On a cold, winter Sunday morning, I entered my church study following worship and was startled to hear the door slam shut behind me. The woman facing me as I turned was an influential church leader. Her face burned as she thrust an angry index finger in my direction. With barely controlled words, she vented fury over the morning worship service. Beginning with unhappiness over a new song, she broadened her tirade to include a list of recent changes that had “ruined the church.” Before spinning on her heels to exit, she delivered the immortal words: “My husband grew up in this church, and I have been here for twenty-five years. We were here long before you came, and we will be here after you’re gone!”

Sinking into my chair, I shook my head and reviewed the events of the prior seven months. At age twenty-nine, I had been appointed to a mid-sized church with enormous potential for growth. The prospects had excited me and I had thrown myself into the new work with unbridled enthusiasm. The Staff Parish Relations Committee’s expressed desire for church growth had become my personal mandate. The results had been gratifying; within six months the church had left its twenty-year plateau to rise a full 50 percent in average worship attendance. New ministries and new groups had been started, and new members were sharing their gifts freely. I was flying high.

My feet touched the ground abruptly when I realized that not everyone was rejoicing. Longtime members complained that they did not know everyone anymore. New people put a strain on inadequate facilities. Generational issues erupted into open conflict. People questioned my motives publicly, accusing me of trying to build my own kingdom. Finally, an elderly man made explicit what I did not see for myself: most members were resolute in their desire to be a “small country church in the suburbs.” In retrospect, I realize that the waves of opposition I felt from some members had come as an immediate response to the first months of growth.

I wish this story had a happier ending. My tenure was only two years. I found a less stressful place to minister and watched from a distance as much of the growth that had occurred at my previous parish evaporated. It was easy to blame the unmotivated, unimpassioned people of the church for my departure, but as time passed I began to examine my own role. I had ignored the dynamics of following a well-loved, long-term pastor. I had discounted the impact of being the church’s first baby-boomer pastor. I had made a serious error in assuming that the Staff Parish Relations Committee spoke for the whole church, and I had neglected to know and love the people before setting off with my own agenda.

From a new position of humility, I began to ask questions. Would I have stayed longer if I had understood the unique dynamics of following a long-term pastor? Could I have built stronger relationships with members in order to create a base of support? I came to recognize that I had seriously underestimated the impact of following a strong pastor who had led the church for twelve years. My personality, age, leadership style, and ministry priorities differed significantly from his, but I had never considered how they would affect my ability to minister in that congregation. Unfortunately, insight came when it was too late to apply it to my own situation.

When Success Comes Unexpectedly

In the years that followed, I watched other pastoral transitions with great interest. Some matches of pastor and people were blissful from the start; others were unqualified disasters. And often the common wisdom regarding pastoral succession proved false, as was true in the case of the “Bishop of Danville.”

We used to speculate and laugh about the prospects at pastors’ meetings: who could ever replace Cal Sheasley when he finally retired? For twenty-five years the so-called Bishop of Dansville had reigned in southern Livingston County in New York. He reluctantly took the two-point charge of pastoring the Dansville and Sparta Center United Methodist Churches with the promise of something better if he could get the churches out of the red. By the time that happened, he realized he had found a home and had no intention of leaving. The churches responded to his leadership by growing in strength and number. He became pastor, in a sense, to all the people of Dansville, an inseparable part of the fabric holding the community together.

But even lengthy pastorates do not last forever. Sheasley’s ongoing heart problems cinched his decision to retire. But who could possibly replace a man who had grown so large in the hearts and minds of the people of Dansville?

Jamie Stevens received the call while attending a conference out of state. The bishop’s cabinet wanted him to consider taking the Dansville charge. Stevens’s heart sank. His current ministry had been fruitful, and his roots had grown deep. But in the days that followed he could not shake the certainty that this was God’s appointment for him. He agreed to go.

In the months following Sheasley’s announcement that he would be retiring, he prepared the churches for his leaving. He explained that he would no longer be baptizing their children or otherwise functioning in a pastoral role. One year before his retirement, he had led the church to replace the aging parsonage with a beautiful new home. He and his wife Norma paid the price of moving twice in twelve months in order to provide an adequate parsonage for the new pastor. “Cal determined before he left that he would do whatever it took to be an asset to me,” says Stevens. “He had a clear-cut plan in place that he made absolutely clear to both churches before he left and long before I was introduced to the people.”

Although Sheasley stepped aside from the role of pastor, he did not leave the community. He worshiped at first with another congregation, but returned a few months later at Stevens’s invitation. Norma Sheasley offered her resignation as church organist, but Stevens persuaded her to stay. The Sheasleys remain an active and beloved part of the Dansville congregation and Cal Sheasley occasionally takes on leadership roles at Stevens’s invitation. Sheasley refers to Stevens as his pastor and is determined to fully support him in that role.

