[Blog] The Three Types of Transition

Jul 11, 2022


A legacy succession occurs when a long-term Pastor transfers leadership to his or her biological or spiritual son or daughter. These transitions are marked by family dynamics, tenuous timelines and unspoken expectations. Legacy transitions require great finesse, and the ones that succeed often do so due to a behind-the-scenes transition consultant who is there to guide the process.

A legacy transition is characterized by the outgoing Pastor having served for fifteen years or more with remarkable growth. Many are founding Pastors, but anyone who has Pastored the same church over fifteen years with measurable impact is considered by us to be a “re-founder.” A legacy transition requires a long runway with an extended period of absence by the outgoing Pastor following the successor’s installation. This extended period allows the outgoing Pastor to transition from what may be a lifetime of leading a church while allowing the new Lead Pastor to find their own leadership and moorings.

A legacy transition is a defining moment in the life of a church. We have witnessed amazing growth during legacy transitions, but we have also observed unfortunate attrition. No church remains the same in these circumstances. That is why a predesigned succession plan will maximize the moment and minimize the losses. A legacy transition is not merely about change of leadership, but family dynamics, longevity and expectations that can cloud consequential conversations.

For example, most of the Board members present at the time of the transition were likely invited to the Board during the tenure of the transitioning Pastor. The Pastor’s children grew up with familiarity in this church. The spouse served sacrificially—especially during the earlier years of their ministry at that location. Extended family have often taken lead roles in the church, and common histories have created familial bonds. Those and other elements can create a minefield, but they don’t have to. That is why a consultant can be so helpful in guiding people who love each other yet disagree strongly.

Even with a well-crafted plan, transitions are complicated. Church leaders have to navigate real and present tensions caused by empathy and disengagement, grief while planning the future, dealing with individual and family pain while struggling to sustain the organization, and having to think long-term and short-term simultaneously.

In cases of catastrophe—be it death, moral or ethical failure or doctrinal compromise—people form opinions, share them freely and get entrenched in their thinking very quickly. In the midst of a chaotic transition, if the leaders can present a pathway into the future, at least for the following twelve months, it allows for finding solutions, creating a plan and even the beginnings of execution of the plan. Such catastrophic events in the life of an organization are a total reset. Negative fallout can be minimized and emerging opportunities can be maximized if the church has a written, approved and annually reviewed catastrophic plan.

Over the years, we have been honored to be contacted by church leaders in such adverse circumstances. Among many solutions, we have found that placing a high-capacity Interim Pastor who is not interested in being the next Pastor can stabilize the situation as an outsider. We have also found that agreement in the midst of the chaos is difficult to find unless there is a guiding document that was predetermined to such an event.
A catastrophic plan is like car insurance. You have it, but you hope you never use it. It is there, not only for you, but for others. The same is true of a catastrophic succession plan. You hope you never use it, but it is there for those whom you love. Every church needs a catastrophic plan before a catastrophe happens.

A predetermined, planned transition occurs when a Pastor and church Board are future-oriented. The Lead Pastor seeks to establish a plan for his or her departure and subsequent successor while he or she is still the Lead Pastor. This allows the Pastor and Board to establish a preferred profile of the ideal candidate and make measured decisions progressively. Most Pastors who follow this process allow three to ten years and do not have a successor already identified.

Each transition scenario carries many nuanced processes. No two are alike, so we must first understand your unique situation before we begin to plan. Part of our intake for new clients is an evaluation in which we spend extended time getting to know you and your story.

You can see that there is a difference between transition and succession (for legacy and planned cases). A succession implies that the Pastor is moving on to his or her “to” while those who transition typically plan to stay engaged with the church in a supportive capacity. Both of those scenarios look very different for the outgoing Pastor on the other side, hence, preplanning is imperative.

A predetermined plan happens only if the following factors are present.
1) A future-oriented Lead Pastor
2) A future-oriented church Board
3) A church that is not personality-driven
4) A healthy organizational culture
5) Intentional budgeting for the future
6) Honor for the present Lead Pastor

In the same way that a larger plane requires a larger runway, the larger the church, the longer the process of securing the next Lead Pastor. Because of the lack of imminence, resignations or catastrophic events, this stretched timeline allows the Lead Pastor and the church to create a plan non-defensively and inclusively. The best time to talk about something is when there is nothing to defend. The Pastor is loved. The church is viable. The staff is functioning. The Lord is blessing. It is in that moment of “non-neediness” that healthy conversations leading to a predetermined plan can save the church from unnecessary damage and harm.


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