Are You Ready to Transition From the Pastorate?

Preparing to hand off the baton

Most folks would not describe me as particularly athletic. If someone’s choosing teams for a pickup game of basketball, I’m happy to be water boy. I realized my limitations in elementary school after dedicating a year to seeking my hidden athletic talent. I tried every sport our school offered: football, basketball, baseball and track. And while not totally embarrassing myself, I found I was best suited for marching band.

Each sport had its own attractions and challenges, but I most remember training for the track team. My events were the standing long jump and the 4 x 100 meter relay. My parents endured me hopping around the house for weeks as I jumped everything from throw rugs to the family dog.

Most of my anxiety, however, centered on the relay. I knew that even if I ran my leg well, I would undo much of my and my team’s efforts if I were sloppy in handing off the baton. A smooth hand-off meant that our team would gain valuable time and momentum.

No one wins when a transition goes poorly.

As I approach my late fifties and my 25th year in ministry, seeking to run with endurance the race set before me, I find myself thinking more and more about passing the baton. I am grateful for our church’s long history of supporting pastors at the beginning of ministry. Our church leadership has even started a formal pastoral resident program to help young people coming out of seminary get the mentoring and training they need to kick off well.1

But I have come to believe that we need to give as much thought and energy to ending ministry as to beginning it. Here are some things I’m considering:

Passing the baton well honors our own effort.

Too often, when the topic of transition arises, we veteran pastors feel defensive about being “put out to pasture.” Our tendency can be to avoid the conversation. In a culture obsessed with the newest version of everything, that’s understandable. However, passing the baton smoothly doesn’t just benefit the younger pastor; it honors our own efforts.

Smooth transitions maintain the momentum gained by someone in a long-time pastoral position. On the other hand, poor transitions can cause loss of ground and even destabilize a church community.

We must prepare competent runners to receive the baton.

It’s hard to pass a baton if there’s no one there to hand it to. If we are intentionally pouring into the next generation of pastors and ministry workers, we can feel more confident as transition looms.

For folks serving in solo pastor positions, this can take some extra time, thought and energy. For those of us blessed to serve at churches with a multi-pastor staff, pouring into the next generation is more easily facilitated. Established pastors serve the church well when we give younger pastors meaningful ministry responsibilities (and not just the dirty jobs), as well as generous preaching experience.

Smooth transitions must be planned in advance.

The time to think about how you will pass the baton is not at the end of your ministry, but well before. Over the years I have seen the fallout resulting from not bringing up the idea of transition until there is a crisis and/or a pastor is emotionally out of gas. This means that the conversation takes place in an atmosphere of frustration and tension—making an already sensitive subject all the more difficult, if not impossible.2

How Creekside Community Church prepares for transition

Smooth transitions must be planned in advance.

Every five years, on a rotating basis, each pastor receives a 360 review from our elders.3 During preparation for the review, the pastor takes a two-month sabbatical—time to rest, to engage in intentional and prayerful self-reflection, to seek feedback from wise and thoughtful friends, and to celebrate God’s faithfulness. The pastor also considers where God might be leading in the future and if there’s a call to continue at the church.

During the same two months, elders solicit feedback on the pastor from all directions in the organization, including elders, church staff and a number of congregational members. The elders then enter a time of evaluating the past five years and prayerfully considering what the next five might look like.

When the pastor returns from sabbatical, the elders and the pastor go over the 360 review, discuss the product of the pastor’s reflection and work together to plan for the future. The three main options for the pastor are (1) continuing at the church in the same position, (2) staying on at the church but in some different role or function, or (3) transitioning to something else.

In one situation at our church, both pastor and leadership agreed that the pastor should keep serving in the same role. When he returned from sabbatical, it was with a gift of energizing rest, renewed affirmation and thoughtful, prayer-infused feedback.

We have also seen the Lord lead a pastor away from our church—in his case to pursue further studies. Because of the system in place, he was able to speak freely about some of the challenges of transition in advance, and also benefit from wise counsel and prayer during the process. Plus, the church was better prepared to send him on.

No one wins when a transition goes poorly, not the established pastor, not the incoming pastor, not the elders and certainly not the church family. We must remember that “our” church is Christ’s bride. We are called to do all we can to see her flourish. As shepherds of God’s church, our final duty to her involves handing off our baton well to the next shepherd. It could be one of the most powerful legacies we leave.

Explore this topic further in the fall 2014 EFCA Today issue on the topic, especially “Completing the Handoff: Six essential pointers from our transition,” by Tom Beaman and Jeff Foote.

Author Steve Gregg (at left in the photo above) is lead pastor at Creekside Community Church. The pastoral team also includes Mitchell Cruit, assistant pastor-in-residence (center), and Mike Roop, associate pastor. All three share ministry duties such as preaching, counseling and overseeing ministries.

1 Learn more about Creekside Community Church’s two-year pastoral residency.
2 Financial conversations can be among the most sensitive for those facing transition. Read “Pastors Are Not Like Beer Cans,” by Bob Osborne, director of church health for EFCA West, and consider his thoughtful questions for leadership teams.
3 The 360 review is a professional feedback process whereby a manager solicits input on an employee’s performance from a select group that comprises the “full circle” of those with whom the employee works regularly: boss, peers, direct reports.

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