Lecture 23: Pastoral Leadership and Transitions | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 23: Pastoral Leadership and Transitions

Course: Pastoral Care and Leadership
Lecture 23: Pastoral Leadership and Transitions 

The last one should obviously address the issue. In terms of pastoral care and pastoral leadership, ultimately there is the issue of transition. Critical to successful leadership is how we manage this as well, so I am going to give you some basic rules.

I. Manage Your Present Leadership

The first basic rule is to manage your present leadership. Thinking about transition is not looking out into the future,

it starts by looking into the present; which means, first of all, do everything you can to strengthen your present ministry. It takes four to five years to at least begin to have any kind of relevant, effective ministry. It takes years to

build trust and minister healing and make the necessary changes and develop a vision. It took my first church about six

years to come to grips with a vision for its future.

If we are going to think about transition, we first of all have to ask ourselves, “Have I fairly given this church the

time that is required?” I think the average stay of a pastor is about three years. If that is true, then it is kind of start/stop without any really momentum or progress; and we wonder why the church is not progressing. So, first of all, give yourself the time and commit yourself. I don’t think it is a bad idea, in many cases, to say to the church, “I’m prepared to give you the rest of my life if you want to move forward and be a movement and work through changes and be a vital community.” It doesn’t always work that way, those are rare cases. But at least telling people something like that sure is

more healthy than saying, “You know, I’m climbing the ladder and I’m hoping that this will be a first good rung to getting

to the top.”

So, manage your present leadership. Someone put it this way: “Success is not measured by what you’re leaving to, but by

what you’re leaving behind.” I like that. We tend to go, “Look at where this person has ended up,” but we should be

saying, “It is amazing what this person left behind.” That is real success. So, manage your present leadership.

II. Be Realistic About the Grass on the Other Side

Secondly, be realistic about the grass on the other side because the reality is, if you have not discovered this already,

it is brown on both sides. It is not Tarshish or Nineveh. It is not glamour and adventure versus drudgery. It is not sinless or sinful. As Eugene Peterson liked to refer, “The fleas come with the dog,” they are there.

When I lived in the Netherlands, there were a lot of these beautiful fields and farms and the most amazing, beautiful,

immense cows. Where we lived there was this beautiful pasture field on this side of the road and one on this side. I would often drive by and I’d see the cows on this side at the cattle crossing with the fence there, looking at the field on the other side; and I would see the cattle on this side at the cattle crossing, looking at the field on the other side. Sometimes God would say, “Are you noticing something?” That is so true, not only in animals, but in human nature. We have this image that, “Oh, it’s going to be so different.” It may be different, but we have a romanticized notion, a little bit like Jonah. Eugene Peterson, I think “Under the Unpredictable Plant” is one of the very best books he wrote. He actually wrote a pastoral theology of the Book of Jonah, in which he makes the point that we all have something in us, a desire to always look for the Tarshish. We are always going to the travel agent. If we can get to Tarshish and get out of Nineveh, it would be great. But as he puts it here, “Pastoral work on both sides consists of modest, daily, assigned work, farm work, the congregation of Nineveh-like work.” So, step into reality. Hang around long enough. There are gossips that won’t shut up, furnaces that malfunction, sermons that misfire, disciples who quit, choirs that go flat. Every congregation is a congregation of sinners and worst of all, they have pastors who are sinners. Moses had Israel in the wilderness. Paul had

Corinth. Jeremiah had Jerusalem. Isaiah had his non-responders.

So be honest and real about the world out there. I think it was Peterson who said that we have a tendency to glamourize

other places, and we commit what he refers to as “ecclesiastical pornography”. We lust over the airbrushed congregation. Then we get there and realize, wow, it wasn’t like we thought.

III. Be Honest About Tough Times

Here is something else. Be honest about tough times. Be honest about storms. I find so often pastors go through a

difficult time and go, “Well, it must be God’s will” instead of realizing, no, actually the storm might be God’s way of just helping you to go deeper and teaching you things that otherwise you would not learn. We are prone to misjudge and assume

confrontation or criticism is a sign we need to leave. It could be. But it may actually be a time, a season, to grow.

