Mar 21, 2021 08:00am
Passing the Baton: A Smooth Pastor Transition

Passing the baton is critical to winning relay races. Success or failure depends not only on how fast the runners run, but how well they transfer the baton.  If the transfer is mishandled or dropped, at best valuable time will be lost and at worst the race will be lost.  Paul spent intentional time where both he and Timothy were racing together and an indispensible overlap of mentoring occurred. 

In 2 Timothy 4:1-5, Paul exhorts Timothy in an excellent example of a minister of the gospel handing a ministry off to another minister of the gospel.            

Every church will make this transition at some point and you will not be the only pastor of your church unless Jesus returns soon. The best time to plan for a transition is now, because you have to develop and detail what a transition process will look like.  A poor transition can greatly hinder or even destroy the church and that is why the best time to think about a transition is now.  Someone has correctly said that every position and every job is an interim because it will not last forever.  Build a team where everyone knows who will step in when needed.

Leadership requires you to focus on working yourself out of a job.  The point is not “get ready to leave” but instead prepare for the day when that will occur.  What would happen if God called you home tomorrow?  What will your church do if this Sunday your pastor announces he is leaving and will not be back?  A good transition to the right leader can result in significant ministry health and growth!  John Maxwell has stated this well: “There is no success without a successor!”  How you leave is even more important than how you start!

A successful transition depends on much prayer, preparation, planning, a process, and it is the work of God.  In the book The First 90 Days Michael D. Watkins covers “proven strategies for getting up to speed faster and smarter.”  There should also be a book for pastors and churches entitled “Your Last 90 Days!” or better yet, “Your Last Two Years!”  If it is possible for there to be an overlap with the pastor who is leaving and the one coming in it can be very positive and productive.  The knowledge of the pastor who has served sacrificially would be priceless.  

Here is the reality: Everybody needs a succession plan.  The pastor will not live forever or he may be called to another position or location.  It has already been stated but worth repeating that every role is an interim position. It is only a matter of time that your church will find itself in one of the following situations.  You could have a two-year plan (very few do) where one leader decreases while the other leader increases.  You could find yourself without a pastor but you have a simple process in your church constitution and polity in place, just in case.

However, most churches find themselves looking and there is not a process with any depth or intentionality.  To be honest, it is a scramble and a little chaotic as you work feverishly to develop a plan.  The biggest thing to know here is that there needs to be intentionality to transition well.  Why?  Because most churches do not have the luxury of a 2-year plan much less even a 6-month or even a 3-month plan.  If an overlap is possible, I believe it is the healthiest plan for the church and there are great examples of this happening in healthy churches.

The greatest challenge in an overlap is for the outgoing pastor.  He feels the tangible process of his phasing out and the focus of the love and respect of their new pastor increasing.  A man of character and integrity who is comfortable in his own skin will welcome this shift.  He is slowly letting go of something he has invested his life in through much prayer and labor.  

Harold Hodges lived this out and modeled it at Southgate Baptist in Moore, Oklahoma, by sitting up front during worship for the first six months to show  confidence in his new pastor, Doug Brewer, to the congregation.

The baton-passing imagery is huge here because at first the baton passer and the baton receiver are both running as fast as they can, but then one slows down and the other speeds up.  Recent research has even shown that an intentional overlap works the best.  The pastor coming in can begin leading and learning under the one who has already run the race well.  Yes, announcing it early and transitioning presents unique challenges, but the challenges are even greater when it is announced abruptly and the church did not see it coming.

That is why there should be a pre-determined plan and a lot of prayer.  If possible, it should involve the pastor who is transitioning out, the church and their leadership, and the pastor who is transitioning in. 

Senior Pastor Transition Checklist is a good resource from Healthy Church Solutions.  It has sample questions to ask the church, the candidate, and much more.  Check out the Healthy Church Podcast link below and find more information at

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