4 Questions to Guide a Successful Leadership Transition

I am in the process of transitioning from the role of Senior Minister of a local church to one of senior leadership in another movement. Having once received a heritage of trust to succeed a long-standing and fruitful leader, I am now in that place again, but with the crucial difference of needing also to pass the baton to a new local runner. I have identified what I believe to be four important questions that can help to guide any transition successfully.

1. Is the call of God being identified in this process?

It can seem somewhat subjective, at times, but there needs to be a clear sense of divine calling in what any leader undertakes, including a proposed ministry change. It provides a surety in times of future hardship and helps to ground personal convictions associated with future leadership decisions, provided that a spirit of humility is maintained. It also contextualises the present state of flux.

If convictions merely reflect logic or experience, then an absence of passion will be evident. Christian leaders need to hear from God and to be able to articulate their convictions. In particular, new leaders must be aware of their relative trust-deficit. They need a fire in the belly that transcends a mere desire to have a go and helps to bring credibility while also engaging in widespread collaboration.

Outgoing leaders, too, need a clear call that will inspire their next season of life and make sense of the change for others. The personal vulnerabilities of those being left behind will mean the utmost consideration is needed both from incoming and outgoing leaders in navigating leadership transitions.

Congregations need their inevitable questions answered as they consider what change means for them and why it needs to happen. When the call of God is not clearly guiding a process, no amount of platitudes or euphemisms will cover the sense of abandonment or despondency that some will feel.

2. Is there a shared positivity about the nature of the change?

Belief in what God can and wants to do needs the present to be seized. A baton is passed with both athletes running at pace in the same direction and it is exchanged within a defined ‘box’. Outgoing leaders can find it hard to let go or to accept that their permission will no longer required. (Of course. honour for founding ministers may warrant consultation or courteous notification for major change.)

This ‘letting go’ can be helped by documenting the nature and timing of the transition and, if the outgoing minister is staying in the church, what their future role is and is not going to be. An outgoing minister who stays is well advised to take an extended break to allow a change to be established. He or she should then avoid any further governance or executive leadership roles which might undermine the new team (unless there is a beneficial arrangement that is mutually agreeable.)

An outgoing leader must maintain a belief that a church’s best days are ahead and this means the glories of the past should not be allowed to dim present possibilities for impacting communities in new ways.

Inspiring change wisely builds on past greatness but never seeks a wholesale return to it.

Recent debate in the world of AFL football surrounded whether or not the game is a lesser spectacle now than in previous generations. One coach scoffed at the thought, believing that too many people look at the past with rose-coloured glasses.

The church, too, needs to shift focus from preferred methodologies and worship styles of the past, unless the new team embraces some of these for a clear reason. The key, though, is to be capturing what God is saying to do now and then being willing and free to enact this. Of course, change of some kind would have eventuated, anyway, regardless of the leader in office.

The ‘now’ church naturally needs to be one whose members could bring their children and grandchildren to it. It is one that all generations would be proud to call their spiritual home.

The youngest generation of any church will be a vital part of its present but will also represent the potential of its future.

3. Is the existing culture of the church well understood?

Change may eventually and rightly shape a new culture, but it can’t disregard the actual existence of an old one. Sacred cows can make the best hamburgers but challenge them badly and it’s you who might be mince meat!

Turning a big ship quickly can throw half the passengers overboard, while making the other half seasick.

Change involves collaboration and widespread buy-in, with extensive listening, reflecting and filtering. It is important to know what not to change and why. Much of the good that exists in a church has resulted from a work of the Spirit that first needs to be appreciated.

Internal leadership appointments offer an advantage in this respect, even though potential blind spots will warrant external inputs. Of course, new leaders who are also new to an organisation can offer helpfully refreshing perspectives. Their experience can facilitate speedy adaptation while riding a honeymoon wave of enthusiasm, although it must be remembered that any apparent credentials might well have been shaped, in part, by stellar colleagues from their previous leadership life.

Where change is keenly sought by a congregation, rushing it or dictating it won’t properly allow it to be owned widely beyond an initial good-will acceptance period. New ideas by new leaders are often applauded by people at first, until the implications of associated changes directly impact them. It is important, too, to discern whether perceived needs might just represent the wishes of a vocal minority.

Long-term stakeholders and key leaders provide invaluable historical and cultural insights. Such people will be important vision amplifiers to have on-side, where possible. The language of new vision and associated objectives needs shared ownership for traction. This takes time to develop and key influencers accelerate positive change.

4. Is the new leader truly being released to lead?

Outgoing leaders may not always be in a position to influence the appointment of their successor. Ideally, though, they will already have been reproducing themselves. Identifying and working with one or more hypothetical replacements who already assume significant responsibilities can protect an organisation from a more unwelcome kind of transition. This would ideally become a formal board-recognised process. The proverbial bus doesn’t always turn up in the manner or timing expected.

Think risk assessment. Is your church prepared for this kind of an emergency? At least considering what an immediate response might look like should in no way threaten or hasten a succession, but it just might jolt a team into responsible planning that can seamlessly optimise and leverage its future.

When a successor is identified with less forethought, a necessary transition period can unfortunately become rushed. Prospective candidates are sometimes presumed to be readier than is warranted when the outgoing minister is working to an exit deadline.

A longer-term succession plan will, of course, be a different proposition. A pool of younger leaders will naturally not be ready yet, but this should not prevent intentional investment into their leadership growth or the need to invest them with some level of real decision-making authority. The passage of time will offer plenty of opportunities to observe character and leadership acumen, long before any formal discussions need to be held about individuals’ prospects, but developmental pressure is avoided because a short-term replacement plan, if ever needed, is already in place.

Coaching younger leaders and providing candid feedback and encouragement is always important. Internships can help, but these cannot be lecture-based or text-focused unless complementing some form of relational apprenticeship. Discipleship is never solely theoretical or reflective.

Finally, successors need to be affirmed publicly and genuinely, just as outgoing leaders should also be honoured warmly. A new minister needs to be allowed to grow into their role, to be freed from the shackles of comparison, and to find their own voice.

They must be given every chance to be the best version of themselves, rather than being regarded as an inferior version of the person they are replacing.

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2 thoughts on “4 Questions to Guide a Successful Leadership Transition

  1. Rob,
    Here is something I wish to share:

    Imagine a pyramid with the pastor at the top applying his leadership on everyone below – people can’t handle that type of pressure and leave.

    Now turn the pyramid upside down with the Church at the top Nd the pastor at the bottom. It is not long before the pressure on the pastor becomes intolerable leading to what we call “Burnout”

    Finally turn the pyramid on it’s side. Perfect scenario. The pastor is at the front leading the church and all the Deacons, leaders and members follow on. No one applies any pressure on one another and work in perfect harmony.

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