Every person in every church strikes a pose when it comes to how they respond to the next generation of leadership. I have now experienced 4 senior leadership successions in 20 years. And I know this: the pose you pick forges the future you live. This is an undeniable and unavoidable reality of the dynamics of leadership successions in churches. And the way people pick a pose—or choose a posture—toward a new pastor will reveal either immaturity, immorality, or integrity. So choose wisely. Because when it comes to leadership transitions or pastoral successions, there are 4 PRIMARY SUCCESSION POSTURES you can take. Knowing these and processing them prior to a transition will not only be a helpful way to prepare your team(s) and congregation for a leadership transition, but also to navigate the uncharted waters when the process is actually underway.
1. The WAIT-AND-SEERS. The wait-and-see-if-a-new-leader-will-pass-or-fail approach is super common in successions (perhaps 50% or more of a congregation)—especially if your congregation seems to be in a season where it is more consumeristic than participatory (Consumerism is the “common cold” of the Western megachurch). But this posture is also the most passive approach. Most people are undecided about whether or not they like, accept, and will support the new leader and so simply wait and see if the leader will sink or swim, or from their perspective—pass or fail. And yet in choosing this pose and not actively supporting the new pastor, a person essentially chooses to passively oppose the new pastor.
Sadly, most often, the criteria for making this personal judgment is anything but biblical standards for effective pastoral ministry (i.e., Jesus-centeredness, integrity, trustworthiness, authoritative and relevant biblical preaching, diligent and values-driven servant-leadership, collaboration where it matters most, wise team-building, a healthy balance between inward- and outward-focus, intentional and systematic disciple-making, prayerful visioneering, healthy conflict resolution, unity of purpose, etc.). But, by definition, the Wait-and-Seer will wait to see if the new leader will either succeed in satisfactorily fulfilling their personal preferences and desired expectations (key phrases) or fail to achieve them and so create crushing disappointment.
The image that comes to mind for this succession posture is a judge holding up a scorecard after an Olympic diver performs. The mindset or mantra of the Wait-and-Seer toward the new leader is “Dazzle me.” It helps to imagine this kind of person staring at you with arms crossed and an eyebrow raised.
Staff members, elders, and volunteer point leaders should never be in a posture category like this which passively opposes the new pastor! Therefore, the best way to avoid this category altogether is to name it and tame it before the succession becomes official. And the only way to do that is to directly discuss the very natural inclination to approach the transition in a passive way and call for proactive commitment to its (and the new leader’s) success—being specific in what that will practically look like from the various stakeholder groups involved.
2. The ACTIVE UNDERMINERS. Unfortunately, a portion of the congregation (usually less than 10%) will work to actively undermine the new leader—especially when the outgoing leader is dearly loved, and people don’t want to see him go, or when they fear that something cherished in the church’s culture is in jeopardy of changing with the new leader, or when they feel they are personally responsible to guard and perpetuate the church’s DNA as they themselves define it. So they pick a pose that proactively opposes the new pastor, and they deliberately become “Active Underminers.”
Actually undermining or undercutting the new leader is usually demonstrated through a lack of grace when the new leader stumbles while learning the new culture and context, framing the inevitable tension that surfaces in the early phases of a succession as a catastrophic loss of momentum or direction or alignment, refusing to engage conflict in a healthy way, secretly or even openly rejoicing in the new leader’s fumbles or failures, declaring any and all change as an erosion of culture or DNA, non-subtle non-acceptance or flat-out rejection of the new leader and his leadership style, preaching style, or vision (i.e., labeling him as a “wrong fit “ or “not authentic,” rather than simply different from his predecessor), and/or actively undermining the new leader’s leadership in conversations with other people in the congregation—even seeking out other people in the church to talk with (especially influential people or leaders) with the clear intention of actively spreading their concerns over and dissatisfaction with the new leader (yep, Gossip) in an effort to see him fail and, ideally, be ousted.
Of course, staff members, elders, and volunteer point leaders should never be in this category. But it must also be said that while this is never a healthy role for anyone to engage, it is especially and extremely dangerous and divisive when a key influencer (whether positionally or relationally) engages in this role. When this happens, it is imperative that the senior leadership team and/or the elders urgently confront and biblically engage these individuals with loving boldness—helping them to see that such divisive behavior will not be tolerated and providing them with a healthy outlet to discuss their concerns.
Also, if the church is pursuing a “bridge transition” (where the previous point leader is still on staff but in a different role), the former point leader must publicly support and champion and privately coach and encourage the new leader. The Active Underminer-crushing value of the former leader’s cache of congregational credibility, relational equity, institutional knowledge, and leadership influence cannot be overestimated and mustbe fully invested in helping these congregants to give up their fight, redirect their hearts/hopes, and eventually even be willing to transfer their credibility, trust, and support to the new leader.