In my church in Holland it was hard. Even by six months in, I remember riding home one night in a driving rain and I said

to God, “I want out of this place. I want out.” I was looking for any way out of this place. I was missing home. These people were not so nice. And I remember a clear sense from the Lord that said something like this. It was not audible, but it was real enough, that said, “When I want to move you, I will let you know.” I spent seven years there. At my first church I spent 10 years. It was not my ideal church, I can tell you. It was this 80-year-old, stuck-in-the-mud church; and I will admit to you, I did not take any Benedictine vow. I prayed on my vacations, “Lord, here I am, I’m ready. Send me.” I prayed the Isaiah prayer and God said, “I will send you when I’m ready. But for now, you are there.” He left me there 10 years. Looking back, I am so grateful. There are things I would have never learned if I had moved on. I’m so grateful God kept me seven years in The Netherlands. I am so grateful I spent 16 years in my last church.

There is something about longevity that is so important. It is important for you, but it is important for the people. If

you want people to trust you, they have to feel like you are going to be around. So, be honest about tough times. We really have to look at this and go, What is God saying through this? Maybe He is calling us to something else, but maybe He is not. Just like when you get an opportunity, you get something in the mail, an inquiry about you. This is what a lot of

guys do, right? We go, Oh, it’s an invitation from God, it’s a call. Well, it might be a test. It may have nothing to with


your future. I am amazed how quickly we just read into things a lot more than what is there. Again, I am cautioning


you with, it may be something God is saying, but be honest; be honest about opportunities, be honest about tough times.

IV. Discover Your Emerging Leaders

A. Take time to disciple someone that could take over for you.

Here is the fourth important principle about transition. Make sure you have discovered your emerging leaders and groom

them. Particularly in my last church, I covenanted with God that I would pour myself into the right person, so that whether they decided to go with that person, it was the church’s decision, not me to say this is who needs to be your next


pastor. Some large churches’ pastors do that. I wanted to be faithful to say when I left, when I retired,


“Here is someone you ought to really consider because he is groomed and he is trained.” Moses did that and Joshua became an

able leader. But Joshua didn’t, and we know what that led to, the Book of Judges. Invest in people. Discover those that


you are willing to entrust the organization to. Then, pour your leadership into them.


B. Ten clues to identifying a possible successor.

Fred Smith gave these clues: Look for how people have demonstrated leadership. Look for people who think in a visionary

way. Look for people who have a certain constructive discontent, they believe there are better ways. Look for people who are practical, who can take big ideas and apply. Look for people who are willing to take responsibility and are not

intimidated by the weight of responsibility. Look for people who finish the course, who won’t let go until they have done

it. Look for people with mental toughness, who are willing to pay the price of leadership. Look for people who are

respected by their peers. Look for people who are respected by their family. Look for people who stop and listen.

Find these people and then invest in mentoring and training and create this leadership culture; and begin to pass off and

delegate. By the end of my time at Village, my associate lead pastor led the staff meetings, shared in the preaching. We met every week to talk about the main decisions of the church. We talked about people. I wanted to know he could just seamlessly take the church forward. We owe that in transition as I believe one of our great gifts to the church. This is what

I’m doing for you. Not to say, therefore, in a manipulative way, “You should choose this person.” As I told this person I

poured myself into: The church may go out and they may look and actually, that is okay, you want that because it may

confirm that you are the person. On the other hand, if the church is led differently, well that is okay too, as hard as

that may be.

C. Convince your present board of the wisdom of developing future leaders

Here is something else I have written down. Convince your present board of the wisdom of developing future leaders. One of

their best assets is developing the leader next to you, talking about transitions, convincing them to think outside the box.

V. Release Your Emerging Leaders into Ministry

Then, release these emerging leaders into ministry and empower them to do ministry. What you are doing is preparing the

church for the future. You are also bringing the leadership of the church into it, so elders are embracing future leaders and empowering them.

VI. Know When It’s Time to Leave

A. Initial Considerations

This is such a hard one. If you leave too soon, that can do some real damage to the church. If you, on the other hand,

hang on too long, it may cancel out a lot of your good work. How do you know? I think every pastor asks this question, how do you know?

B. Helpful keys to thinking about when it’s the right time to leave

Here are some things that I have used to guide me:

1) Have you been there long enough to reach your most effective years?

2)Are you losing the support of the board? That is a painful question and maybe as you ask this question, maybe it is not

  1. recoverable.

    3)Are you losing the cooperation of your staff? Are you starting to find everything you are trying to do is just such

    hard work. You are pushing against the gravity.

    4) Has the organization grown beyond your unique abilities and experiences? Have you clearly lost your effectiveness?

