“Every pastor is an interim pastor.”
That is, a pastor can only lead during that brief span of time before his ministry ends and his successor’s begins.
A Necessary Book
Let me say up front that the church has needed a book like this for a long time. After studying almost two hundred cases of pastoral succession (the appendices contain some fascinating source material), the authors present their findings persuasively and helpfully include action steps for churches to plan successful transitions.
Those last three words deserve some attention: plan, successful, and transition.
The first section of the book stresses the reality of pastoral transition. Too many churches and pastors won’t consider transition until it’s too late to do it well, but the authors want us to recognize that transition is inevitable and consider its many variations . Ultimately, they conclude that while there is no single rule or pattern to follow, one thing is certain: someday every single church will be without its current pastor. Regardless of whether or not he is the church’s founder, what his leadership style may be, or how it happens, the pastor will step away from his office.
To help pastors and churches face this reality, the authors present three questions:
- What would a successful transition look like? What will the church look like three years after a transition?
- What will the pastor do with his life after pastoring? What are his passions? Where can he serve?
- Can the pastor afford to step down? What financial plans should he make to prepare for the future?
With these three questions, churches and their pastors are prepared to face an eventual transition and plan for success.
That’s what the authors are aiming for, successful transitions. This is the focus of the book’s second section, where the authors examine both victories and tragedies.
Too many churches have suffered from splits, factionalism, pastoral disqualification, lengthy declines, obstinate family members, and pastors who stay long after their effectiveness has waned. The authors examine instances of each of these, observing the trends that led to both disastrous and successful transitions.
One observation that shocked me, however, was the inevitable life cycle of a church. Regardless of a transition’s success, churches always tend to decline. The authors reason that this is because when churches grow older, they grow more inflexible and are thus less able to reach new generations in a changing culture. After studying the histories of many of the USA’s largest and most influential churches, the authors conclude, “Our sense is that churches tend to follow a life cycle of birth to eventual death unless they interrupt and restart that cycle.”
The point is that a successful transition goes beyond simply finding a new pastor to replace the old one, but finding one that can lead the church to a long-term, flourishing future. The old adage seems apt here: if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting. If decline or stagnation has begun, future growth would seem to require a change of some kind.
Churches and pastors would do well to keep this in mind as they acknowledge their present situation.
All of which means that churches and pastors should begin planning now. And that’s the book’s third and final section. Here, the authors encourage readers to “Transition Well, Finish Strong.” They help identify sources for a successor, lay out probable financial costs of pastoral succession (including the cost of lost momentum within the church), prepare the next pastor for success, and begin thinking about his successor.
As they affirm repeatedly, “Leaders understand that there is no success without a successor.”
A Misguided Book
Unfortunately, as helpful as I found this book to be, I question its usefulness. The authors claim that they have written it for pastors, but pastors tend to be exactly the kind of people who will not read it. And if a pastor is planning to step down and is looking for a book to help guide the process, he may find that he should have begun the process long, long ago. Church leaders, deacon boards, etc. will appreciate this book, but mostly to the degree that their current pastor cooperates.
Perhaps, then, this book will find its best audience among pastors training for ministry. The authors want to change the church climate so that pastoral transition is not a subject reserved for rushed, hushed conversations but becomes the expectation. They want new pastors to begin preparing for their own successors from their first Sunday in the pulpit . Surely, no faithful shepherd of Christ’s sheep would want any less!
A Tardy Book
I only wish it had been written sooner. I mean, I know churches and pastors that could have read and profited from it.
I’ve seen the effects of a long-time pastor’s family remaining in the church, undermining a new pastor’s ministry.
I’ve seen the results of a pastor’s termination and the damage it did to the church’s reputation in the community , as well as to the unity of members who continued to hold different opinions of his character.
I’ve seen the “sacrificial lamb,” the short-term pastor who follows a long, successful ministry only to discover that he can do nothing right, much less begin to fill the shoes of the church’s beloved-yet-departed minister.
I’ve seen the pastor who coasted for a decade on his reputation, only to be pushed out by a younger congregation hungry for new leadership.
I’ve seen a Spirit-indwelt congregation ignored and a deacon board commanded by a pastor intent upon appointing his own successor.
I’ve seen these situations from varying distances, but always close enough to know that while successful transitions are not guaranteed, churches and pastors can do a lot to keep the flock from being hurt.
So, I’m recommending this book to all pastors and church leaders, and if I could require them to read it, I would. The best time to read this book would have been ten years ago. The second best time is now.
For the sake of Christ’s church, may its shepherds acknowledge their mortality and plan for eternity.
Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255