Preparing for a Smooth Pastoral Transition

Sunday, June 2, 2019 was my final day as the pastor of the Cleveland Baptist Church. So on that Sunday evening, after forty-one years of ministry (12 years as an associate, 5 years as co-pastor, and nearly 24 years as the senior pastor) we passed the mantle of pastoral leadership to the next pastor.

I wasn’t involved in the planning of the day other than preparing to preach my final message as the pastor. The leadership of the church planned the day, and they couldn’t have scripted it any better. Our folks showed my wife and me honor and loved on us in ways we could hardly comprehend. Since that Sunday, the church has gone on and has quickly gravitated their love and affection to their new pastor. They haven’t missed a beat, wondering who was going to be the next pastor or how were they going to function.

It is such a blessing when a church transitions well from one pastor to the next. I realize what we experienced at Cleveland Baptist isn’t always the way things go when it comes to a resignation or retirement of a pastor. It isn’t always a smooth transition to the next man to lead and serve a congregation. So please allow me to share a few thoughts about this important matter.

1. It is important for the pastor to realize the church doesn’t belong to him.

If you are one who God has called to pastor, and you have been given the responsibility of overseeing a flock, you must remember who the Chief Shepherd is. The church is the body of Christ and that body belongs to Him. While I was privileged to be called the pastor of the Cleveland Baptist Church, I realized I was just a steward of a church that belonged to another. Therefore, decisions and choices weren’t really mine to make. Those decisions needed wisdom from the Lord to know His mind and heart.

2. Every pastor should see himself as an interim pastor.

Up until June 2, our church had just two pastors in their almost 61-year history. My predecessor, Dr. Roy Thompson, started the church and pastored it for 37 years. He built a great work for the Lord, yet, at the age of 62 on September 3, 1995 he relinquished his leadership of the church and transferred that responsibility to me. I was 37 years old and God enabled me to pastor these wonderful people for nearly 24 years. I am just 61 years old and I have turned the church over to the next pastor.

Both Dr. Thompson and I sensed that while we could physically continue to pastor the church for a time longer, our time of leading that congregation was over. God made that abundantly clear to me, and I know that was also true from Dr. Thompson’s testimony. Every pastor reading these words should understand that at some point, unless the Lord comes, someone is coming behind you to take your place. Prepare yourself and the church for that moment. Don’t be foolish with the Lord’s church. Men have hurt and even systematically killed a vibrant church by staying too long. It is your responsibility to make the church ready for the right man to come and succeed you.

3. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit about the moment of transition.

I had planned to serve Cleveland Baptist until my 25th anniversary as their pastor, which would have been September 2020. Yet about two years ago, the Lord spoke to my heart about my timeline, stating it wasn’t His plan. He clearly stated that He wanted me to move it up by a year and a few months. So, I announced to our church on the last Sunday of May 2018 that I was entering my last year as their pastor. I would have never done that if I wasn’t sure the Lord was leading me.

4. Help the church by preparing your successor.

Dr. Thompson prepared me and the church for the day he would step away. He spoke to me twelve years before I became his successor, sharing that he thought God was going to have me be the next pastor of Cleveland Baptist Church. He asked me to pray about it and to seek the Lord’s direction. He began mentoring me and spending more time with me. He took me on sensitive calls and brought me into important meetings about the workings of the church. He also spoke to the leadership of the church about what he was sensing. At one point, he asked them to confirm it and they did. Then in June of 1990, the church voted as to whether or not I would be the co-pastor and succeeding pastor. The church approved this matter by a 98% majority. When Pastor Thompson’s final Sunday came, there was no new vote, they already knew who their new pastor was. The church continued on without a hiccup.

In my case, God shared with me that my middle son Peter, who had joined our staff overseeing the youth in January 2001, was to be my successor. However, because he was my son, I needed to deal with this matter a bit differently. I shared with him what I believed the Lord was going to do, and I asked him to pray and seek the Lord. Because I traveled some and preached out, there were ample opportunities for our church to hear Pete preach. I would return and folks would share what a blessing he was.

He was serving as youth pastor, and when we had an opening for the Senior Associate Pastor position, our deacons encouraged me to place Pete in that role. I shared with them that I thought that was an excellent idea and we did. When I announced to our deacons what I sensed about my timeline as their pastor, they again initiated the thought that perhaps Pete could be considered as co-pastor and then my replacement. I shared that I thought that he was the man. They then worked through a process to vet him. They then as a group voted to recommend him unanimously to the church to be co-pastor and the next pastor upon my death or resignation. The church overwhelmingly approved this by a 97% call. That was in November of 2016, so when June 2 came, Pete was installed as the third pastor without another vote.

At the end of 2018, I had shared with Pastor Pete that since the transition was taking place halfway through the year, the vision for the church in 2019 was his. He preached vision night and poured his heart out to the church. I allowed him to do most of the preaching as I was gone a lot during the first half of 2019. He in reality was pastoring the church, and I was just there to help. Therefore, when June 2 came, it wasn’t hard for the church to transfer their heart to their new pastor. He was already leading them.

5. Don’t wait too long.

Some men wait too long to resign or retire from ministry. I don’t know that there is a fixed age. Yet, I would say that if you look out on your congregation and you don’t see any young people or young families, you have waited too long. People won’t stay in a church when they don’t see a future. It might sound noble to say you are going to pastor a church until the Lord calls you home, but that isn’t wise or healthy for a church.

With that thought in mind, you must prepare financially for life beyond the pastorate. Get your financial house in order. Some men don’t and therefore refuse to resign or retire and their church pays the price. I would encourage deacons reading this to set-up some sort of retirement fund for your pastor.

6. Have some new ministry to focus your time and heart on.

One of the most difficult things for pastors to do is to let go when they resign or retire from the pastorate. This is especially true if you have a long history with that congregation and you aren’t leaving to pastor elsewhere. We have all heard the horror stories of men that resign or retire but who can’t let go. They become a problem to the new pastor. They become jealous or perhaps allow disgruntled people to come to them in regards to the new pastor. It isn’t good.

It is wise to have a new ministry pursuit. I don’t think a man needs to necessarily move away, in all cases. However, that should be considered. We didn’t, and aren’t planning to leave Cleveland. I do have a new passion and calling as the North American Director of Spiritual Leadership Asia. Since my resignation, I haven’t taken any time off and I immediately transitioned into my new ministry calling. So, while have retired from the pastorate, I have in reality been reassigned in ministry. This new ministry has helped me to stay focused and keep my mind directed toward something important in the Lord’s work. Since I represent a ministry, I am not around much at Cleveland Baptist Church, which gives my son the opportunity to pastor the Lord’s church without his dad lingering around.

It is a wonderful privilege to serve the Lord and His people. The Lord’s church needs to continue to thrive and go forward once a pastor resigns or retires. In order for that to happen, those that lead and pastor, must prepare themselves and the church for the day of transition. Not to do so is tragic, and I believe it is something for which God will judge them.

In conclusion, I recommend that every pastor reading this get the book Next: Pastoral Succession That Works by William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird. You can find it on Amazon. It is a fascinating study of churches where the pastoral succession worked and where it was a miserable failure.

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