been dealt with properly and openly.

How can boards of elders or directors and congregations avoid these pitfalls of unity?

First, “it turns out that humility and curiosity help to ensure better decisions, in large part because they increase the pool of information,” writes Sunstein. Intown Community Church found that when they started listening to their congregation, the knotted problems started to loosen. They have recovered to health and have a senior pastor in place, and the elders attribute this to acknowledging their own failures and starting over with candor, honesty, transparency and vulnerability.

Second, leaders must be vigilant in seeking out information and opinions that do not confirm the majority’s information and opinions. And, counter to human nature, when they encounter conflicting information and a wider range of opinions, they must treat the messengers (and opinion-holders) well and take that new information as seriously as previously known information.

Third, church leaders should be suspicious of unanimous decisions; they are actually less likely to be good ones. Church leadership should seek out and respect multiple options during a transition, and should suspect they have failed in this if they produce unanimous decisions. If they do notice many unanimous decisions, they should consider bringing in a third party to moderate.

It is important to note that disagreement is not the same as a strained relationship. Take John Gottman’s research on marriage that shows “69% of problems in a relationship are unsolvable” (4) but that fighting can improve a marriage if you “fight well.” (5) Unity of the best sort forms around teamwork and even team generosity. (6) In other words, teamwork doesn’t just survive disagreement; it thrives with constructive disagreement.

Intown Community Church demonstrates the constructive role that healthy deliberation and communication can have in building church unity. After their difficult start, they made a concerted effort to address the problems through listening to the congregation and re-constructing a vision, calling it Project Nehemiah. They “didn’t put together an immediate search committee. Instead, we took the time to assess, talk, build relationships and work on reconciliation (starting with the group of elders).” They brought in an experienced interim pastor who addressed misinformation and gossip. Despite their financial struggles, they prioritized creating “vision through congregational engagement, and then starting the search.” It took time to rebuild trust in the church, but the church actually started healing before the arrival of its new senior pastor. Humility, they say, was the key.

And now? They are planning for their own successors.

Leading Differently

A Q&A with Mandy Smith

Originally from Australia, Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church, a campus and neighborhood congregation in Cincinnati, OH. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today and Missio Alliance, and is the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry. She is also the director of Missio Alliance’s SheLeads summit and creator of The Collect, a citywide trash-to-art project. Mandy and her husband, Jamie, a New Testament professor at Cincinnati Christian University, live with their family in a little house where the teapot is always warm.

The Dos & Don’ts of Communicating During a Leadership Transition

By Samuel Ogles

Samuel Ogles is a writer, speaker, spiritual director and Enneagram teacher, and was formerly an editor at Christianity Today overseeing ChurchSalary and Church Law & Tax’s digital presence. Based on this expertise, Barna asked him to report on communication best practices. Sam engages culture and spirituality, empowering others with deeper insights and a vision for change. You can learn more through his podcast, newsletter or website SamuelOgles.com.

Field Guide 02: During 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 2 is to help your team think through issues that arise during a period of transition. This can be a stressful season, and leading well through this can help people develop their trust in God and remain focused on his calling for your particular congregation.

Team Assessment

Part 2 shows there are various potential priorities a church’s leadership can focus on through a transition. Try to indicate where your team is in light of what you read. Consider doing this exercise individually, then compare your assessments in discussion.



Reflection Questions

  • Four factors can combine to make a toxic cocktail during periods of transitions: poor communication, lack of unity, lack of planning and a focus on finances. How have these four factors impacted or made obstacles for your team? How can you recalibrate to overcome these obstacles?
  • Differences can be difficult to navigate during a transition; listening well is important to build unity and communicate clearly. In what ways is your team listening to one another, to the outgoing pastor, to the congregation? What is making listening difficult?
  • Internal transitions have different dynamics then external ones. If you are conducting an internal transition, in what ways are you transitioning to new, homegrown leaders? How long will leaders overlap and what are you looking to accomplish during this period?

Activities in Action

Building & Maintaining Unity
Unity is key in times of transition, but unity does not mean agreeing on everything or loyalty to a particular leader. After your team has read “A Case Study in Priorities,” have an open and honest discussion about unity in your team and among parishioners. Evaluate how well your team develops unity while allowing for different voices to disagree. What will you do and say differently?

Caring for Staff
Staff members can feel less positive during a period of transition because they see things many in the congregation don’t. On top of that, they are often overlooked for special care during periods of transition. No matter where you are in the transition, develop a plan for the following staff-related issues: (1) Staff unity with incoming pastor and leadership board / team; (2) Communication of the transition process, which includes listening to their concerns, ideas and insights; (3) Pastoral care and spiritual direction for staff during this transition.

Focus on the Players

Communication is key (again)! Clear, honest and frequent communication is important, even if it is difficult. Leaders tend to under-communicate, which can lead to uncertainty and church members developing their own narratives. Communication is a way to shape the narrative and help members navigate transitions well.

Church Staff
Staff members can see transitions as particularly difficult. Make sure they are continually involved in the process and have a voice during the transition. As with church members, clear and constant communication can help staff know their role and significance during periods of transition.

Incoming Pastor
This is a season with a lot of positives for the incoming pastor. Consider how this time can be used to build new relational unity with the new pastor and the leadership team. Provide plenty of space for the new pastor to ask questions without seeing them as challenging or critiquing. Be open and honest with them as they learn more about the church and assume responsibility.

Outgoing Pastor
Transitions can be very difficult for the outgoing pastor, as they are concerned with their legacy and a congregation they have cared for and led. Think through ways to keep them involved in the transition process and consider having someone (either within or from outside the church) serve as a mentor and guide for them during the transition.

Previous Section

Before the Transition

Read Section
Next Section

After the Transition

Read Section