Some said the appointment would not work, that only a short-term interim pastor could follow Sheasley’s twenty-five-year legacy. They have been proven wrong. Stevens is quick to give Sheasley the credit, remarking that he loved the churches more than he loved himself. As a result, says Stevens, “They were allowed to love me without feeling they were betraying Cal.” Considering his own role, Stevens states, “I really came in without a lot of preconceived notions and definitely without any concerns. So I was free to be what I needed to be—who I am.” The churches, in turn, welcomed their new pastor with open arms as a testimony to the effective and faithful ministry of Cal Sheasley.

Conventional wisdom says a former pastor should distance himself or herself from a congregation recently served as much as possible. It also claims that those unfortunates who follow a long-term pastor are destined to become unintentional interims. What else does such “wisdom” teach us? Consider the issue of change. Don’t make changes during the first year, right? Unless you listen to other experts, who advocate early changes to establish leadership. Deciding who is correct on such matters can be maddening until you realize that there are no simple, hard-and-fast, works-every-time rules for pastoral transitions. Imagining that there are only distracts from a more important issue: as in all of life, who you are in a time of transition matters far more than what you do.

When Gifted People Fail

Ever wonder why highly respected people with a proven track record can bomb so spectacularly when they move to a new position? Is it because they got in over thei
r heads? Because they were lacking specific, needed leadership tools? Perhaps so, but it is just as likely—or more so—that they neglected underlying matters related to character. Consider the furor that erupted at another United Methodist church in New York when a new pastor took the reigns.

Years ago, when Pastor A had his introductory meeting with a group of leaders from the church, he asked what the people in the congregation were proud of. He thought they might comment on their Sunday school program or the church’s mission involvement. Their answer surprised him. “This room,” they replied, explaining that a recent remodeling project had transformed a drafty and unattractive space into a beautiful memorial chapel and lounge. For the next fourteen years, Pastor A led the church into new areas of ministry and greater levels of spiritual vitality. But he never forgot to affirm their past and always tried to honor the things they valued—including the memorial chapel.

When Pastor A moved on to a denominational position, Pastor B was called to serve the church. His prior ministry experience had been fruitful and he was ready to see great things happen in his new setting. Soon after arriving, he met with the trustees in the memorial chapel. “This room is the perfect location for the church nursery,” he remarked. The trustees had reservations. The memorial committee was upset, and when the women’s fellowship heard the plan a full-scale rebellion broke out. Pastor B responded forcefully by reminding them that he was the resident expert on church growth and that they would be wise to follow his suggestions. In the end he won the battle and the chapel became a nursery, but by then he had moved on to another church to escape the conflict that had ensued at the church as the result of his insistence on this particular change.

The Keys to Success

As the result of my own early experience as the successor to a long-term pastor and my observations of other pastorates that came on the heels of a long-tenured predecessor, my interest in what it took to successfully follow a long-term pastor deepened and I decided to examine the subject even more closely. I interviewed pastors and studied churches where a long-term pastorate had ended and a new pastor had taken up the reigns either successfully or unsuccessfully. I came to understand that congregations, outgoing pastors, and their incoming successors form an interrelated system. Each has a specific role in the transition.

Regarding former pastors, I discovered that the choices outgoing pastors made in relating to the congregation and supporting the new pastor were much more important than whether or not the former pastor remained in the church and community. It was also obvious that a healthy process of grieving and letting go of the predecessor’s role as pastor was critical for the congregation to be able to welcome and follow the new pastor.

While each player in the transition is necessary, it became increasingly obvious that the incoming pastor has the power to make or break the transition in most situations. The pastors themselves confirmed this truth as they told their stories. Five themes became clear through my research, which included interviews with twenty clergy.

1. Ego strength undergirds effective leadership. One pastor expected resistance to the significant changes he initiated in the first months at his new parish. When chaos reigned after four weeks, this confident pastor reminded himself that the changes were necessary. When the personal attacks came and he wasn’t sure when—or if—the battles would end, he calmly persisted with his plan. Within several months the church turned a corner. The pastor’s strong but not cocky leadership had won the respect of the congregation and led them to a much more fruitful ministry.

Another pastor was enormously bothered by the presence of his predecessor in the congregation. Week after week his resentment deepened and references by parishioners to the former pastor chipped away at his confidence. He and his wife sank into depression, asking, “What have we done wrong? Why won’t they accept us?” When asked about his experience of several years, the pastor answered every question by referring to the impossible situation his predecessor had created.

Ego strength might be defined as having a strong sense of self that allows one to act with confidence and not be unduly influenced by others or by situations beyond one’s control. More often than not, pastors expressing that kind of ego strength succeed in their new assignments.

