Transition Plan: Seven Secrets Every Leader Needs to Know by Bob Russell and Bryan Bucher. Louisville: Minister's Label, 2010. 152 pp.
Bob Russell served for forty years as pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. The last five years he was involved in planning for the leadership transition of his successor. His pastorate was marked by phenomenal growth, but this book focuses on the story of how it ended and what was next for Russell in his life and ministry.
Succession of leadership, sometimes called pastoral transition or interim ministry, is a major issue for Christian churches. As Russ Crabtree and Carolyn Weese have shown in Elephants in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken About Pastoral Transitions, the cost in time, energy and money for a leadership transition is very expensive. Russell and Bucher provide a great case studyt in what makes a transition go well.
Two hallmarks emerge from Transition Plan that are measures for this change:planning and attitude. Bob Russell describes how he came to be concerned with the matter of transition. There were a couple of key events - reading Joel Gregory's account of how the transition at First Baptist Church of Dallas failed raised question in Russell's mind about how his transition would fare. Then as part of a building program, the church had to take out a life insurance policy on Russell to secure the loan. These things made him ask the question - what happens to this church after me?
In the case of Southeast Christian Church, a megachurch, they found the answers in identifying and grooming one of the pastoral leaders already on the staff. A key to this approach is that Russell and the church leadership made this decision early in the process. Then the leadership moved to make the decision a reality.
The second part of the process is that they executed the plan. Not everything worked as it was intended. Russell recounts occasions where this was as much caused by hiw own actions as anything else. And that is the real key. Even the best plan is only a piece of paper if not implemented.
The transition time was a time for the congregation to reset some of their expectations. One way this was done was through redoing the membership roll. Southeast Christian Church informed members that in 2006 they would have to "opt in" to continue to be members. One result was that the membership roll went from 25,000 to 17,000. The benefit was that this insured those who were members had thought about their commitment and it set the stage for the next stage of growth and ministry.
An important note that Russell points out is what happened within his own family. Judy and Bob Russell had been married 42 years when he retired. Judy had taken a job within the ministry operations. Bob's retirement meant that she also would relinquish her role. How did that play out? In the end it was worked out - but this was not something done lightly.
Transition Plan emphasizes the need for a plan to be developed. Not only must there be a plan, there must also be the courage, commitment and maturity of the church leadership team, clergy and laity, to let the plan unfold and not be discouraged or distracted. It is not a plan that benefits just the pastor or even the church. It is a plan that is to honor the Lord.
Russell also touches on the personal impact of departure. It is clear he had a sense this was part of the calling to ministry - there is something beyond what had been know for forty plus years. A sense of calling in ministry - be it in the beginning or the fulfillment - makes so much difference in choices that are made.
In summary, Transition Plan outlines a process of leadership transition in this way:
Not every pastor will have the same dynamics or result in transition. But Transition Plan is a great resource for pastors, lay leaders, and church staff as they plan to face leadership changes. The keys to the best result are in planning and attitude.
Joel L. Alvis, Jr., has a passion to work with churches experiencing transition in leadership or other circumstances. Since 2003 he has served as an interim (or transitional pastor). He provides coaching and consulting services to congregational leaders and clergy as an Authorized Interpretive Consultant for Holy Cow! Consulting.