A First Take on Churches in Transition

Every church will face a time of transition – a change in pastoral leadership – at some point in their history. Though transitions in leadership provide a church with an opportunity for growth and blessing, navigating these transitions can be like running a gauntlet.

The Bible is not silent on the issue of leadership change. In the weeks ahead, I hope to outline a Scriptural approach to this most important issue. To begin with, I have five thoughts which I hope to develop more fully in the future.

First, transitions pass leadership from one sinner to another

We know this fundamentally, but we forget about it practically. Churches believe and teach the fallen nature of man as foundational to the Christian faith. Why then are we surprised when someone goes off the rail? When problems surface in the process, we have a sin problem. Every person from pew to pulpit, from pastor to pastor, must recognize the temptations unique to his role in the transition.

Secondly, the church is still God’s church

Forgotten in the process of passing leadership from one man to another is the idea that the pastor is a steward. When stewardship passes from one leader to another, both men must remember that they are but servants. The Master has not changed. Christ is still head of the church. As head of the church, God has determined to bring some changes to His church. This is intentional. We should recognize God’s hand in bringing about this change, and we should rejoice and be glad. We must trust the Lord to lead the new pastor as we trusted Him to lead the old, and we must not hold stubbornly to the old ways of doing things.

Thirdly, we must learn the virtue of forbearance

God knows we will have plenty of opportunity. Forbearance requires patience and longsuffering, a restraint of our own passions and an indulgence towards those who slight us or injure us. There will be perceived slights and actual slights once the “honeymoon” period is over and the reality of the transition sets in. Every person involved in the transition must determine to “let all your things be done with charity.” As I Corinthians 13 teaches us, charity “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” Charity teaches us to think the best of others, rather than assuming the worst. This will be a necessity if we want a change in leadership to bless the church.

Fourthly, transitions can demonstrate that we take humility seriously

Many a pastor has declared that the church can survive without you. God doesn’t need any of us: He chooses to work through earthen vessels. When leadership passes from the pastor to a new leader, the pastor finds himself at the receiving end of that maxim. He will be thoroughly tested on that point. Did he believe that for others only, or does he also believe that for himself? The old pastor has a pretty simple duty: get out of the way. Christ is still head of the church. On the other hand, the new pastor must not allow pride of position to cause him to think of himself more highly than he ought. He must study to avoid novice pitfalls, “lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.”

Finally, we must concern ourselves with the enemy under our own skin

While Satan provides us with a convenient scapegoat, in leadership transitions Satan only needs to appeal to our own baser natures. Self is our great enemy. Selfishness and self-centeredness are the ruin of a good transition, and we must guard against our self above all else. When we scrutinize each other rather than ourselves, problems will follow. Paradoxical though it seems, we defeat our selfish concerns by being concerned with ourselves. In a sense, self-concern is inescapable. We must be concerned about our own selfish nature. We must not concern ourselves with slights and injuries against our person.

In the weeks ahead, I hope to expand on these ideas. But above all else, for a change in leadership to bless a church, we must concern ourselves first with the glory of God and the honor of His name. If we will obey the first two commandments – love God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves – then a transition can be a blessing.