How can a seamless pastoral transition lead to a more effective leadership transition? We speak with Lee Kricher, the author of Seamless Pastoral Transition: 3 imperatives and 6 Pitfalls, about shared leadership, nurturing future leaders, leading with humility, and more.
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How can a seamless pastoral transition lead to a more effective leadership transition? In this episode we speak with Lee Kricher, the author of Seamless Pastoral Transition: 3 imperatives and 6 Pitfalls, about shared leadership, nurturing future leaders, leading with humility, and more.
Jessica Anschutz: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Jessica Anschutz, the assistant director of the Lewis Center, and I am your host for this Leading Ideas Talks. Joining me is Lee Kricher, founder of Future Forward Churches, an organization that provides research for church leaders, navigating pastoral transitions and church revitalization. His latest book is Seamless Pastoral Transition: 3 imperatives — 6 Pitfalls. Welcome, Lee. I look forward to our conversation today about Seamless Pastoral Transition.
Lee Kricher: Well, it’s a pleasure to join you, Jessica. Thanks for the invitation.
Jessica Anschutz: Glad to have you. Lee, in your book, you call for church leaders to consider new and creative approaches when it comes to pastoral transitions. Describe some of the characteristics of a seamless pastoral transition for our listeners.
Lee Kricher: Well, a seamless pastoral transition is very simple. It’s just that there is no gap between the outgoing and the incoming pastor. There is, in fact, typically an overlap where both serve the congregation. The congregation sees the outgoing pastor in ministry at the same time as they see the incoming pastor in ministry, so it’s a seamless transition in that respect.
Jessica Anschutz: About how long would you recommend for a seamless pastoral transition in order for it to be most effective?
Lee Kricher: Well, in the case studies that I did, a number of churches assume there is a gap between the outgoing and the incoming pastor, but they chose seamless pastoral transition for one reason or another. But the gap or the times that were served by both the incoming and outgoing pastor ranged from six weeks to 15 years, so it really is a long period of time or a short period of time, depending on what makes sense for the church. I’d say probably the formal transition between when the congregation is well aware this person is coming in, the average times seem to be about 12 to 18 months.
Jessica Anschutz: Great. When you think about a seamless pastoral transition, what are the benefits to having both pastors working and serving together at the same time?
Lee Kricher: Well, I think the world has changed quite a bit. I grew up in a Lutheran church outside of Philadelphia, and I think the feeling there was: “This is my church, this will be my church for life. It doesn’t matter if we have a good pastor, a bad pastor, or no pastor.
This is just where we are.”
Well, the world has changed, as you know, and so I think right now the question is, if a church has positive momentum, if a church is making a positive difference in the community, why hesitate or why put a gap in place between leaders that could jeopardize that momentum? I just do think that the most powerful outcome is that the momentum and mission of the church is not compromised because of an unnecessary gap between pastors. But the congregation also gets to see some amazing characteristics in both pastors that are Christlike characteristics. They get to see those modeled before their eyes, which typically does not happen if there are months or years between the outgoing and incoming pastor.
Jessica Anschutz: I’m a United Methodist elder. As you know, we operate under an itinerant system that often does not leave room or space for overlapping pastors. What possibilities do you see for seamless pastoral transition in a model like the United Methodist Church?
Lee Kricher: One good thing about the United Methodist model is that the average length of time in some churches is two to three years now between pastors. And so, you’re talking about a matter of months in the typical pastoral transition in a United Methodist church. So that’s a huge advantage in that model. One of the case studies I did was a United Methodist Church, and because the outgoing pastor worked with the bishop, the bishop and the outgoing pastor believed that a seamless transition was in the best interest of the church. So, a staff member, an assistant pastor, was named the successor, approved by the bishop, approved locally within the church and there was a seamless transition. So the last day of the outgoing pastor was followed by the first day of the incoming pastor. And the church not only maintained its momentum in mission, but it accelerated, and the church is still thriving in tremendous ways. So that’s a unique option, which of course would still be with the blessing of the bishop.
If nothing else, there’s an idea of can the outgoing pastor, in one way or another, show support for whoever the incoming pastor is going to be? And that may take a variety of ways. I know some pastors will be there at the, you know, the first service, and sometimes the incoming pastor doesn’t want the outgoing pastor to be there. Really, if it’s done in a right spirit, it can be great for the congregation to see this sense of “I know you’ve loved me as your pastor, and I just encourage you to love this new pastor because that person’s entering into this new role with my full support.”
Jessica Anschutz: It’s so important that we support one another in the midst of the transition. One of the imperatives you highlight is for clergy to share leadership. How do you see shared leadership leading to more effective transitions?
