I was recently sent to a new appointment and had to say goodbye to the church that I planted 5½ years ago. That process was difficult; there were many emotions involved and a lot of work to be done. Perhaps more important than anything else was doing everything that I could to make sure that the next pastor/planter had the best opportunity for success. After working as hard as we had worked to develop a healthy, effective new church we needed to do everything possible to make sure the church would continue to bear fruit under the new leadership. What follows are the 3 things that I did during transition to try and set up the new pastor for success.
This process actually started long before I ever knew that I would be moving. Early on in the plant, I intentionally developed the discipline of looking at everything we were doing – program ministry, leadership systems, financial systems, etc. – and asked myself, “If I were to be moved, what would another pastor think of this?” I have come into churches in the past, looked around and asked, “Why in the world did my predecessor do that?” I have uncovered systems at other churches that made me wonder what they were trying to accomplish by doing those things. Early on in the life of our plant I began asking myself, “What are those things that we do that another leader wouldn’t understand?” When I came up with something it went into one of two lists, the first was a list of things to change or adapt so that it would make more sense to someone else. The second list was a list of things that were “just part of who we are” and I knew would need to be explained to the new leader whenever that time came. Early evaluation of these things will help when the time for transition does finally come.
We all understand that a big part of pastoring people is remaining non-anxious in highly anxious times of life. In a church plant, no matter how well you have done to develop people, systems and leaders that are not dependent on you there is still going to be a lot of anxiety when your departure becomes public. The best thing you can do to help the process and set up the new leader for success is to remain non-anxious during this process. I reminded our church over and over again of four things:
- This is God’s church, not mine. God cares for this church infinitely more than I do and God will take care of the church.
- Our Annual Conference (denominational body) cares deeply for this church. We are a successful church plant that they have invested in; they are not going to make these moves without a lot of thought and prayer.
- The new leader is an excellent leader and he will be a blessing to this community. (I made these statements once I had found out who was being appointed to follow me.)
4. The vision and mission of our church are not dependent on me or my leadership; they grew out of the ministry of the church and the character that God developed in this congregation.
Share the Vision
Once I found out who would be following me at the church I invited him out to lunch so that we could meet and so that I could share the vision of the church. I didn’t tell him what to change or not change, I didn’t tell him who to watch out for or who to confide in, I simply spent the afternoon giving him the history of our church and the mission and vision we were working toward. The program ministry, leadership systems, worship design are all malleable and adaptable. What is not malleable is the unique vision that God has called that church to live out. The new leader might have new ways of living out that vision, but the vision needs to be shared with the incoming leader so that they can begin praying and dreaming about how God will accomplish that vision through their leadership. Don’t spend time ensuring that your favorite program of the church carries on; spend your time ensuring the vision will endure.
Many of us won’t be founding pastors that spend an entire career at the church we planted. If you have to move on from a church you planted I pray God gives you the grace that I received to end well, and I pray that these things might be a help to you.