How To Lead A Successful Church Transition With 5 Helpful Tips

Successfully navigating a church transition is rarely easy.  Especially if it is a pastoral transition, it’s typically difficult for the current pastor, the successor, the team, and the congregation.

However, living by the following principles will help you navigate through a church transition or replace a long-term leader.  If you are the new guy, the fact of the matter is, you’re not the other person – this is the problem.

  • The problem is not that you’re you.
  • And the problem is not that the leader is who they are.
  • The problem is that you are not that person.

Consequently, if you’re the new guy, you’ll be compared to the previous leader.  It’s natural during a church transition.  And, it’s ok.  Everything from your leadership style, personality, and communication will be stacked against the previous leader.

While this may not seem fair, it is entirely normal.

We are all creatures of habit.  Most people adjust, adapt, and get comfortable over time with leadership.

It’s not necessarily that what you’re doing as the new guy is terrible; it’s just different.  Different isn’t always easy.  For many people, different often means uncomfortable.

A few ago, I was the one replacing a long-term leader.  I’ve learned some things through this transition.

senior pastor transition

Before sharing the tips, I want to share a story to help set the stage.

During the first couple of weeks of replacing a beloved pastor, the gym that I go to was also undergoing new leadership.  The guy who owned the gym sold it to a new group of owners.

Without any prompting, I began thinking about going to a new gym down the street. The guy I knew and liked was no longer there.

That week in the locker room, another member came in and was ticked off because his credit card had been hacked.  Coincidentally, he had also used his credit that week to pay his bill at the gym.

He, without any proof, linked the credit card fraud to the new gym owners. In disgust, the guy said, “If that’s how it’s going to be around here, I’ll take my membership elsewhere.”

Almost instantly, I could sense God speaking to me. “If you feel this way about your gym, how do you think those people feel about their church?”

That question began to shape ministry for me in the midst of church transition.

By the way, I love what the owners have done with the gym.  Their style is different.  Their personality is different.  I love the direction they have taken the gym.

Additionally, I expressed to one of them how much I appreciated what they were doing and that I knew that it isn’t always easy to be the one replacing the long-term leader.

Five Principles To Help You Successfully Navigate A Church Transition:

1. Leaders Need To Remember That Conversations Are Always Better Than Rumors.

If you’re a part of the church transition team guiding a leadership change or are the new guy, decide right now that you’re going to talk about things openly.  You must plan on having conversations.

Realize that allowing others to ask questions and share their feelings about you is better than having them share them with others.

Plus, engaging in conversations gives you the chance to share your heart.

Transparency is a big deal. If you or the team stay secluded and avoid difficult conversations, people will form their own opinions about the transition and share them with others.

Having open discussions will help ensure that the narrative is healthy and everyone avoids rumors.

Carl George and Warren Bird discuss the importance of knowing who you’re talking to and building relationships with the right people.  They go so far as to describe some of these relationships as “allies.”

For the new leader, most people may have been there longer than you and have made contributions that you haven’t.  They have been a part of paving the way for the church.  Therefore, do not see them as enemies but as allies.

Value these people.  A conversation is the only way for building a bridge between what they’ve done and where you want to go next.

leading a church through transition

2. Work Hard To Build Trust Instead Of Walls.

What is trust?  Ultimately, trust is confidence.

People may trust that you’re not a bad person or that you have good morals, but they’re also asking:

  • “Can I follow the leadership during this church transition?”
  • “Will you let me down if I put my confidence in you to lead?”

I’ve heard it described this way: trust equals consistency over time.  Therefore, you need to be patient and understand that building trust is a process.

If the church transition team or new leader is insecure, you’ll demand trust immediately and become frustrated when people are slow to extend it.  This expectation has negative consequences; both sides will begin building walls that you can’t see but that you can feel.

You know the walls are there.  It will become a you vs. them scenario.  Avoid this!

Instead, do everything you can to build trust.  I outlined five ways to build trust within your team in this post.

In times of transition, it is vitally important for senior leaders to focus on the church’s mission that exists outside of them.

Recalling and communicating the purpose of your church can help motivate leaders to make difficult decisions and inspire members to willingly move toward the future.

Honoring one another, practicing patience, and staying consistent are powerful ways to display to core values of your church while modeling to your congregation that this is a team effort.

If trust equals consistency over time, you must do what you say you’re going to do repeatedly.  Building trust also goes back to having conversations with people.

Remember, have conversations with people, not about people. The quicker you establish trust, the faster your church can make progress, and everything can continue moving in the right direction.

In conclusion, do everything you can to build trust and tear down walls.  Trust is your most valuable asset when you’re in the middle of a church transition.

church transition team

3. Allowing Others To Ask Questions Lead To Buy-In.

I know, I know, you want to get through this transition.  If you’re the new pastor, you have a vision and see the areas to improve.