Lee Kricher: I think a great prayer for a pastor is “open my eyes to the leaders who are around me.” I think of King David, whose own father looked at all the leaders in his family and had every single one except for the one who God had in mind.
One pastor said to me, “I would make room for other leaders, if I had any leadership material in my church or on my church staff.” It’s like, wow, unfortunately, you don’t have a Samuel to open your eyes to who your Davids are. Believe it or not, you probably do have a David or two or three that you can invest in. To me, then, sharing leadership, as opposed to “I have to do everything that’s on my job description, and nobody else can,” is “what can I do to elevate the leaders around me and give them opportunities to grow?” That may even mean doing a weekend message, which one pastor said “I would never share the pulpit. I’m going to speak every weekend the rest of my life or the rest of my ministry at least.” And I said, “How about when you go on vacation?” He said, “I leave after the service Sunday, and I get back before the next Sunday.” Well, that’s kind of the opposite of shared leadership, and it’s “I’ve always got to hold on to this role.”
I do think one of the models I look at in Seamless Pastoral Transition is Moses and his handoff to Joshua. But early in his ministry Moses was the guy. And it wasn’t until his father-in-law watched him in operation for a day and said, “What you’re doing is not good.” Now I often think Moses in his mind would have been thinking, “Jethro, you know, I just led the people out of Egypt. I parted the Red Sea. I received the Ten Commandments. Are you sure you want to critique my leadership?” But actually, he listened to his father-in-law, and he started to raise up other leaders. He started to share leadership not just with judges but with people like Joshua and Caleb, so that when it was time to choose a successor there were ready leaders available.
Jessica Anschutz: You point to the importance of thinking about future leadership, not only when it comes to who may succeed you in leadership as the pastor, but also future leadership when it comes to laity serving. What words of wisdom do you have for church leadership, in thinking about future leaders and identifying future leaders and nurturing future leaders?
Lee Kricher: Well, I think, first of all, it’s a commitment. It’s something like, for instance, in the church that I most recently served. We had a saying among our staff and among our key volunteers that the primary role of every leader is to develop other leaders. It’s not just to do your job with excellence. Of course, it is. It’s not just to fulfill your area of ministry. Of course, it is. But the primary role is to develop other leaders. For instance, just on our year-end reviews, each of our leaders and particularly our staff leaders would have a goal: who are the two people that you are currently mentoring? Who can step in when you’re out of town, when you’re gone, or if something happened to you, so that the ministry of the church isn’t compromised by your absence? And I just do think the biggest part is just this realization that my role is to raise up other leaders.
Jesus certainly saw that his primary role — obviously it was his death and resurrection — but, I mean, it was to raise up leaders, so that when he was gone, they could change the world. And that’s exactly what he did.
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Jessica Anschutz: Yes, absolutely. And what an incredible model we have to look at in the life of Jesus. In thinking about pastoral transition specifically, what can outgoing pastors do to help pave the way for incoming pastors?
Lee Kricher: I think a big part of that is to be able, in the way you talk to the congregation, to not encourage — and I know it’s a strong word to say — idolatry. Sometimes you have a pastor who’s so popular — and typically, if a pastor is unpopular, they’re not going to be involved in a pastoral transition like this, anyway, because they’re not being asked for their opinion of who might follow them in their footsteps. But let’s say a pastor is very popular, and perhaps they’ve been there for a long tenure, and they have impacted the ministry of the church in very positive ways. The pastor is going to get a certain number of accolades out of that. But to begin to defer that and to focus more on the mission of the church than on the leader and to identify the fact that the next leader is going to continue on with this amazing mission — that’s a part of it; it’s just in your posture toward the congregation.
But with the incoming leader, if you are able to have an overlap in leadership, to be able to give that person a chance to perhaps lead staff meetings with you present while you’re still the senior leader, to lead board meetings while you’re present and you’re still the senior leader, to speak. With my successor in the last year, he spoke half of the weekends and I spoke half of the weekends; and it was very much a way that I was paving the way for the congregation to embrace a new leader. And I think one final thing is, when you have staff or board members who are deeply, deeply loyal to you as the outgoing leader but maybe they are not excited in any way at all about the incoming leader, maybe you’ll do the incoming leader a favor by asking them to step aside rather than waiting for the incoming leader to have to deal with what could be an oppositional staff member or board member. I think it’s just saying what can I do to set up this next pastor for success in every way that I possibly can?
Jessica Anschutz: That’s an excellent model and I think there are ways that, even if there isn’t going to be shared leadership or overlap, the outgoing pastor can pave the way for the success of the successor. One of the things you highlight in your book is for pastors to model humility. I’m hoping that you can share with our listeners what this might look like in the midst of a pastoral transition.
