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July, 2011
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A Healthy Handoff: the crucial relationship between former and current pastor

by Bill Wilson
dmhall

The transition from one pastor to the next is a precarious handoff. Too often, the exchange is bungled and the ministers and local church suffer from a litany of bruised feelings, resentment, wounded ego, and crippled ministry. I regularly talk with current and former pastors, their spouses and their children, who express deep hurt and regret about the way a pastoral transition has taken place. I know there is a better way because I had a ringside seat for a transition that went well.

My late father, Bill Wilson Sr., was the founding pastor of a church in Brentwood, TN, and after twenty years as pastor, left to work for the state Baptist Convention. His successor, Mike Glenn, walked into a situation filled with both opportunity and peril. Over the ensuing twenty years, the church has relocated, grown exponentially and thrived. These two men and their families managed this precarious situation with grace, humility and wisdom. The result is a congregation that continues to live into its remarkable story with vigor, health and passion. Brentwood Baptist today is a congregation 8,000 strong, with an amazing story of growth and innovation.

Space for the new pastor

Mike and I spoke recently about his relationship with my father. Mike regularly and publicly affirms my father’s ministry and insists that when he does so, he is affirming the church itself and the fact that it’s past is inextricably linked to both present and future. One thing that helped the transition at Brentwood was the fact that for Mike’s first five years as pastor my father did interims, preached other places and attended a church plant. That time away gave Mike space to become the pastor. Eventually, Mike and the church called my father and mother back on staff as co-ministers of missions. Upon their return, Mike saw the congregation begin to enjoy the warm relationship between my father and himself. “People loved the fact that the former and current pastors were good friends. He never missed a chance to brag on me and I never missed a chance to say how much he meant to me. He never tolerated criticism of me from others, even when it was deserved.”

Over the years, Dad became Mike’s counselor, prayer partner and encourager. Mike, never threatened by the respect and affection the congregation had for my father, even channeled it in positive ways. “One time, in the midst of a church-wide crisis,” he explained, “the anxiety in a large meeting was very high. At a critical moment, I told the congregation that the first thing I had done upon discovering the problem was to go to Bill Wilson (Sr.) for counsel and advice. When I said that, you could feel the tension ease and the whole church exhale. His voice of wisdom, earned over the years, was invaluable to me.”

Mike maintains that part of the strong growth and health of Brentwood Baptist has to do with how he, my father and the congregation managed that handoff from founding pastor to successor. I believe their individual ego strength and maturity were critical as the two of them modeled a healthy transition that perpetuated a healthy church culture.           

Later, in my own career, I was blessed to succeed Billy Nimmons at FBC Dalton, GA following his retirement. Billy was always gracious and generous with his support and encouragement, which coupled with his undying love for the congregation, helped make our remarkable work there possible.

Another story of a successful transition involves Michael Lea, of the First Baptist Church of West Jefferson, NC, who followed Pastor Emeritus Ken Morris, when he retired after 33 years there. Michael entered the situation with eyes wide open: “I knew that Ken could be my greatest threat or my greatest ally.” Before coming in 2008, Michael discussed the transition process with the search committee and then spoke to Ken both by phone and in person. He was reassured of a healthy handoff, and said of Ken recently, “He has been my greatest asset.”

Healthy boundaries

Before Michael entered the picture, Ken prepared the congregation to love another pastor. He reminded them on numerous occasions that he was retiring because he wanted to and he announced his intention to fully support the new pastor.

Ken stayed out of the search process, and was often absent from the church during the two-year interim between his retirement and Michael’s arrival. Like my father, Ken served other churches as he transitioned away from pastoring his long-time congregation. Serving as an interim pastor for two churches outside the county helped him separate. “That feeling that I belonged to another church helped me feel that not all of my roots were at First Baptist,” he said.

Today he calls Michael his pastor and friend. When Ken is asked to do a funeral, he requests that the family to go through Michael. Then he lets Michael assign him a role. If Ken visits church members in the hospital, he goes as a friend - not a pastor - and tells them, “Michael will take good care of you.”

Trust and respect

Like the friendship between Mike and my father, Michael and Ken’s relationship is one of trust and open communication. Michael explained, “Ken has provided a great deal of leadership here by saying to people, ‘Michael is our pastor now; let’s ask him,’ or ‘let’s look to him for leadership at this time.’” On the other hand, Michael understands that many in the church have a rich history with Ken, so they want him to be involved in funerals and weddings.  The two have proactively avoided triangulation. When someone mentions Michael to Ken, Ken responds with how fortunate he is to have Michael as his pastor. When someone mentions Ken to Michael, Michael responds with a narrative description of the great pastoral leadership that has brought the church to this point. 

The respect between former and current pastor is clear. Ken refuses to serve on committees or teach Sunday school, but he stays involved in music at the church and occasionally volunteers in the library. Michael invites Ken to meetings of the larger staff. “This is Christ’s ministry,” Michael insisted, “not Ken’s or mine.”

A healthy handoff between former and current pastor never just happens. It requires careful planning and sustained effort. How can we manage this pivotal transition in a way that is healthy and promotes growth for all concerned? What follows is sound advice from Mike, Ken and Michael.

Advice for incoming pastors:

  1. Do not rush the transition.
  2. Recognize the principle of different gifts for different times. That allows you to bless your predecessor without reservation.
  3. Be respectful of and sensitive to the history and culture of the church.
  4. Honor your elders.
  5. Watch your territorial language. Remember that it is Christ’s church , not yours or your predecessor’s.
  6. Leave your ego at the door.
  7. Work to build trust with the former pastor and congregation.

Advice for former pastors:

  1. Work to find interests and an identity apart from pastoring that congregation.
  2. Tell the congregation that you are no longer the pastor, and believe it yourself.
  3. Show support and confidence in the church and in the new pastor and pastoral staff.
  4. Set boundaries around funerals, weddings and hospital visits.

For BOTH: model health, even if it is not reciprocated.

To read more about ways former pastors can leave well, and to read the full interviews with Mike Glenn, Michael Lea and Ken Morris, visit healthychurch.org/threshold or cntr4conghealth.wordpress.com.