More than likely, some changes need to be made, and believe it or not, people want to hear about them.  But, first, they want to be heard.

If you are willing to ask questions and listen, people will be ready to listen when it’s your turn to talk.

Carey Nieuwhof put it this way, when you listen first and speak second, people are far more interested in what you have to say.

Questions can be scary, though.

  • What are they going to ask?
  • How will they respond?

When someone answers a question, they reveal what they think and feel.  As leaders, we want to know these things.  Allowing others to ask questions creates an opportunity to reinforce your vision.

If you’re an insecure leader, you will confuse being asked a question with being questioned.  However, valuing questions can help you solve problems and discover the correct answers.

To understand what people think, you have to ask them.

If you’re interested in asking better questions, check out the post, How To Ask Questions That Lead To Better Conversations.  Asking questions allows you to see things from another perspective.

While what you’re saying makes sense to you, it may be taken the wrong way by someone else.  

Maybe you’re coming across differently than you think.   Very few people will approach you to tell you when you’re doing this.

Therefore, you need to start a habit of asking questions before and during a church transition to ensure that both sides understand each other.

People always have questions, especially during a church transition.  As leaders, take a proactive approach and provide opportunities for those who need to ask questions.

4. A Process Will Help Ensure Long-Term Stability For The Church After The Transition.

A process is a series of steps taken to achieve the desired outcome. You, your team, and those you’re leading need stability during a church transition.

Using a system to help guide this process can stabilize your organization with structure and measurable steps.

We have a saying at the church where I was a pastor; Change is our friend.  We try always to remain open to change and avoid becoming too comfortable with things the way they are.

When changes occur, questions naturally arise.

  • Why?
  • How come?
  • What’s the reason?

Most of the time, things seem to be working fine the way they are.  People get comfortable and used to things working a certain way.  Therefore, when change happens, it disrupts what has become routine.

There are several organizations that specialize in church transition, leadership changes, and succession planning. 

Utilizing their assistance in a critical time of transition can pay off dividends for the future health and success of the church.

3 Trusted Consulting Groups To Help With Church Transition

Having a process behind the change will help you answer people’s questions.  Using a system can guide you in decisions, help you communicate how the team made these decisions, and clarify why the change will help.

Defining a process for how your church or team will move forward while replacing a long-term leader provides security and helps people feel safe in unstable times.

church succession planning

5. Don’t Take Preferences Personal During A Church Transition.

Out of all the tips, this may be the one that you need to hold onto the closest.  Don’t neglect the other four, but don’t forget this one either.

To illustrate what I mean, I need to ask you some questions:

  • What’s your favorite ice cream?
  • What toppings do you like on your pizza?
  • How do you like your steak cooked?
  • Who’s your favorite communicator?

My point is, what you like and prefer is probably different than mine—some people like chocolate, some like vanilla.  I like bacon and pineapple on my pizza, and my wife likes sausage and banana peppers.

During a church transition, keep in mind:

  • Not everyone is going to like every decision.
  • Most people will be kind to you.
  • Some people will become your biggest fan.
  • Other people will prefer things to stay the same.

When you’re in the midst of a church transition, you will probably hear things like:

  • He did things this way…
  • Her personality was like…
  • His preaching has a way of speaking to me…

All of this is normal and ok.

Everyone has preferences, and so do you.

The differences between you and other leaders do not determine if you and the congregation can work together.  The determining factor is if you’re willing to get to know each other.

  • Are you willing to try?
  • Will you work to stay positive?
  • Can you stay open to having conversations?
  • Are you willing to see things from someone else’s perspective?

church transition plan

Some people are not willing; you need to let them walk.  Love them. Pray for them.  Be there for them if they come back, but understand some people are unwilling to work together.

If you take other people’s preferences as a personal insult, you’ll begin to harbor unhealthy thoughts about yourself and them.

This mindset will halt progress.  You’ll feel paralyzed.  And, carry a chip on your shoulder. You’ll feel tempted to put the previous leader down to make yourself look better.

Take the high road. Always choose to honor during a church transition.

The other temptation will be to feel less than because you’re not the other person. Both are wrong and unnecessary.

Leaders can avoid both traps by intentionally reminding themselves that preferences are not personal.

God has uniquely gifted you to lead during this church transition.

You are where you are for a reason.  You’ll always have room to improve but always trust that God will give you everything you need to lead.

Are you the new guy?  Could you use a little encouragement?  Listen to this podcast about church transitions. If you’re replacing a long term-leader, hang in there.

Apply these church transition tips and encourage your people that the best days are ahead. By: Evan Doyle  Originally published by Catalyst Leader. Used by permission.

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