For many generations, people who went to church would attend every Sunday no matter what. Whether out of habit, culture, tradition, denominational identity, fear of reprisal, or a sincere commitment to Christ and his church, when the doors were open, they were going to walk through them.
And they weren’t just going to show up at some church. They were going to show up at their church – often the same church their family attended for multiple generations.
In those times, the denomination, the church building, and family expectations had such a strong hold on people that it virtually didn’t matter who the pastor was. Many denominations routinely moved their ministers around on a short-term basis to make sure attendees knew they were members of that denomination, not members of that pastor’s flock.
That era is going, going … gone.
In more and more of our neighborhoods, churchgoing hasn’t been a family habit for a generation or more, and denominational loyalty is all but extinct. In fact, in my experience with younger generations, a strong denominational identity is more likely to be a negative than a positive.
With all those other societal factors off the table, the leadership of the pastor has come to matter more to the average churchgoer than it did before.
(This post is part of an ongoing series about pastoral transition, and specifically my transition at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship from lead pastor to teaching pastor, with my long-time youth pastor becoming the lead pastor. Click here to read other posts in the series.)
The Rise Of The Pastor
These changes are not all bad. In fact, there may be more positives than negatives in them.
For instance, too many denominational loyalists were looking down their noses at their “lost” and “heathen” neighbors who apparently were spitting in God’s face by attending the church down the street with a 7.2 percent difference in non-essential theology. Let’s offer that kind of mindset the big buh-bye wave it so richly deserves.
Today, people choose what church to attend based on a variety of other factors. And the list keeps changing. As those old loyalties have drifted down the list, new factors are rising to take a place of greater prominence.
Among the highest reasons today are worship style, kids’ ministries and – at the top of many surveys – pastoral preaching/teaching. Those three barely registered with people a couple generations ago.
Pastoral transitions matter more now than ever because the role of the pastor has risen substantially on the list of reasons people do or don’t attend a church.
People Can Be Loyal To Jesus In Lots Of Other Churches
I don’t think the charisma or teaching style of the pastor should factor as high as it does. But it’s no worse than the denominational loyalty, family tradition and guilt-based cultural expectations that used to top the list.
Wanting to worship Christ alongside other believers should be enough of a reason to draw people to church. But even among mature believers for whom that is true, they have lots of choices. And they’re more likely to attend a church that establishes, then builds upon on a stable foundation rather than one in constant disarray from years of poorly-executed pastoral transitions.
I don’t blame them. No one wants to attend a church where the simple acts of worship, fellowship and service are constantly undermined by church politics. (At least, no one whom you’d want to attend your church.)
Smooth pastoral transitions don’t just help to keep a church stable and strong, they are one of the evidences of health and stability that people look for when choosing what church to commit to.
We Can’t Lead What We Don’t Acknowledge
It is folly not to recognize this new reality as we lead our congregations.
I’m not interested in ranking what factors people should consider in deciding what church to attend – at least not in today’s post – but we do need to be aware of what factors they do consider.
More churches get hurt by poorly executed pastoral transitions than probably all other factors combined. We must do better at this.
So what’s the best way for your church to do pastoral transitions in the future?
I don’t know. There are so many aspects to consider for each church, including denominational polity, history, staffing and more.
But I do know this. At Cornerstone, we’re doing it in the way that’s best for us. And that’s all any church can expect.
Start Transitioning From Day One
Pastoral transition will look different at every church. But if what we learn at Cornerstone – including the mistakes we will inevitably make – can give you some ideas to pursue and pitfalls to avoid, let’s help each other out.
If churches and denominations want to decrease the damage caused by pastoral transitions we need to factor our eventual transition into the way we pastor from Day One. There’s no such thing as preparing for transition too early.
We need Day One preparation for pastoral transition if we hope to build on the foundations laid by previous generations instead of starting from scratch with every new pastor.
Let’s give the pastor who follows us an easier transition than we had.
Look for church members with servant’s hearts. Equip them to do the work of ministry. Train them to become leaders.
Then watch them step up and surprise you as the church gets stronger no matter whose name is on the door of the pastor’s office.
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