When a pastor leaves, everyone is affected. Deacons are thrust into a frenzy of activity, staff members find their future up in the air, and the people of the church are forced to face a future without the secure feeling their pastor provided. Because pastoral staff members are often the most visible of these affected folks, and since the people often assume these leaders know what’s going on, staff members must walk the minefield of transition carefully.
A few weeks ago, I was asked to lead a discussion with a pastoral team as they were grappling with their pastor’s decision and announcement of his plans to leave their church. Here are the notes from that discussion:
First, I’ve been there. The advice below doesn’t come from someone’s book or a workshop I heard a wise leader present. These principles are drawn from experiencing transition firsthand. Though I grew up under a pastor who led our church for 38 years (meaning no transition!), since adult life took me away from home, I have encountered transition at local church, district, and national levels. I wish I didn’t have so much experience because it was painful to acquire, but perhaps some of these notes can help you…
What should staff members do?
1. Love each other
This one is the first on the list by a long shot. Think about why Jesus gave such priority to this command. While love is the connector between Jesus and us, He also knew that His disciples would need each other. So do you. Remember that He prayed that the Father would “keep” them (John 17), or hold them in the same kind of unity He shared with His Father. That’s the first thing all of us are praying for you now. There’s a lot for you to deal with and each of you will be feeling your way through various emotions and uncertainties–with a lot of people watching. Those people who sit around your conference table need to be your closest friends in transition along with the deacons and their spouses. Keep these relationships at the top of your priority list.
2. Widen your view
In transition, you’re going to need to see more than your portfolio. There are many things the pastor and his wife have been caring for and someone will need to fill those gaps. Likely your pastors have done many things other people don’t see. I hope someone has been watching closely, because the interim pastor won’t likely be able to carry that full load. Remember, when things are cared for, people feel at peace.
3. Know your enemy
I’m not talking about any individual in the church, and while Satan can author a bunch of trouble, my first thoughts aren’t even of him. The enemy of transition is insecurity. On some level, everyone of you will feel it, and you will react in various ways because of it. Some people react with control, fear, gossip, scheme, or the desire to escape. All we are really after is some way to feel more stable, more certain that things are going to be okay. But none of the common reactions I listed are going to work. When you feel insecure or encounter such feelings in others, know what’s happening and confess your need to God and each other. Remember that some level of insecurity is normal! But don’t let these feelings dicatet your choices or behavior. Satan will be glad to pull those strings if you’ll let him.
4. Remember the power of your words
Be careful of your conversations. People see you as an authority because you’re closer to the decision makers than they are. Some people will offer themselves as sudden friends when they may simply want information. They’re not bad people; their insecurity is showing.
Don’t speculate on what’s happening with congregation members or offer your ideas on what should happen. Don’t practice speculating with ministry friends either. Even though they may be miles away and unconnected with your congregation, if you practice speculating with them, your ideas will become more entrenched in your own mind and make it harder for you to accept a different direction. Stay open to the Holy Spirit and know that everything you say will be quoted–and it will grow beyond anything you intended to say!
5. Aim your concerns vertically
Who can I talk to? First talk to God–He is the source of peace. Getting more info won’t bring peace. God is the Source of your calling. He knows the future and His is the will your looking for.
Second talk to those in authority. Deacons and transition leaders are the ones chosen by God to lead you. These folks should be able to tell you what they can, and be honest about what they can’t – respect that
Third – THERE IS NO THIRD PERSON TO TALK TO! Never discuss your concerns horizontally (with people at your level or below on the organizational chart)! It’s unhealthy for you and for that person. God will use this transition to grow your dependence on His leading.
6. Trust God’s anointing
Remember that the one with the responsibility is the one God wants to anoint. God will anoint the one responsible and his counselor. God won’t tell an outsider what “should” happen unless no one in leadership is listening. Those who say, “I know who are next pastor should be” are typically immature and looking for attention or control. Stay clear of them. Trust God’s plan to anoint and lead your transition team and leaders. Those in authority need prayer for their decisions and their implementation.
7. Honor yesterday and tomorrow
A critical principle for transition is to respect and honor at all times. That means honoring the one leaving and the one coming to take his place. Someday you may be the one replacing someone who is leaving. Never build your foundation on criticisms of your predecessor. And since there’s a new leader coming, be ready for new leadership. Be ready to embrace different ideas and even different vision. God is at work in transition and we need to give our best to the future He has planned. If God intended nothing to change, He wouldn’t be bringing new leadership.
Hope this helps…