    Because you have brought growth, but at a certain point, that growth has gone beyond you. I think there is a lot of wisdom to say here – and I would like to believe this is true in many cases – that as the church grows and you are growing, that hopefully that never changes. But some pastors stop growing and the church keeps growing and you are no longer capable of leading them. You do not know how to lead beyond having one or two staff and you don’t know how to delegate; or you don’t want to let go. So that is a good question to ask.

    5) One of the questions to ask yourself is, have I lost the passion? I have run out of energy, drive. Is my voice no

    longer fresh? Do I find that I have shifted from the day I could hardly wait to get up, to pushing the alarm button off because I just want to keep sleeping?

    6)Certainly a big question is, is God calling me to a new chapter? Again, this requires really clear thinking. Are you

    honest with your ambitions? Am I willing to not simply hide behind, “God told me”? Your people deserve better than that answer. I have seen pastors who do that, and they might be sincere, but what they again have done is, they set up any differences of opinion to feel that they are arguing with God. I think we use it as an easy cover. I think we do it so we don’t have to engage in maybe some difficult discussions with people. It is okay, I think it is healthy to say, as I did with my church at my 10-year mark, I said,”You know, I’ve taken this church, I believe, in wonderful places and you’ve taken me in wonderful places; and I have loved; and it has been hard. I am ready for a new chapter. It’s not to say that you’ve been a bad chapter. I’ve been extended a wonderful opportunity to be something I’m not, an expat pastor.”

    I’ve prayed Jabesh’s prayer for years, I still do, by the way, every day: “Lord, bless my life.” In fact, the imperative

    and the infinitive together, “Bless to bless” which is the intensive in the Hebrew language. So I regularly say, “Lord, I want your greatest blessing.” Why not ask for it? Jabesh said it, and he got it. Bless the “bless me” and enlarge. Here is

    my life, Lord, as I can see it. I’m ready for you to do something like this. Help my character to move out to that next

    boundary level because if it doesn’t, I might get out here and do some really, really bad things. Which is why I think Jabesh prayed, “Bless me. Enlarge my boundaries and may your hand be on me.” I think that is a great prayer. That is what I

    shared with my church. “I have been here 10 years and I have asked God to always enlarge my life, as I ask God to enlarge

    this church; and I am ready for a new chapter; and it could very well be that you are ready for a new chapter.”

    Ask this question: Have you sensed God is calling you to a new chapter? And be ready again to be really honest. Actually,

    my call to The Netherlands came two years earlier and the church invited me to come. I sat down with my board and I asked them honestly, I said, “Is it okay?” That could involve some risk. My board came back to me after praying about it and said, “No, it is not.” In this case, many on this board I had worked with for eight years. I thought to myself, if I can’t trust them, who can I trust? I had poured myself into them. These are the leaders, we led together; and they said, “John, your work is not done yet here.” So I said “okay” and I told Holland, “I’m sorry, I’m not free to be released.” I will admit, that was

    a tough, tough thing to do. A year later I began to pray because my heart was still sort of moving in that direction and I

    said, “Lord, if that door would ever open again, I’m ready.” It opened the next day. I went to my board, this was a year later, and I said, “I’m coming back to you with the same question.” By then, some things had changed. Our worship leader had

    moved on, our board chair had moved on and the board had to other new chapters in their lives. They said, “John, it is a

    good time.” I was free.

    Part of knowing when it’s time to leave is asking some of these hard questions, but then asking the question, Is God

    calling you to a new chapter? Again, being willing to be transparent, to be vulnerable, to not use the “God told me” language; but to say, “Honestly, this is what I’m thinking, it is what I have prayed about. Now check me. If you think my thinking is wrong, my sensing of the Holy Spirit is different, please help me here.”

    7) The seventh thing I have written down here: Is the counsel closest to you affirming the decision to move on? We all

    have these VIPs, we should, as I talked about earlier. What are our very resourceful people telling us? – the people we can go to in confidence; and as they look at our lives, they speak into our lives. What are they telling us?

    VII. Step Aside with Integrity

    Here is the last core thing: Step aside with integrity

    A. When it is time to leave, walk away and disconnect and let the board and the people build relationship with their new


    One of the best tests of leadership is the willingness to pass the baton to a successor and let him carry it on towards

    the line.

