Pastoring on the Precipice: 3 Observations about Successful Pastoral Transitions

by:  |  June 29th, 2016  |  Senior Leadership  | 

In his book, Who Are You to Say? Establishing Pastoral Authority in Matters of Faith, Dale Rosenberger recounts a trip he took with his family to the Canadian Rockies. He stood at the edge of a glacier and read the sign: “Nothing in your experience prepares you for what lies ahead. Here all of the usual rules are suspended. Here you cannot behave as in more familiar places. Everything ahead is completely different from what you know.” It might be a good idea to post a similar sign outside the office of the new pastor as he arrives. Every church presents a mountain of new challenges and opportunities. The wise pastor will proceed with caution as he or she begins a new assignment. Rosenberger goes on to observe, “Even as all signs scream for our attention and point to the contrary, we struggle to engage our surroundings as anything other than the everyday status quo. Preferring a familiar world, we do not adapt readily to either the treachery or the opportunity of new settings.”1

Here are three reminders as we move forward with succession:

1. Successful pastoral transitions will require your greatest strengths and expose your greatest weaknesses. Micahel Watkins warns that, “The root causes of transition failure always lie in a pernicious interaction between the situation, with its opportunities and pitfalls, and the individual with his or her strengths and vulnerabilities” (The First 90 Days, p.4). No matter how thorough a pastoral search process may be or how well-conceived a pastoral transition strategy, once the new pastor is in place the culture begins to change. It is in the inevitable tug of war over values and priorities that misunderstandings arise. A period of transition provides fertile soil for those who seek to sabotage God’s work.

During times of transition the new pastor (and the outgoing pastor in our case) should be well aware of his particular weaknesses or “shadow side.” Weese and Crabtree refer to this as “managing the shadow side of our lives, which tends to emerge with a particular strength during times of transition” (p. 25). They point out that, “we do not see many struggles in the life of Jesus, except around His transitions in and out of leadership. At the beginning, the transition from being a carpenter to an itinerate preacher and healer drives Him into the wilderness. At the end, the transition out of leadership and to the cross drives Him to Gethsemane. There are demons appearing at these points of transition that threaten to scuttle the future” (Ibid, p. 25).

If preaching is a precarious profession under normal circumstances, those who follow a beloved predecessor arrive perched on the edge of a precipice.

2. Successful pastoral transitions are produced by the will of God and not by the cleverness of man. There is no fail-safe approach to a pastoral transition that will guarantee success. While the project leader has maintained from the beginning of this project that those who have a specific plan during a pastoral transition have an advantage over those who do not, there are no statistics that will prove this assumption. Still, there are systematic methods that leaders can employ to both lessen the likelihood of failure and reach the tipping point faster.

Those who succeed in a transition are the beneficiaries of a wide range of favorable circumstances, not the least of which is the favor of God. “Anchored in God and centered in ourselves, we rely upon God above all else, including ourselves, the congregation results, and a plan for leading the transition because, ultimately, God gives meaning to our lives and validates our ministry” (Saterlee, Craig, When God Speaks Through Change, p. 97).

Like the Israelites, when you are surrounded by enemies it is easy to lose your grip on God and search for help elsewhere. All the programs, strategies, books, and advice combined cannot substitute for the work of God through His Holy Spirit to support and sustain the faithful man or woman of God who seeks His kingdom above all.

3. Successful pastoral transitions take time. One of the challenges to any pastoral transition is discerning when the transition has succeeded. From the very first day, the incoming pastor will experience small victories in which it appears that the congregation is moving forward as well as agonizing defeats in which the new pastor begins to feel like a failure. In a microwave world people have little patience for “a long obedience in the same direction” (Petersen). Much has been written for pastors in the area of courageous leadership but little has been written on the subject of courageous patience. Day by day, step-by-step, as a pastor comforts the broken-hearted, conducts funerals and weddings, and preaches the word of God with clarity and integrity, a new culture begins to emerge. It takes years to become an overnight success.

The experience of a pastoral transition feels very much like the experience of a blended family. The new pastor is like the new father who is scrutinized by his step-children and must earn their respect over time. “Nothing in your experience prepares you for what lies ahead. Here all of the usual rules are suspended. Here you cannot behave as in more familiar places. Everything ahead is completely different from what you know.” Fortunately, the testimony of countless blended families attests to the fact that it can be done but it is never easy.

For the pastor who accepts the challenge of leading a new congregation there is the confident assurance that the God who still speaks will lead and guide as the promise is fulfilled, “I will build my church.” Eugene Peterson’s comforting words provide a fitting reminder: “Put a pastor and a congregation together and mostly what you have is some kind of chaos, what Genesis 1:2 names tohu wabohu, ‘without form and void.’ This may not seem very promising, but you also have the Spirit of God, hovering over this chaos, and God’s Word being spoken, bringing a world of creation and salvation into being. All ministry takes place in conditions of sin, over which the Spirit of God hovers and into which the world-making, life-changing Word of God is spoken.”2

By: Gary Brandenburg


1 Rosenberger, Dale, Who Are You to Say? Establishing Pastoral Authority in Matters of Faith, pp. 11-12, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005

2 Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson, The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), ix.