3. The PROACTIVE SUPPORTERS. This kind of person isn’t just rooting for the new leader to succeed, he or she is willing to do anything he or shecan to personally ensure the new leader’s success (hopefully, at least 30-40%+ of the congregation).
For the sake of Christ and His church, these individuals resolve themselves to be “early adopters“ of the new leader, his new leadership style, and his new vision. This includes regularly praying for the new leader to have integrity, wisdom, courage, stamina, and many early “wins” with the congregation, finding ways to actively engage in using his or her gifts, talents, time, and treasure to advance the vision of the new leader, seeking to graciously provide the gift of timely and accurate feedback to accelerate the new leader’s learning and break-even point (i.e., both practical compliments and constructive criticisms), helping others who are struggling with the new reality to navigate the dynamics of change in productive ways, wholeheartedly striving for unity of mind and purpose in ministry and direction, actively ensuring that the new leader’s family (especially his wife) has a robust network of support, publicly celebrating and privately encouraging the new leader when he does something well, truly seeing hiswins as “our” or the church’s wins, urgently redirecting others who have concerns with this leader or his new direction to go directly to this leader rather than poisoning the water table by talking with everyone but the leader about their concerns, etc.
In the healthiest of transitions, staff members, elders, and volunteer point leaders will always be in this category. And wise teams/leaders will intentionally discuss ways to grow the ranks of this group before and during a transition—carefully defining what proactive support will/should look like, assessing it in real-time, and determining how to hold one another accountable to living it out when storms come—because they will.
4. The FREAK-OUTERS. These individuals may have begun their succession journey as Wait-and-Seers or even Proactive Supporters, but when the inevitable storms of frictions and tensions surface from the unavoidably complex dynamics at play in a leadership transition, anxiety causes them to exaggerate the significance of the friction in a way that can lead to catastrophizing the entire process. In other words, they freak out. This category may make up 5-10% of a congregation in a transition.
Such a person is oftentimes well-intentioned, but when they become privy to specific situations of tension related to the transition, they can be emotionally overwhelmed—often thinking that an isolated incident of rumbling or conflict is happening across ministries and throughout the church. This then causes them to react out of fear, amplifying what certainly may be legitimate tensions to the level of a “there’s-way-too-much-noise” or even a “this-is-just-not-working“ perspective—which can then create fear-based leadership (if they are a leader), but also mistrust, misalignment, and even potentially cause them to slide into the Active Underminer role out of the noble desire to “protect” the church and restore the stability they think they used to enjoy before the new leader arrived.
No doubt about it—leadership transitions are difficult (and bridge transitions—where the prior leader remains present—will necessarily bring even more tensions than baton-pass transitions—where the prior leader departs). Therefore, the strongest and wisest leadership teams would do well to help right-size people’s expectations in a leadership transition before the transition by preemptively openly discussing the kinds of tensions that will certainly arise and how they will handle those tensions in a healthy way when they do. This will help prevent giving in to the common transition temptation of seeing inevitable speed bumps in process as “the-sky-is-falling” trouble rather than as ”tis-the-season” tension. For leadership teams especially, this will help immunize them against “Chicken-Littling” when unexpected challenges surface and help to build their “We-got-this” muscles.
If a Freak-Outer happens to be in a leadership role while a transition is underway, it is utterly critical to urgently come to grips with and honestly discuss the very real and almost inescapably “bumpy” nature of transitions as well as to ensure that leadership is on the exact same cultural and strategic pages by collaboratively defining key terms such as Culture, DNA, Values, and Mission. It will also benefit leaders to explicitly discuss the appropriate focus and pace of change by answering these crucial questions: “What do we hope never changes about our church?” and “What do we think must change? By when? How slow is too slow? How fast is too fast?”
Every person in every church strikes a pose when it comes to how they respond to a new pastor. And the pose you pick—whether out of integrity, immorality, or immaturity—forges the future you live. That’s why the wisest and strongest leaders and leadership teams will do everything they can to have long, direct, and lovingly bold conversations about these 4 postures with the key stakeholder groups in their church—ideally, before a succession occurs. This will set the expectation of unity, strength, and support enabling point leaders to straight-up ask for the all-in commitment that every person (especially a leader) will always only ever strive to be a Proactive Supporter in the transition process to ensure the healthiest transition possible. They will even go so far as to paint specific and compellingly intentional scenario-based pictures of how they will go about living out that pledge together. And, in so doing, they will forge a future of their church as an unstoppable force for good and for God.
Know this: every single second invested in prayerfully and carefully considering the various postures that will occur amidst your church’s leadership succession—especially in the early phases—will only pay huge dividends—both in the present and, Lord-willing, into eternity.