Last year I transitioned from associate pastor to senior pastor of Grace Community Church (GCC), a church of around 500 people in a small community west of Salem, Oregon.
The change came after a year-long transition, so the church was able to adjust slowly to the change in leadership. The transition year was essential, as most of the people in the church began attending under the leadership of our previous senior pastor, Guy Basso.
Our church had a relatively smooth pastoral transition. Yes, there are those who liked it better before. Yes, we heard grumblings from people. Yes, a few families decided that this is a good time for their family to transition somewhere else. However, we are experiencing slow and steady growth. We have seen consistent giving that has enabled us to accomplish the ministry for which we are called. In spite of some minor grumblings, we have experienced a season of peace and unity.
Many leadership transitions involve stories of infighting and division. Not this one. In fact, I was surprised by how smoothly it all went. Yet, there were still some things for which I was unprepared. What follows are six surprises about my pastoral transition.
An unusual predecessor
One thing that smoothed the process was the actions of my predecessor. I didn't know it at the time, but seven years ago, when I was hired to be the youth pastor, he began eying me as a potential successor. Around five years before the transition, he began to encourage me to think about going to seminary. Knowing that a potential transition would take place when I was in my early 30s, he knew that I would need education to fill in some gaps. During my time in seminary, my role at the church began to gradually change. I transitioned out of youth into overseeing the adult ministry in the church, which included overseeing church staff. Our pastor also began training new elders that would be in place during the pastoral transition. Each of them knew and supported the proposed plan to have me succeed him.
One year before I graduated from seminary, Pastor Guy announced his retirement. He outlined a transition plan for the next year. The church voted me as his successor eight months before his retirement date, and I was ordained five months later. For his last sermon series, he preached on what it took for a church to be healthy. In that series, he addressed potential concerns and problems we might face and how to counteract them as a church. By the time he retired, the change was almost anti-climactic because of his proactive attitude and careful planning.
Pastor Guy didn't just prepare the church; he trained me. He constantly brought me into meetings and ministry situations to expose me to what the new role would entail. He publically affirmed my leadership and strategically relinquished responsibilities to me. His public support and praise gave the congregation and leadership confidence in me and gave me confidence stepping into the new position.
You can't communicate enough
The most difficult aspect of the transition was communicating with the church. At times it seemed that no matter how hard we tried to communicate well, our efforts fell short. Our church attendees were informed consistently and well in advance about the upcoming transition. What was shocking was the number of people who were still out of the loop. Months after announcing his retirement, Pastor Guy still had people coming up to him wondering why he was stepping down and asking who was going to be the next pastor. I learned that even when you think you're over-communicating, you are probably doing it just enough to be effective.