Transition of Leadership

“The vast majority of churches in our culture are not church plants, they’re churches that will be transitioned.” – Carey Nieuhoff

I had recently given up my career in the building industry and was working full-time as Associate Pastor at Jubilee Community Church, East Grinstead. I was heading into my regular one to one meeting with Simon Elliott, the Lead Pastor, and I got the sense there would be something a bit different about our meeting this week. As I sat down in Simon’s book-lined office, with his coffee percolator in the corner, he explained he had felt a fresh call from God to move on. He and the other elders believed that God might have in mind for me to take on the role as Lead Pastor. There began the most enormous acceleration of learning and development that I have ever experienced!

I have tried to break down this abrupt curve of learning and development to share something of benefit to those in transition. For some this will be within the Church and for others it will be a business or life stage.

  1. Hold on to your sense of calling. Prophetic, anointed and appointed.

During the first week after that meeting with Simon, two prophetic words came to me. The first was just a few days later. A lady with a track record of moving in the prophetic looked at me during a prayer meeting and said, “God is calling you to a new leadership role – this is really exciting”. I thought she had bugged the church! The second came from a gentleman who was once in full-time ministry. He sidled up beside me saying “God wants you to know that he both anoints and appoints, that’s all you have to concern yourself with”. Both situations came to me with faith and clarity, which I knew was a gift from God. God was speaking so clearly, that even now as I write this it builds me up.

“I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well.” - 1 Timothy 1:18.

  1. Focus on the health of your team. Invest in team, people, relationships, and beware who gets to speak in.

“If you’re healthy at the top, you’ll be healthy throughout your ministry.” This piece of advice came through a podcast I listened to, and it resonated. To such an extent that on reflection my main tasks and greatest achievement in the past two years has been in releasing leadership. Since I became Lead Pastor, we have appointed one new elder, four new trustees, four cluster leaders and two new members of staff. Time with these people has been invaluable. As I look back now, through the transition, the changes, the pandemic, I can see that these brothers and sisters stood as ranks of soldiers alongside me. Together we take on this transition of leadership, and every battle yet to come.

Inevitably, if you are going to focus on health within your team, that includes recognising and dealing with damaging behaviour. I quickly tuned in to the voices that sought to get ahead by gossiping or slandering the previous leadership, and then systematically I tuned them back out again! Yes, this happens, and it can be so subtle. A guy or girl that was denied a position or idea by the previous leader will approach the newbie with a bit of gossip about the other person, and why you aren’t the same as them. It massages the ego but rots the heart. I knew that in the short term this kind of person was appealing, but it wouldn’t be long before I was the leader that aggrieved them in some way. 

  1. Brace yourself for the inevitable exit ahead. People coming and people going. What if God calls you to pastor a shrinking congregation – will you still follow?

Nothing can prepare you for the first letter that comes through your door sharing news of a member, friend or family who are moving away, or moving to a different church. The pain is hard to express, and over these two years many have moved. The reality is, I didn’t have to bring much change for people to start moving. The main thing was, I wasn’t Simon, but I can’t do much about that one. There are also internal changes. With every big leadership change, everyone re-assesses their part in the organisation, resulting in movement and resignations, etc. I would estimate that in our core team alone (elders, trustees, staff), 30% are new compared with just 3 years ago. The eldership team that led the church six years ago has now totally changed.

We should remember transition is something the whole church experiences and it will be at its rawest as friends leave, but we should stay committed to the vision, mission and course of action we agreed together. “…and having done all, to stand firm.” – Ephesians 6:13. I am closer to understanding the endurance of these words now.

  1. How we transition matters. Truly understanding what you are coming into, and how its members are feeling could save your skin!

Last, but by no means least, is the manner in which we transition. I heard the story of a football manager who took over a failing team and their first action was to pick up a paint roller and re-decorate the changing room. This immediate change made the statement that this is a new day. If instead you are taking over a successful church, business or sports team, you will need to maintain its momentum to build confidence in the new. Understanding the culture and current situation of the church was perhaps my biggest advantage. I had been in the church for 10 years and had recently joined the staff team as Associate Pastor. This enabled a continuation of vision, team and momentum. Effectively I got to ride the wave that others originally caught! If you are the one handing things over, I can only ask that you do the same, it is a wonderful gift you could give the body you serve.

I read recently from an American Pastor that churches are required to transition every 7 years or so if they are to maintain health and life. We know some of these transitions will mean new leadership and others will be a transition of focus or vision. Either way, let’s treat this all with the reverence and respect we would if we were dealing with another man’s bride, which we are.

Dan Baptist – Carpenter Lead Pastor