Transition is challenging under any circumstance, but when you step in behind a larger-than-life apostolic leader, things get interesting. When I stepped in to lead East Hill Church Family (Gresham Foursquare Church) in Gresham, Ore., in 2007, there were between 4,500 and 5,000 in weekly attendance. We had five weekend services, two video venues, a midweek service, a Bible institute, daycare, preschool, kindergarten and a staff of 90 people.
Then, within less than a year, we experienced the financial crash of 2008. Subsequently, our $6.2 million annual budget was slashed in half. Throughout that time, we were carrying $4.3 million in building debt. (Tell me a $48,000 monthly loan payment wouldn’t keep the best of us up at night!)
Our first three years included a lawsuit, a Department of Environmental Quality issue with the property, the loss of our loan, and laying off 40+ staff, while trying to balance leading my own young family of four. Yet, through it all, we saw God’s complete care and provision. It was nothing short of miraculous.
In October 2019, in faith I transitioned out of the lead role because I sensed God calling us (Genesis 12) to new land He would show us. Our transition out has been another work of God’s grace and provision, as we were able to hand off a debt-free church to Pastors Keith and Coco Jenkins last year. We’ve seen God’s absolute faithfulness to provide, and the lessons He taught us will remain with us forever.
Leading through transition is a challenge
Jesus was our perfect example of a great leader. In John 13, we see the values of leadership displayed: humility, intentionality, directive action and seeing the task to the very end.
I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to coach many pastors and ministry leaders through transitions, and one of the most important and necessary principles we determine from the beginning for both outgoing and incoming leaders is to lead with the end in mind. If you are a leader transitioning, ask yourself, what are your goals for a healthy transition? Setting those things in sight will help inform the decisions you make along the way. The following are some principles I’ve found to be helpful.
Attitude is a necessary element in any healthy transition. Let’s remind ourselves that when we first said yes to Jesus, we said yes to the cross. There are aspects of leading that are exhilarating, but there is also a cruciform nature to following Jesus. When I’m coaching a leader transitioning, I ask how committed they are to being unoffendable, because the degree to which they can do this will be in direct correlation to how effective their transition will be.
Aligning your mind and attitude
Every transition of leaders is unique, but every transition involves an end and a beginning. Even in the best of circumstances, transitions will test and strain the strongest of relationships. Because leadership systems are dynamic and fluid, you will have to keep adjusting. Once you figure out the move for any given moment, expect things to continue to change. Align your mind and attitude toward this expectation, and it will serve you well.
Colin Powell once said, “Effective leadership is learning to disappoint everyone at an acceptable rate.” You will have disapproving voices around you. Prioritize obedience to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Make intentional decisions to out-love and outlast critical voices.
Our words, body language, intonation and overall message should honor both God and the incoming leader. If you are the incoming leader, recognize that many of the things you are excited to change are the very structures the previous leadership worked hard to put in place. Go out of your way to establish and maintain a culture of honor.
Have a heart and praxis of developing all the leaders around you. What are you doing to train other leaders to preach, and how are you encouraging the body to hear from more than just your voice? One of the strange gifts that has come from the COVID-19 pandemic has been the realization of many pastors of their idolatrous connection to being “The One” in front of the flock. There is wisdom in balancing the frequency of other voices. This is how Jesus led. He developed the leaders around Hm.
When I’m coaching a leader transitioning, I ask how committed they are to being unoffendable, because the degree to which they can do this will be in direct correlation to how effective their transition will be.
Gifts to your future pastor
One of the best gifts you can give both to the church and future pastor is a war chest—a budget designed to help cover the costs through the time of transition. Regardless of how young or old you are, start now. Time is one of your best assets, so use it resourcefully and wisely.
Schedule periodic council training sessions by your district staff. Invite your associate district supervisor to come and periodically train your council so they will know what to expect when transition happens. This helps normalize the conversation and ensures they are informed about what it means to be Foursquare. (You might be astonished at how many council members are surprised to learn they don’t get to vote and pick the new pastor, but that he or she will be appointed by the district).
If you’re the leader transitioning out, remember that endings are often marked by grief. Even if you’re ready to move on, there is loss in leaving. Give yourself time and space to grieve well.
If you are the incoming pastor, be sensitive to this, and purposeful in showing honor and respect to your successor. If you are the leader leaving, remember, you have the power to help set the tone for how the body will receive the new leader. Both leaders should recognize that emotions will ebb and flow in ways that will sometimes seem out of sync. Be gracious and kind to yourselves and to the others involved in this process. Lead knowing God has a plan, a purpose, even when you hit rough patches—having that end goal in mind makes all the difference!