Leadership transitions are a big deal for a church. Things may have been going great for a season, perhaps even a very long season, and then a poorly executed transition throws everything into disarray. It's unfortunate any time that this happens, but it's especially unfortunate when you have time to plan but fail to do so.
That is why it is important to talk about transitions. If you're the senior pastor, you have an opportunity to shape a positive future that lasts beyond your tenure. But that's only possible if you get ahead of the curve and talk about the transition.
That single benefit should be enough to motivate you to start the conversation, but here are four more reasons to talk about transitions:
- Others are already talking about it. If you're over 65 years old (and maybe even if you're between 55 and 65), other people are asking questions about the transition behind your back. They're speculating on when you will retire or sharing the latest rumor they heard. Even if you don't know when or don't want to say anything to the entire congregation, you can and should start the conversation with your board.
- They don't know how to start the conversation. In rare cases, a savvy board member (or some other long-tenured leader) may be willing to initiate a conversation about retirement. But in most cases, church members don't know how to begin. They're afraid that they will offend you, or that you'll hear an unintended message (i.e., "we think it's time for you to go"). So they'll probably just stay quiet, waiting for you to bring it up.
- Your worst fears are unlikely to occur. Senior pastors express a variety of reasons to avoid conversations about their retirement and succession. One of the biggest is a fear that starting the conversation could result in being pushed out before they are ready. But if you're long-tenured, you're also probably well respected and dearly loved. It's very unlikely that whispering the "R" word will start a mutiny.
- Transition planning takes longer and is more complicated than you realize. As I've helped different pastors and churches with transitions, I've heard one thing repeatedly: "This is more complicated than I realized." A well-planned, intentional transition is much more than a search process for the new pastor. It's more than a retirement party for the outgoing pastor and a welcome party for the new one. Transitions address the retiring leader's own needs (e.g., personal, financial), anxiety and personnel issues with the staff, keeping volunteer leaders engaged, strategic direction, and much more. When you consider all the factors, it’s no surprise that effective transition planning takes time.
What conversation should you have this week?
Mike Bonem / Mike Bonem is a consultant, speaker, church leader, businessperson, husband and father, who loves to help ministries and leaders reach their God-given potential. He is the author of Thriving in the Second Chair and three other books on ministry leadership.