Associate pastors experience the transition of lead pastors differently from congregants. When we choose to work through the issues of transition, rather than just holding on, we can help the new lead pastor and the congregation toward successful ministry together long into the future.
While you and the congregation are saying goodbye to the outgoing pastor, a process I discussed in last week’s post, the associate should also be preparing the congregation to say hello to the incoming leader. You can be a wonderful catalyst for successful transition. Here are several things to consider as you begin with a new lead pastor.
Resource the new pastor – Our denomination provides a “Transition Checklist” of what the outgoing pastor is to leave for the incoming one. In my experience though, the outgoing pastor sometimes finds these tasks difficult to focus upon as his or her attention is divided between your congregation and the new one to which he/she will be going. The list includes things like a copy of the mission and vision statements, a directory, email lists, church policies, budgets, newsletters, bulletins, and the like. It also asks for the outgoing pastor to make statements about the culture of the church, who is in the hospital or struggling with long-term illness, where people in the area go for emergency assistance, ministerial associations, and the like. Take some time to put some of these items together, and think through how you might present them to the incoming pastor. A wise lead pastor will want to meet with the staff during the transition process. Be prepared to be helpful.
Prepare the congregation – Before the new lead pastor arrives begin preparing the congregation for him or her. Research the new pastor and talk up his/her previous successes. Don’t be afraid to share what you see that made the Bishop or Search Committee choose this pastor for your congregation. Share your interactions with the incoming pastor as appropriate. Share his/her sermon podcast page, blog site, and any other means by which congregants may get a feel for who is coming.
Keep everything positive and upbeat. Together you and your congregation will be discovering what God has in store for your congregation. Enjoy the adventure, and let others know you are enjoying it.
Help the pastor and congregation say hello well – Be sure your leadership is planning opportunities for people to meet the new pastor. Our most recent process which was very successful included “Meet the Pastor” nights where groups of 10-20 gathered in people’s homes. This took a good chunk of the pastor’s time over the initial month, but were well worth the inconvenience. Again, be sure to check out some resources like Bob Kaylor’s book and webinar for best practices.
Relax – Soon you will have opportunity to meet, either privately or with a group of staff, the incoming pastor. You have heard the expression, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” While that’s true, it is overrated in this context. You will have many opportunities to make multiple impressions on your new lead pastor. If you flub the first meeting, it’s OK. Your job isn’t over. Get over it and get back to work. The impression you leave upon this new leader will not solely be your opening handshake, but all of the work you have done to help make the transition successful, you ministry responsibilities, and your relationship with the rest of the staff and congregation.
Keep some stuff to yourself – As I have made transitions myself, I have noted there are many people who are eager to tell the new staff member about potential pitfalls – people and situations of which to be aware. Typically, these stories tell me more about the storyteller than the object of the story. Allow the new lead pastor to form his/her own opinions of the personalities in your church. When asked, be honest but gracious. I have said things like, “There are some (including me) who struggle with this person’s style, but they have done many great things for the congregation.” I can’t emphasize enough the need to stay positive.
Nothing is to be gained by talking about the predecessor – This rule of thumb regarding pitfalls also goes for the outgoing pastor. My dad, a heavy equipment operator (cranes, backhoes, etc.), an itinerant job itself, told me early on in my ministry that nothing is to be gained by talking poorly of your predecessor. How true this is! You may be tempted to share all of the mistakes you believe the outgoing pastor made. You may want to share all of his/her shortcomings. Again, this will tell the lead pastor more about you than about the previous pastor. Tread lightly here.
Unconditionally support the new pastor in public – You are being watched. How you respond to questions about and interact with the new lead pastor will speak volumes. In the eyes of many in the congregation you are the link to the past. Due to this, your support of the incoming pastor will help bring the congregation from longing for the past toward looking forward to the future. Share your genuine excitement about what is to come, and how it will build on the history of the congregation and not a break from it. You stand in a unique position to do this. Take advantage of it.
Get out of the way – People will be looking for you to lead. From those who come to you and ask why you were not considered for the position of lead pastor (no matter how often you explain that is not how your church’s polity is structured), to those who will ask you questions about what will be changing under the incoming pastor’s leadership, you will receive messages about how wonderful you are and how some would prefer your leadership. Don’t get sucked into that mindset. You are the associate for a reason. If you are struggling with that, see my earlier post, “I am not the lead pastor.” Be helpful, but stay out of the way.
Please do not squander this opportunity to serve your congregation through the difficult process of clergy transition. You can be an asset or a burden. You will serve you congregation and yourself well if you follow these guidelines.
What would you add? Comment below.