    B. Four types of people that transition

    Some years ago I read this book by a man who looked at successful transitions and he looked at corporations. He said there

    are four kinds of people who transition. This is what he defined them as:

    1) Monarchs. The first are “monarchs.” The monarchs are those who believe that no-one can succeed them. They stay until

    they are finally pushed out. They are convinced no-one can do it better than them. They practically die or again, they are forced out.

    2) The second category is what he calls “generals.” They leave, not so happily, and they plot their comeback.

    3) The third category are “ambassadors.” They mentor strong successors and they remain available as a confidant.

    4) The fourth category are “governors.” They leave and pursue new interests and you never hear from them again.

    The point of what he was saying in the book, and I think it so applies to ministry, is to be careful you are not a monarch

    that just hangs on and on, way beyond what you should have. Don’t be generals who leave and then are always sort of available when maybe people are unhappy with your successor and start coming to you and you start plotting together how to

    maybe take over the church again. Don’t be governors who just disappear. But be there to say, “I’m stepping aside. I’m

    allowing you to move forward, I want you to move forward. If I can help in any way, call me.” And then move on.

    Those are some things I’ve learned about transition.

    VIII. Questions

    A. Pray that as the Lord increases your boundaries, that your character will also increase

    Question: I was really intrigued with the two boxes you drew. It wasn’t so much that you have one box and the possibility

    of growing a bigger box, but it was the arrow. You referred to the pastor’s character. If I understand you right, what you are saying is that the lynch pin or perhaps the biggest potential problem is the pastor’s character or lack of character.

    In other words, if he grows beyond his character, then he is probably going to do something wrong and get in trouble. So,

    especially if you are talking to a young pastor who has a gift and justifiably wants to affect as many people as he can for Christ, is it fair to use this analogy and say, “You have to become the kind of person that you need to be before you move to the next arena because it is an issue of your character and your spiritual growth.” Is that a fair thing to say?

    Dr. Johnson: I think so, as long as we don’t say, “Okay, I’m going to work on my character with the expectation God is

    going to take me to the next level.” He may or He may not. I mention this because actually, it came out of a prayer meeting I was once in, in Holland when I was with a group of pastors. I had been used to praying the Jabeth prayer regularly.

    I believed in many ways, Holland was sort of an answer to that prayer, God did expand my boundaries. But one night I was

    with a group of pastors and a pastor prayed this prayer, he said: “Lord, whatever boundaries you give me in my life, may my character stretch to that point.” I realized I had left out something fundamental in my prayer. It is not enough just to ask for larger boundaries, but to say, ”Lord, whatever boundaries you give me, my character has to match up to that.” Because we all know, I think when we see some of these difficult stories like Hybel as an example, you have to step back and go, Now, this is a picture of enlarged boundaries, from starting a church in a theater, to having a worldwide impact. But when you read his story and some of the failings, it seems – I don’t want to sound judgmental, I don’t know the man’s heart – but that his character didn’t quite stretch out as far as those boundaries. I think it serves as a warning. I think many of us do want to see our boundaries stretch and we want to see a flourishing ministry. Maybe along the way, God may take us through

    different steps. But I think we have to be very careful that we are honest with ourselves: Can my character handle that?

    If God tomorrow said, “John, I want you to pastor a church over here of 7,000 and it has all these perks and benefits and

    you’ll have this worldwide ministry. Can my character handle that?” I would like to think so; but I would have to ask

    myself. Not that that is going to happen to a retired pastor, but you understand what I’m saying.

    I will close with this, I think one of my favorite stories. I refer to Joe Gregory? 25:53.3_____ who went to First Baptist

    Dallas, who came to transition Criswell, who was in that first category, who just did not leave. In the book he tells about in some circles in his denomination of pastors who clearly were ladder climbers. They were just moving from the next church to the next church that was bigger and more prestigious and had more influence. He tells the story of this one pastor, that the worship pastor did not respect much because he was sort of autocratic. He could see this guy was here only for a

    season. It was just a stepping stone. Sure enough, this pastor, at the end of a service, without announcing or talking to

    anybody, said, “Well, I want you all to know this morning that this is my last Sunday. Jesus has called us to a ministry at First Baptist Church Atlanta.” The worship leader is sitting there, thinking, “Thanks for not saying anything”; but in a

    way, he is sort of glad to be gone with this guy. Here is this guy again using the favorite card, right? – “Jesus has

    called us.” What are you going to say?

    As Gregory tells the story, the worship leader got up, thinking about what he should say, and he said, “Let’s turn to hymn

    317, ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’.” Whether that is true or not, I think it is a great story.
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