Lee Kricher: I think it’s the hardest of the imperatives even though, as Christ-centered leaders, we should be modeling humility all the time. But, you know, it’s not that we just don’t naturally do that. Again, if you look at Moses and Joshua, Moses could just have easily said, you know, “Nobody can really replace me. I’m Moses. And when I die, whoever comes in my place, go ahead.” But no, he honored Joshua; before the people, he actually appointed him and commissioned him as their leader. So, he was very supportive and, I think, in a way that could be described as humble. In fact, we read in the scriptures that Moses was the most humble man on the face of the earth. Depending on your theology, Moses may have actually written those words — of course, when I first read that, I thought “Was he really the most humble person on the earth if he wrote those words?” At any rate … But you look at Joshua, on the other hand. Then, the temptation for the new leader is to discount the old leader. But Joshua didn’t come in and say, “Hey, he had ten good commandments, but wait ‘til you see my Ten Commandments!” You know? He built on what Moses had done and there was a manner of honor and respect.
Probably John the Baptist was the most obvious in the way he approached it when he said I must decrease, Jesus must increase, and that is what humility looks like for the outgoing pastor. And I think, for the incoming pastor, just as Jesus didn’t say, “Hey, I’m new in town. Forget John to Baptist.” He honored John the Baptist in amazing ways. So, this mutual honor and respect I found to be very, very powerful in allowing congregations to move from one pastor to another.
Jessica Anschutz: Thank you. Lee. In thinking about this mutual honor and respect, it occurs to me that it is also relevant in cases of transitions between laity in leadership roles in the church. Can you speak to that for a minute? How can they model humility in these transitions?
Lee Kricher: Yes, it’s interesting. You know we talk about the indispensable hero approach. That is not just pastors, that’s often lay leaders. I talked to one person who had said, “Look, this is my role in the church. It will be my role until the day I go to heaven. After that, whoever takes my place can figure it out just like I had to figure it.” And this person was thrilled when they would come back from vacation, and people would say, “Oh, we’re so glad you’re back because things were falling apart without you.”
“Well,” I said “that’s not a compliment. That’s an indictment. That’s saying that you care more about your role than about the smooth operation of the ministry of the church.” Again, even to our key volunteers I would say, “Who are the one or two people that you’re taking under your wing so that when you’re gone things go seamlessly, things go smoothly, and the ministry of the church is not compromised? If you come back from vacation and somebody says, ‘Wow, everything went smoothly with you,’ that’s the greatest compliment you could receive as a leader or a lay person who is passionate about your church.”
Jessica Anschutz: Absolutely. Of course, we want things to go as seamlessly as possible whether we are present or not. In Seamless Pastoral Transition, you name several pitfalls related to pastoral transitions. What are some of the common pitfalls? And what can church leaders do to avoid them?
Lee Kricher: Well, there’s a number of pitfalls and I’ll read you all six, but then I’ll just comment on a couple: staying too long (which particularly applies to the outgoing pastor), handing off the baton without taking another, choosing a clone, failing to address financial realities, dismissing the need for a detailed transition plan, and then trying to undo the transition. But I thought I might comment on a couple. One, handing off the baton without taking another. I just spoke the other day with a leader of a nonprofit that’s doing amazing work across the country, and he is handing off to his successor. I said, “What are you going be doing when you hand things off?” And he said, “Well, I think God will just open the doors, and I’ll trust that that will work out.” And I said, “Well, God might open doors now, if you start to pray and prepare and really take a look.”
I think of the trapeze artist. You know in trapeze, when you’re going to let go of the one trapeze, it’s only because another one’s coming. And leaders have a very, very hard time letting go what are my strengths, what are my experiences, what are the things that I’ve been able to accomplish. How does that come together in a tapestry? What does that look like? And it’s not going to be the same level of stress, the same level of energy. But it may still have tremendous impact, and that was the goal. I think a huge issue and one reason why pastors don’t let go is when they don’t have something to take hold of. So, that’s one.
I think choosing a clone is another. That is, if you are involved in choosing your successor, it’s very natural to think, well, things have gone very well under my ministry, so the church will be best off if there’s someone just like me. That is one of the concerns about seamless pastoral transition — the outgoing pastor looks for a clone. Women pastors that I talked to said, “Will a male pastor ever pick a female pastor as his successor?” And one of the case studies in the book is a Lutheran church where that’s exactly what happened. And was this person quite different than the outgoing pastor? Yes. And I think we need to realize that we cannot prescribe the kind of leader. Joshua is very different than Moses, and Timothy was very different than Paul. That was not a clear succession, but nevertheless he was handing off leadership, and so I think of it this way.
