Lee Kricher says that one of the key variables in a successful pastoral transition is humility. It is difficult but essential that both outgoing and incoming pastors adopt an attitude of humility and respect for each other.
The outgoing pastor who genuinely cares about the people and ministry of the church will do everything possible to humbly transfer their leadership to their successor. It is not an easy task. As Tom Mullins observes, “I think that one of the most difficult things for a lot of outgoing leaders is simply stepping away from everything they’ve built and invested in for a significant number of years. Often, it has become the platform for their credibility as leaders and value as individuals. A change in that role threatens their security and identity. My greatest advice in preparing yourself is to plan thoughtfully and pray for humility.”
It is important to note that the outgoing pastor isn’t the only one with the imperative of modeling humility. Instead of dismissing the ministry of John the Baptist as “old news,” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11). The honor that Jesus showed to John the Baptist should inspire every incoming pastor to humbly look for ways to honor the outgoing pastor. Perhaps John the Baptist’s words are a perfect description of how a humble outgoing pastor should think of the incoming pastor — “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John the Baptist declared his joy was made complete with the prominence of Jesus’ ministry eclipsing his ministry, setting an extraordinary example for outgoing pastors.
The challenge of indispensable heroes
It is common for pastors to want to stay in their role indefinitely, especially those who view themselves as indispensable heroes. One pastor in his late seventies who had no intention of handing off his role to a successor, said to me, “Certainly, God does not want me to give up my position in the church and squander the wisdom I have acquired over the years.” He didn’t seem to realize that God could use his wisdom and experience even if he no longer held the title of senior pastor. Outgoing pastors need not fear that their next season of life will be unfulfilling. They need not fear that they can’t have a meaningful ministry unless they hold onto their position. God’s plan for us is bigger than that.
Modeling humility is imperative.
By the way, the indispensable hero syndrome is not just found in outgoing pastors. The associate pastor of one church was too impatient to wait until the time he had agreed he would be taking on the senior pastor role. He saw himself as the leader who should immediately replace the “old guy” and take the church to new heights. So, he undermined the senior pastor with the staff, board members, and church members. It backfired on him, and he ended up not just leaving church but also leaving the ministry. Several disillusioned church members left as well. The associate pastor’s pride and lack of integrity had a negative impact on the church, his ministry, and his family. He would have been wise to embrace the words of the only true Indispensable Hero, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). For all Christ-followers, modeling humility should be seen as a virtue. For incoming pastors and outgoing pastors, modeling humility should be seen as imperative.
- The Right Start: Beginning Ministry in a New Setting, a Lewis Center video tool kit resource
- 50 Ways to Improve Pastoral Transitions, a free Lewis Center resource
- Leaving Well and Starting Strong: Planning for an Effective Pastoral Transition featuring Lovett H. Weems Jr. — Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode | Transcript
- 12 Practices to Cultivate Humble Leadership by David Horner
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