Leadership Transition: 3 Strategies for Getting it Right

August 28, 2022

I’ve seen countless leadership transitions in the local church. 

During my 20-plus years of serving in pastoral positions and executive leadership coaching, I’ve had a front-row seat to transitions occurring in local churches, both large and small. 

But many of these transitions, despite the best efforts of those who led them, are more accurately characterized as cautionary tales than success stories. 

Whether a leadership transition is optimistically planned or heartbreakingly unforeseen, saying goodbye to a retiring, resigning, or dismissed lead pastor while ushering in his or her successor is a delicate business. With so much at stake, wise leaders will carefully plan and painstakingly implement a transition process that will ensure uninterrupted mission momentum and the continuation of a healthy church culture. 

While leadership transitions are daunting, there are key strategies that, when executed with care, will create staffing shifts that will serve the church well. 

I first shared these strategies in a piece that was posted in March 2022 at I share them here because I think they have special relevance to the local church. 

This is especially true today as the rate of turnover among pastors has reached unanticipated highs. After more than two years of pandemic uncertainty and struggle, retirements and resignations are all too common among pastors who are rethinking whether continued ministerial work is best for them or their families. 

But there is good news. You can make your church’s next leadership transition a success. 

First, smooth transitions should begin well before the intent to retire is shared or a letter of resignation is received. The most important factors in successful transitions have less to do with logistics—and everything to do with the values and priorities you already place on making your church a great place to work. 

To prepare your church for inevitable leadership transitions, take care to create a healthy organizational culture, develop leaders from within, and encourage open communication within your congregation and community. 

Let’s look at each of these three key points in more detail.  

1. Unleash Your People’s Hidden Gifts

Recognize and call out the untapped gifts of those you currently lead. 

Provide potential leaders with opportunities to experiment and discover their strengths. Let your rising stars take charge of key areas. Provide them with mentoring to help them stretch and learn. 

Trust outside voices to see things in others that you can’t see. And take care that you don’t write off potential leaders who, at first glance, may appear to be less skilled. With support, they could be the very leaders your organization needs to reach the next level. 

Be curious about your negative reactions toward these staff members and suspend your response so you can more objectively look for their hidden talents. While it may take considerable time and attention to cultivate their leadership skills, you might very well end up with brilliant leaders who do more for your organization than you ever dreamed possible.

2. Listen to Your Disruptors

While you can learn much from those who point out your church’s strengths, you may learn even more by listening to those who draw attention to its flaws.

In seasons of transition, you will do well to draw close both your fans and your detractors. While your devotees will confirm what you likely already know about your church’s areas of success, your critics will help you see a more accurate vision of the organization—one with both strengths and weaknesses. 

Create a process that invites both your devotees and your detractors to share their perceptions and ideas for improvement. 

Failing this, you’ll find yourself in an echo chamber full of confirmation bias that shuts out those who are meant to point your organization in the direction it needs to go.

3. Guard Your Culture

Leadership shapes culture. 

You can prevent leadership transitions from breaking down a healthy organizational culture by making sure it is clearly articulated, well-communicated, and visible in everything your church is, does, and cares about. Make sure your mission and values guide every decision, process, and practice. 

A healthy, well-articulated culture will keep new leaders from pursuing peripheral aims, which will weaken your organization and send a ripple effect of disintegration across your teams. 

Focus on setting the tone of your culture and reaffirming your organization’s values. 

And remember that culture needs constant care. Regularly performing culture checks will keep your church on course and your leadership strong. 

As you prepare for your next leadership transition, which of these leadership strategies will you put your focus on?
Need help with your next transition? Learn about succession made simple at

Slingshot Group

We take the guesswork out of nonprofit and church staffing.

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