The Dos & Don’ts of Communicating a Leadership Transition

The Dos & Don'ts of Communicating a Leadership Transition


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.



Communication is just one factor in ensuring positive outcomes for a pastoral succession—but, as we’ve seen, it’s an important one. It may also be one of the most potentially fraught areas to navigate, touching on practical and human elements as well as personnel and legal ones.

The data indicate that clarity of communication is key. Clear communication helps; unclear communication really hurts. To dig deeper, I interviewed William Vanderbloemen. He is the founder and leader of Vanderbloemen Search Group, an executive search firm that specializes in serving churches. He wrote Next: Pastoral Succession That Works with writer and church researcher Warren Bird. When it comes to pastoral transitions, “Overall, the church doesn’t do a very good job with this,” he says. “And it’s never because people have bad intentions.”

Instead, poor outbound communication around pastoral transitions tends to be the result of two things: ignorance of best practices and fear of making mistakes. To combat both and reach healthy communication, transition leaders need to know where to start.

Where to Begin

The first step, professionals say, is to know what is required by a church’s constitution, bylaws or articles of incorporation. Any such governing document “is a contract between the members and the corporation on how it should be run,” says Frank Sommerville, an attorney and CPA specializing in church issues. Churches are “absolutely right” to assume they’re required to follow any specified rules or procedures, he adds. If they don’t, it could lead to unnecessary problems, even legal action.

Apart from processes that are spelled out, however, there’s a lot of room for communication about a transition. What should church leaders say and when? Who has the right or privilege to know what? It turns out, these questions are mostly answered by the answer to another: why?

The “why” of a pastoral transition matters as much as any other factor, and experts make a distinction between voluntary transitions and involuntary ones (in Barna’s research, “forced transitions”).

Forced Transitions

“The place that the church is most likely to get it right is communication to the congregation about an involuntary pastoral transition,” says Vanderbloemen. This might involve the firing of a pastor or some other salacious or serious cause for the departure. Still, a common error is “mismeasuring how much of the story to share.” During a difficult time like this, notes Vanderbloemen, church leaders often make the mistake of “not sharing enough.” Fear of missteps could be one reason for under-communicating. If the reason for the pastor’s departure is of an illicit nature, churches may wish to avoid embarrassment, a lawsuit or merely hurting the ministry through saying too much.

While churches really can’t share all of the details about an involuntary transition, not sharing the cause will leave church members to guess at what happened, says Vanderbloemen. “People will just make up their own story,” he notes, “and it’s usually worse than the truth.” In fact, absent an explanation, people usually assume the reason is one of two things: sexual or financial.

If the transition is a worst-case-scenario that touches on something as serious as a sexual or financial failure or abuse, Sommerville notes that transition leaders need to communicate clearly with the congregation, but that communication should have a lot of guardrails in place. “You basically say that the [church] board has been informed, they know what’s going on, and you leave it at that,” he advises. “Otherwise, it’s a personnel decision that we cannot discuss publicly because we don’t want to libel or slander [the outgoing pastor].” For serious issues, it’s also recommended that churches utilize the services of legal counsel and potentially a public relations firm.

When it comes to transparency in communications for forced transitions, there are levels of access to information that leaders are wise to keep in mind. “Your church board is entitled to everything, pretty much—and your personnel committee. But there’s nothing that says you have to share everything with every member,” Sommerville cautions. “You have to be wise about what you share and don’t share. You have to be measured in what you say.” When offering information to the congregation or beyond, he says, offer only the facts. “At the same time, you must not lie. You have to be 100-percent truthful, no matter what.”

Voluntary Transitions

In general, voluntary transitions are certainly more enjoyable to communicate about. But there are risks here, too, as well as guiding principles that can steer the pastoral transition in a healthy, clear and positive direction. Those who advise churches on this front note that communication during voluntary transitions is just as important to get right for the sake of the ministry.

Communicating about voluntary transitions, such as a pastoral retirement or succession, typically involves four pillars that have to be considered, says Erika Cole, another attorney I spoke with who specializes in advising churches on legal issues. Those four pillars are the congregation’s desire for transparency, the desire for the church to control the flow of information, the incoming pastor and the outgoing pastor. Trying to balance these four is not simple— in fact, it can be quite complex.

To start, she says, church leaders should work on a succession and communication plan before it’s needed. “Much like estate planning on the personal side, having the plan in place before you need it is key.”

Vanderbloemen, with his experience doing executive searches, absolutely agrees. “Every pastor is an ‘interim pastor,’” he says. Unless a church closes its doors or gets to be around when Jesus returns, the current pastor is eventually followed by someone else. In order to honor that reality, churches should think through their eventual voluntary transition plan with the same care they would an involuntary transition.

Planning ahead of time for the near inevitability of bringing in a new pastor makes all the difference. In Cole’s experience advising churches, “having the plan in place addresses generally 90 percent of the issues.”

So what about the other 10 percent? That’s where practical tips and expert guidance can make a difference.



01. Guide the Narrative

David Fletcher is a former full-time executive pastor and the founder of XPastor, an organization that coaches and equips church leaders who manage the church. His advice for making the initial transition announcement is also echoed by other experts: In a healthy way, control the narrative.

“Start it with email” or a video announcement, Fletcher says. “Get your best foot forward” by crafting the message deliberately and carefully so the first way people hear about a transition is the way you want them to hear it. “And you have to tell the truth, too,” he cautions. You don’t want the truth coming out in another way.

02. Be Faster Than the “Competition”

When you start to share the news of a transition, “it’s gotta be lightning fast,” says Vanderbloemen. Part of the reason for this approach is to be effective in communicating and part of it is to make sure a different—likely erroneous—narrative doesn’t travel faster. “You might as well give them the information you want them to have,” says Fletcher. This will also help negate inaccurate narratives or assumptions.

03. Get on the Same Page

Key to this initial announcement, says Fletcher, is that it is written, approved and vetted beforehand by all necessary parties. Other experts agree, and note that united understanding and buy-in are crucial.

04. Over-Communicate

There’s a tendency during transitions to keep information in a close-knit circle. But absent a legal or privacy concern, it’s usually better to err on the side of over-communicating, says Fletcher. A common pitfall is to keep the search process and progress secret. Search committees can too often confuse a candidate’s right to confidentiality with secrecy. “It’s perfectly acceptable to say, ‘We have three candidates we’re looking at,’” Fletcher notes.

It’s a good idea to regularly update the congregation on the process, he says, whether that’s an update from the pulpit, an email or just a bulletin item. Having regular touchpoints will help the congregation feel informed, even if the update is just a prayer request for the continuing progress of the transition.

Is there a danger in communicating too much? That depends on what is meant by “too much.” “Too much” as in confidential details? Absolutely. “Too much” as in frequency? “There’s no danger in that,” reassures Fletcher.

05. Have a Clear Timeline

Fletcher notes that search committees tend to do a great job of communicating in the first six months or so—but then they go silent. The result is that the congregation is left to guess or newcomers are unaware of the transition process altogether. “A church can actually survive six months” out of the loop, states Fletcher. But after that, a congregation left in the dark will start to have issues with the process.

“In the communication plans we draw up,” offers Vanderbloemen, “one of the axioms that has come up is ‘People will walk through a really long tunnel if they know how long the tunnel is.’” Without that knowledge, he notes, anxieties arise around how much giving will drop off, what is happening with the church’s ministries, and more. “All of that gets mitigated if there’s clear communication.”

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