In 2009 I was called to pastor Forest Baptist Church, a 147-year-old, historically African-American church in Louisville, Kentucky. Forest is an incredible place to serve and I’m grateful for our members!
I came to the church in the midst of turmoil after the previous pastor was forced to resign. Things were tight and we had some major transitions to make. The Lord saw us through these transitions, and I’m grateful for what I learned.
Like Forest, most churches go through changes. Whether it’s new staffing, significant budget changes, sudden deaths, or the releasing of beloved employees, shifts are inevitable in the life of your church. We might as well make them as smooth as possible! Here are a few lessons I’ve learned about making transitions.
Cast and recast your vision with passion and clarity
Everyone longs to belong to something great and meaningful. The key to making a strong transition is showing people why the new direction is necessary and better. We can do this in a way that makes people bored – or excited. If we can’t cast a vision with infectious passion and clarity, we are not ready to cast it!
Neither are we ready if we can’t cast it with humility and patience. After casting the vision, it’s important to keep it before the congregation. We do this by constantly demonstrating the need for and benefits of such an initiative.
Feed the sheep and starve the goats
When I was serving as interim pastor at Forest, I called my former pastor to get his input. Perhaps the best advice he gave me came in the form of an aphorism: “Feed the sheep and starve the goats.” Translation: “When in the pulpit, preach the Bible. When outside the pulpit, avoid giving people anything to gossip about.” That was my main job during the transition.
Times of transition can be tricky. Some people will approach you with genuine questions and concerns, while others will seek to bring confusion and disunity. Our job as ministers of the Gospel is to preach refreshing good news and to protect God’s presence by not becoming entangled in nonsense.
Talk to a variety of people about how the transition affects them
As pastors, one of the most dangerous things we can do is make decisions in a vacuum. After meeting with our leadership council and casting the vision, we must interact with church members and see how they are processing the transition. When we don’t, it’s as if we are assuming that our plan or vision is error-proof. No vision ever is.
If we’re open, a teenager, a married mother of four, or a widowed man of seventy can always teach us something and give us a better perspective than we had before. Transitions are most effective when we take the time to see things from many vantage points.
Admit mistakes and make corrections as you go
One thing we can learn from the American public is that they are forgiving when a leader or celebrity gets “ahead of a story” and apologises for making a mistake. Believe the same is true in the church. As leaders we are going to make bad decisions sometimes. When we do, it’s important to lead with repentance. People admire strength, but they also respect a broken and sincere leader. Don’t be afraid to say, “I believe in our vision and our overall direction, but changes need to be made because I underestimated something. Forgive me.”
Transitions aren’t easy. They weren’t easy for Jesus when Lazarus died, when He struggled and suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane, or at many other points in his ministry. Jesus sympathises with us in our weakness, but He also reminds us that we must do our Father’s will. He can empower anyone to lead well in the midst of any transition.