2. There is no substitute for love. One congregation I studied sent people to spy on the young woman they had recently appointed to be their next pastor. She was preaching that Sunday on her favorite topic: love. They returned to spread the word, “She’s got the right message!” Beaten down by a self-proclaimed “prophet,” the people warmed to the new pastor, who not only preached love but showed through her actions how much she cared for them.

Another pastor spewed contempt throughout an interview: The people of the congregation were deceitful, resistant, ungrateful, and lazy. His predecessor had given him a bad deal. The sneer on his face spoke volumes. There was no love for the people God had sent him to serve. The observations he described were formed on arrival, and the bitterness he felt toward his predecessor was deep. Little improvement in the situation appears likely unless there is a change of heart in the pastor himself.

People respond to love. One pastor was told by a search committee at their first meeting, “We just want someone who likes people.” Perhaps saying that all that matters is love is overly simplistic, but without love for the congregation no pastor can succeed.

3. Self-awareness makes for effective pastoring. One pastor made numerous references to her own style, personality, and ministry priorities. She was candid about some of her limitations and shared mixed feelings about having her predecessor present in the church. From an outsider’s standpoint, the match of pastor and congregation after a particularly long prior pastorate did not look promising. But in fact the transition has been quite successful, most likely due to the new pastor’s conscious awareness of how her own attitudes and feelings might be influencing her.

Another pastor believed he had all kinds of insights into the dysfunction of his congregation. He said the people were unwilling to let him lead despite his excellent efforts. The more he talked, however, the more questions I had about his self-awareness since he could not see the rather obvious role he played in the breakdown of communication in the church.

Without self-awareness, pastors continue to repeat unhealthy patterns and never see the relationship between their actions and the response of the congregation. Understanding one’s assets and liabilities is especially critical when navigating the tricky waters following a long pastorate.

4. Understanding congregational dynamics is half the battle. One pastor could not comprehend why his congregation did not respect his authority. Yet he obviously did not understand how the congregation functioned, what they valued, and what they needed in a leader. He listed the problems he saw in the church but had no clue how to address them. Sadly, the conversation was a sort of “exit interview” among the boxes packed for his new assignment.

Another pastor I interviewed spoke of the dynamics of the congregation she served in terms of its systems. She understood the impact of the church’s history and the need to address issues previously unresolved. In four years the congregation made significant needed changes as the pastor wisely utilized the existing systems of the church to guide the people toward a better future.

Pastors need the capacity to see
the big picture of the church if they are to succeed in any new pastorate. Understanding the dynamics of a specific congregation is especially crucial when following a long-term pastor, since those dynamics are deeply rooted.

5. Persistence can turn the tide. Study participants who, in effect, succeeded themselves after a rocky start illustrate the importance of persistence. One such pastor was sure he was destined to be an “unintentional interim” but never felt a particular call to leave. To his surprise, the dynamics shifted after several years and he began to experience a powerful and fruitful ministry. He would have missed out on the blessing of the years that followed his rough start if he had left too soon. Unfortunately, some pastors appear to burn bridges early in their pastorates, making eventual bonding with the congregation difficult or impossible.

The Power of Three

Every pastoral transition includes three players—the preceding pastor, the congregation, and the new pastor. The most successful transitions occur when all three are fully committed to making the change work. The most disastrous transitions occur when none of the three play their parts well. The majority, of course, fall somewhere in between these extremes. Perhaps the new pastor’s predecessor is moderately supportive or neutral in his or her influence, the congregation adopts a wait-and-see attitude, or the new pastor struggles for months or years with his or her own feelings about the change. When enough factors eventually tip the balance for good, a positive relationship forms. Conversely, situations with potential for success eventually disintegrate without the necessary ongoing efforts to succeed.

No absolute formula for success or failure in pastoral transitions can be stated. It appears, however, that the predecessor can have tremendous influence for good. It also seems clear that the lack of that can be compensated for if the congregation and the new pastor play their parts well. The congregation seems to be the most flexible of the three, responding to the influence of the predecessor and/or successor, but it is unlikely that a successful transition can occur if the congregation is not at least moderately supportive the new pastor at the start.

Ultimately, the most critical player in every transition is the new pastor. If she or he deploys wisdom, skill, character, and love, the likelihood is great that the transition will eventually succeed despite obstacles placed by the predecessor or the congregation. Far better, though, for all three to cooperate for the sake of God’s work.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Does your congregation have a plan for affirming the ministry of your departing pastor?
  2. How will you welcome a new pastor into the life of your church?
  3. Do you know the basic “character qualities” for a new pastor as you face a time of transition?
  4. If your former pastor had a tenure of ten years or more, what impact do you anticipate that having on the transition?