Innovative Ministry
Why I Won’t Be The Lead Pastor At Cornerstone Any More – But I'm Not Leaving
Pastoral transition is one of the most dangerous times in a congregation’s life. We need to get better at it.

Hi, I’m Karl, and I’m still a small church pastor. But I won’t be in the first chair much longer.

On Sunday, my long-time youth pastor, Gary Garcia and I presented a plan for him to become the lead pastor of Cornerstone. I will stay on staff at the church, assuming the position of teaching pastor.

It was a great day, filled with surprises, tears, stunned silence, laughter, hugs, relief, uncertainty…

All the feels.

Pastoral transition is one of the most dangerous times in a congregation’s life. Probably more local churches have seen their mission and ministry crippled or ended by bad pastoral transitions than all other reasons combined.

Some of this is because the western church has a far-too-heavy reliance on the pastor’s role. Unlike many of my friends (and a lot of faithful readers), I don’t believe the pastor-led model of church is wrong. But we need to do it better. Especially in the hand-off.

I don’t believe the pastor-led model of church is wrong. But we need to do it better. Especially in the hand-off.

Over the next few weeks, Gary and I will spend time with our church members, walking through the steps toward transition. Then, we’ll spend a lot of time in the next year or two getting used to a lot of new realities together.

As we do this, I’ll write about some of it here, eventually turning the lessons we learn into a longer format, possibly a book.

For today, let me start by bringing you up to speed. This transition has been driven by several factors, but there are two that loom very large.

Reason 1: There’s too much good stuff going on

Reason 2: It’s not time to go, but it’s time to let go

Let’s look at those, one at a time.

Reason 1: There’s too much good stuff going on

Since writing The Grasshopper Myth (which was released five years ago this month) my life and ministry have changed in so many ways. All of it for the good.

The book has taken off in a way no one could have anticipated – touching the lives of pastors and churches all over the world. And its third and fourth language translations (German and French) are underway.

The blog that I started in order to get a few extra things off my chest and hopefully gather a small community of like-minded pastors has grown exponentially, especially since moving here to ChristianityToday.com.

Last year I was invited to 20 conferences to speak about small church leadership to over 5,000 pastors. And I already have 20 conferences lined up for 2018 – and it’s just January.

Meanwhile, the amazing, innovative, missional small church I have been blessed to pastor for 25 years has become stronger, more loving, more worshipful and more excited about our future than ever before. We’ve been raising leaders, sending missionaries, training interns and reaching even deeper into our community.

But I know my limits.

While I want to do it all, I can’t. There’s only so much time and energy available.

While I want to do it all, I can’t. There’s only so much time and energy available.

So, a couple years ago Gary and I started talking about what we could do to keep the church moving forward, while spending our time and energy as wisely as possible.

The answer we believe the Lord led us to is what we announced to our congregation on Sunday.

This is not the usual way pastoral transitions are done. In fact, when we first thought of it we’d never heard of anyone even attempting it. Switch chairs? Have the associate pastor become the lead pastor, while the former lead pastor not only stays, but remains an active member of the pastoral team? Were we crazy for even thinking it could be done?

It was shortly after we decided to pull the trigger on this that Carey Nieuwhof put out a podcast describing how he and his assistant Jeff Brodie had made a similar switch at Connexus church. It was a wonderful affirmation of our decision, and the podcast was filled with very helpful ideas, too. It also was a helpful reminder of why I continue to write about my pastoral experiences. I want to help other pastors learn from what we’re doing the way Carey and so many other pastors have done for me.

Reason 2: It’s not time to go, but it’s time to let go

One of my biggest fears in ministry is that I might be one of those pastors who fails to see the writing on the wall and stays in the saddle after it’s my time to leave.

I also never want the church to rely so heavily on me that when I do leave – as everyone will, eventually – the trauma of my departure will hurt the church.

We’ve all seen both of those scenarios play out badly, with good churches getting hurt in the process.

Over the last 25 years Cornerstone has needed the kind of leadership that matches my gifting and calling. But about three years ago, I saw a shift happening. When assessing the church’s challenges and needs, I started noticing that many of those needs were met best, not by the gifts God had given me, but by the gifts he’d given to my associate pastor.

So I went to him, outlined the church’s needs, told him I needed his help and we worked together to get the job done. It worked great, and we thought that would be our new normal.

Neither of us ever dreamed he would become the lead pastor. He had never wanted the position and I had no desire to leave it.

But this arrangement no longer makes sense for us. His ideas need to come to the foreground, and having to filter them through me is an extra step that slows everything down.

We need to change our roles to meet the church’s current situation.

We need to change our roles to meet the church’s current situation.

It’s Gary’s turn to lead now. But it’s not my time to leave yet. I doubt that it will be for a loooong time to come.

It’s not time for me to go, but it’s definitely time for me to let go.

For 25 years, Gary Garcia has supported me while we’ve served this church together. Now it’s my turn to support him.

What Now?

Pastoral succession has been, and will continue to be one of the most critical issues in church leadership. Anyone who does it well or discovers a new way to do it needs to share what they learn with others.

So, along with a ton of other ideas I have in the pipeline for future blog posts (and my new book, Small Church Essentials, coming in March 2018), I’ll write about this transition as we walk through it.

This pastoral transition is the most important thing I will ever do for this church. If it works as well as I expect, it will give our church a new lease on life, a chance to build on a solid foundation, and an opportunity to set a course for effective ministry for generations to come.

As we walk through this in the coming weeks and months, I’ll share the lessons we learn, the mistakes we stumble through, the ideas that work, and the progress we make.

The church is bigger than us. So is the pastorate. We need to wear it well, hold it lightly, and pass it along graciously.

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January 22, 2018 at 2:00 AM

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