3 Tips For Transitioning Pastors

In the past few months both Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant have announced their retirements. Peyton Manning, in his press conference, referred to the number 18 he has worn on his back for the past 18 seasons. “There’s something about 18 years – 18 is a good number,” said Manning. He also uttered the words that everyone already knew …

 “You don’t have to wonder if I’ll miss it. Absolutely I will.”

Today I spend much of my time coaching pastors in transition / succession seasons of life in ministry. It is a tough season indeed, and eyes often get wet like Peyton’s did as he talked about stepping away from pro football.

Several pastors who have been at a church for 25-35 years have asked how I can possibly understand what they are going through. I then share with them my story of launching, leading and then handing off Discovery Church in Simi Valley, California.

Four years ago I transitioned away from a church that I had launched and led for ten years.  It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life.

I often ask pastors … “Is it easier to hand off a 10 year old kid or a 35 year old kid?”

And the answer is … they are both hard!

It is very difficult to come to the realization that one day we will all step away.

No NBA guard position is permanent. 

No NFL quarterback position is permanent.

And though Peyton and Kobe can still continue to be involved in the game in coaching, team office, ownership or television, their  role on the team changes dramatically.

It is the same with ministry.

No lead pastor position is permanent.

And though a pastor can continue to be involved in the church as an associate, consultant or lay leader, the pastor’s role on the team changes.

This is a difficult season indeed in the life of a player and in the life of a pastor.

As fans of Peyton Manning, many of us are glad he decided to step away from his role when he did. And though it was not easy, many would say it was the right move for him.

Here is Peyton’s emotional retirement speech.

In the church world I have seen lead pastor after lead pastor have real problems with transition.  I have great sympathy for them, and I do not judge.

But in my case I have personally transitioned away from a church where I invested more than a decade of my time, energy, money, life and family.

And because of that decade of my life … I get it!

It is incredibly difficult to end well.

Here are three things that make it difficult for pastors to transition well:

 

  • Identity Theft

Every pastor I have ever known, myself included, has wrestled with misplaced identity:  the notion that I am a “pastor” more than anything else in life. And if I lose that position of “pastor,” I lose who I am.

But the truth is, long before you were a pastor you were a child of God.

This is your identity.

And besides being a child of God, you are also a friend, neighbor, co-worker, parent, spouse, sibling and child yourself.

You were at least 7-8 things long before you were a pastor.

Your true identity is not about who you are but whose you are … a child of God.

  • Not Knowing What’s Next

Human nature says, “Do not let go of something until there is something else to grab.” Like this trapeze artist.

The reason so many pastors do not “let go” is they don’t know what’s next.

When you have “no next” human nature says, “Don’t let go.”

Conversely, when you know what’s coming tomorrow, it’s easier to let go of what you’re holding onto today.

And the greatest way to discover what you might like to do in the future is to look at what you have enjoyed in the past. Is there a way to leverage all your years of experience, knowledge and wisdom in the church world in a different role serving God’s Church?

My words to pastors facing transition would be to take heart.

God is not finished with you yet.

God has a great next in mind for you if you will just be ready and willing to listen, let go and jump!

  • Saul’s Armor Syndrome

Pastors in transition seasons of life often cannot fathom how their successor could possibly succeed wearing anything but their armor.  This is a centuries old issue. One that I have experienced first hand.

It is Saul trying to force his armor onto David.

There was a generational gap that caused Saul to see David’s leadership decisions as incomprehensible and even weak.

Even though Saul couldn’t see it…

David would lead.
David would fight.
David would succeed.

But he would not do it the way it had always been done.

One of the biggest hindrances to pastors making a good hand off is a faulty view that their “armor” of methods, techniques, philosophies, systems and strategies that have worked in the past will also be what is bound to work in the future.

The truth is this issue of “armor” is a generational battle in which the successor does not want to be weighed down by unnecessary encumbrances from the past.

This is not cockiness.

This is holy boldness.

This is the next generation leading God’s Church forward in faith.

It takes just as much faith for David to lead forward with a sling as it did Saul with a sword.

Pastors in transition … don’t be surprised when you don’t understand the methods of the next generation.

Make sure the person to whom you hand the baton of leadership has surrendered his or her life to the leadership of God.

Take a look at the previous victories God has allowed in your successor’s life.

Consider the lions and bears that have been slain with tools and methods that defy the conventional thinking of this world.

Consider the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in this person’s life.

And then be your successor’s biggest fan.

Be willing to watch and cheer the victory as your successor fights the devil with a sling.

And as you take off your armor … be thankful for the victories you’ve won and the protection it provided.

May God bless you, friends, as God leads you into new seasons of life and Kingdom building.

 

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