When David went up against Goliath, Saul, reluctantly, didn’t see himself in David at all, but he said, “If you are going to go up against Goliath, at the minimum you’re going to be wearing my armor.” And David tried it on, and he said, “I can’t do it.” When outgoing pastors want the incoming pastor to wear their armor, to be a clone of them, to be everything like them, they’re really discounting the fact that God uses different people at different times, and someone could be very, very different and still be called by God to be that next leader, to take the church to a new place.
Jessica Anschutz: Amen! In thinking about effective pastoral transitions, what is the role of laity in these transitions?
Lee Kricher: I think, as to both of the leaders, there’s this idea that I can let go of my outgoing pastor. Again, some pastors may have had a very, very rough tenure, and the laity has no problem letting go. All the churches in the case studies that I provide in the book actually have an outgoing pastor who has had a long and healthy tenure, and people will genuinely miss them when they’re gone. But people need to be able to let go of that person and that person’s style. I think the laity, going into that new pastor, is open-minded, open hearted, supportive, and saying, “Yes, this person is different than our beloved outgoing pastor, but we’re going to give him or her a chance, and that chance isn’t going to be three weeks. It’s not going to be three months.”
I do think that the body of Christ as a whole is far less effective when people are moving from one church to another during pastoral transitions. I know it happens, and they’ll say, “I just can’t get on board with this new pastor,” but stand behind them because it’s the mission of the church that is the highest priority and be the most supportive in prayer and in the words you say about that person that you can be. I think every lay person has a decision to make: am I going to be an encourager or am I going to be a critic? In every church, there are things and people you can find to encourage. In every church, there are things and people you can find to criticize. And I think when we want to stand before God and hear “well done, good and faithful servant” as lay people, then I think we have a much better chance of hearing those words if we’ve chosen the high road of being an encourager instead of a critic.
Jessica Anschutz: I like the juxtaposition of encourager and critic, and I have certainly seen both encouragers and critics at play in congregations, and I certainly hope our listeners will strive to be encouragers. As we wrap up our time together, Lee, I want to once again encourage our listeners to read your book. It’s Seamless Pastoral Transition, and I want to give you the opportunity to offer some words of wisdom for clergy who are preparing for pastoral transitions.
Lee Kricher: Yeah, I just think the topics that we talked about — sharing leadership, paving the way, and modeling humility — if those are top of mind, and you really are able to get some objective people around you who are able to say, “Are these things that I’m actually practicing, and how can I practice these more effectively?” I think those are just important things for outgoing pastors to keep in mind and particularly to say Yes.
It’s kind of the opposite of a pastor who said to me, “You know what? I’m going to serve until that day I’m not serving, and then after that, whatever happens, happens.” And they say it’s in God’s hands, and of course the church has to be in God’s hands. But if you don’t care about what happens after you’re gone, I think there’s some something that’s off about that. You love your church, you love the people there, and so, yes, you can’t do it.
You know, even Moses couldn’t guarantee what would happen with Joshua as a leader, but at least he could do his best to set Joshua up for success and to prepare that person to lead Israel. And I know that they are often seen as political and military leaders, but I read one commentator who said they actually were like the pastors of the nation of Israel as well the spiritual leaders and so they referred to him as Pastor Moses and Pastor Joshua, which I think is really an awesome way to look at it. But either way, you just have this inner passion that says “God, I want to leave this church in a very good place when I go.”
Jessica Anschutz: You lift up the importance of each doing our part, the incoming and the outgoing pastor. What words of wisdom do you have for laity as they experience pastoral transition?
Lee Kricher: I think it goes back to being celebratory for the outgoing pastor, assuming it’s appropriate to have a celebration service, you know. And when things are handled appropriately, I know that our church had a night of gratitude for me and for my wife, and it was people talking about the impact we had in the church. It just felt absolutely great. I think one reason why a lot of pastors miss out on that is they wait too long to hand off, and then, you know, there’s a feeling of good riddance rather than let’s celebrate. But I do think that there’s a celebration of what has been, an honoring of what has been.
And then like I said, an open mind to what is to come and to that leader. That leader will have many gifts very different than the outgoing leader. But just pray that God opens your eyes, to what those gifts are. Then, celebrate those gifts and appreciate those gifts. Ultimately, we know that Jesus is the hope of the world, but who carries the message of Jesus? It’s the local church. I think of the local church as the hope of the world. So, all of us clergy and laity need to have this commitment to say, “How do I act? How do I “operate” in my role so that our local church is as much the hope of the world as it possibly can be in the world in which we live today?”
Jessica Anschutz: Those are wonderful parting words. Thank you so much, Lee, for joining us for this Leading Ideas Talks.
Lee Kricher: My pleasure, Jessica. Thank you.
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Seamless Pastoral Transition: 3 Imperatives — 6 Pitfalls (Xulon Press, 2022) by Lee Kricher is available at Xulon Press, Amazon, and Cokesbury.
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Cover photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash