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Three Points on Successful Pastoral Transition

By March 24, 2017Ministry & Leadership13 min read

Daniel Fusco will be a main session speaker at the 2017 CCCM Pastors and Leaders Conference, June 26-19, 2017.

Pastoral transitions are something many churches are facing today. However a church and its leadership chooses to handle it, pastoral transition will go a long way toward the eventual outcome. Pastoral transitions can be the stuff that legends are made of! The statistics are tragic: Many churches never truly recover from a pastoral transition, often splitting in the midst of them. Many churches not only do not grow during a transition, they drastically decline. Transitions are even harder when they involve a large church, and there are many stories of high-profile, failed transitions. For church bodies facing pastoral transitions, this can be some depressing and scary news. It’s especially important for our movement as many Calvary Chapels face an impending leadership transition without a succession plan in place.

Here’s my story of a church transition that worked. It’s not a story about me, or the church I came to love and lead, or the pastor who passed the baton to me. It’s a story about what it looks like to simply respond to Jesus and join Him in the work He wants to do in and through a transitioning church family.

It all began in 2011 with a season where by God’s grace and speaking into our hearts, the Crossroads Community Church’s Senior Pastor, Bill Ritchie, the congregation, the board and I were led to a place where we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was asking us to step into this process together. So in 2012, I moved to Vancouver, Washington, to begin transitioning into the lead pastor role at Crossroads Community Church. Pastor Bill had started the church in 1975 – two months before I was born! – and had faithfully pastored there for almost 40 years. Pastor Bill, along with the Crossroads board, didn’t really do a traditional “pastor search.” Pastor Bill just networked with people he knew and trusted: pastors, former pastors and church leaders. And from there, they just waited on the Lord during that process. I realize for some of you, you are wondering, “How did they end up with that guy? No offense…but you??” Well, that’s a great question, but another story for another time. For whatever reason, I was the guy, and I decided that regardless of the butterflies in my gut, I was going to join Jesus is what He was doing.

When I told a good ministry friend of mine what was happening, he blurted out, “Don’t do it! They are going to HATE you!” Then another friend said, “They invented the ‘interim pastor’ position for situations like this! You are out of your mind.” That might of given me some pause, but to be honest, I was in way too deep to question God at that point. What’s funny is they were right. All the statistics tell us that the guy who comes after the “Guy” doesn’t hang around very long. Maybe I am stubborn, or maybe just dumb, but I went anyway.

I am blessed to say that I was part of a very healthy transition. Almost every week, Pastor Bill and I were approached by churches and leaders who wanted to talk about transition. We were humbled to be written about in Warren Bird and William Vanderbloemen’s book Next: Pastoral Succession that Works, as well as in Dave Rolph’s dissertation about pastoral transition. I am also excited to be able to share a workshop on the subject at the Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa Pastors and Leaders Conference in June.

I want to share with you a few lessons that we learned in the midst of the transition, with the hope that if you are part of a pastoral transition, this will help you and your church. It is important to acknowledge that the success of our transition had more to do with God’s amazing grace than any wisdom Pastor Bill, myself, or the team at Crossroads possess. Only Jesus could accomplish such an amazing work. It is also important to say that our transition wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I have made more mistakes than I can count. Some people do hate me like my friend said they would. Some people left. Some changes that were made were challenging and were not well-received. So it’s tempting to say that everything was perfect. My friends, we are talking about imperfect people following a perfect Savior. So it wasn’t perfect. But it has been fruitful, and God is so faithful. Crossroads is strong today. By many metrics, we are stronger than we have ever been in our history. And I say that to the glory of God and to encourage you that it’s worth investing in the succession process to make it the best possible transition it can be.

The Power of the Outgoing Leader

The health of a pastoral transition rests firmly on the shoulders of the outgoing pastor. If you read anything about pastoral transition, you realize that how the outgoing pastor handles the transition makes or breaks it. By God’s grace, Pastor Bill Ritchie made the decision to transition well before he had to. This realization, that it is time to hand off the leadership baton, is a huge first step. Pastor Bill was still leading with intense vision and preaching strong. The church was still doing well. But he realized it was time, and he devoted his passion and energy to our transition. He also realized he played a pivotal role in creating a healthy transition. He is a ferocious learner, and he had read many books about the issues caused by founders who couldn’t let go and ended up sabotaging their successors.

Pastor Bill was also bold enough to think outside the box. He had the wild idea to not make a safe pick for his successor. Contemporary logic goes something like this: If your pastor is 65, find the next pastor that is 55 and similar in temperament and style, who has led a large ministry like yours. That way, it’s not too hard on the people. The problem with that logic is that as the leader, you set yourself up for another pastoral transition in ten years. Not to mention that when you hire the “poor man’s version” of your current pastor, at some point, everyone realizes that pastor is the poor man’s version of the original, and they resent him for it. I’m not saying this is right, but it’s how it goes. So Pastor Bill decided to skip a few generations. Instead of looking for a pastor in his mid-50s, he found a guy in his mid-30s. Instead of looking at a pastor of a large, established church who was ready to take the “next step,” he looked at younger church planters with bloody knuckles, people who were hungry to change the world. Was it safe? No. Was it wise? After five years and as his successor, I think it was brilliant. And I think you’ll see why I say that.

The Power of a Plan

We had a plan, and we executed that plan. Long before I was in the equation, Pastor Bill and the leadership team here at Crossroads had been planning his succession. He had been leading the church for more than 30 years, and it was not going to last forever. So they had been putting a plan together. Each pastoral transition has unique elements. There are financial considerations, staffing considerations, buildings and budgets, as well as ministry focus and vision. One of the things that made our transition unique was that Pastor Bill wanted to stay at Crossroads after he was no longer the senior pastor. He wasn’t looking to go anywhere. Their family had been in our community for almost 50 years, and they wanted to stay here. But that can be problematic to say the least. Yet it was a variable that needed to be addressed up front. So when I arrived in the picture, we started to plan more earnestly. I cannot stress enough how important working hard on a plan is for this endeavor. Unfortunately, many churches think planning isn’t Spirit filled. Now why people believe that is beyond my comprehension. God is the ultimate planner. The Bible is full of detailed plans. You can do it in a way that fits your community. For us it looked like some days locked up in a hotel room, praying, planning, discussing ideas and praying some more. And we walked away with our action steps. So whatever it looks like for your leadership team and church, please make sure you plan and plan and plan. The old saying is true – “if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.”

Planning in and of itself is not enough. Having a plan is one thing, but executing the plan is an entirely different thing. Sometimes the best-laid plans fail in the execution. As a team, we felt that we had a solid plan. We knew what we were going to do with communication, leaders, ministries, vision casting and more. We committed that our transition would be completed in 24 months. We knew that when the transition was complete, where I would end up and where Bill would be. It was all dialed in. But could we actually do it? A great plan that’s poorly executed is a poor plan. A poor plan that’s executed perfectly is still a poor plan. But a great plan properly executed is a success. I am humbled to say that we were able to execute our plan, in 14 months instead of 24.

One of the overarching keys to our plan was that Pastor Bill and I made the commitment to guard our relationship with each other. Many times that is forgotten in a pastoral transition. When you have two strong, type-A leaders working together it can get pretty hairy. But because of our commitment to keep short accounts with each other, we worked through the rough patches and are closer today than we have ever been. I am so grateful for his friendship, ministry and investment in me.

The Power of the Spirit’s Leading

We were open to the leading of the Spirit. No matter how good your plan is, you can’t do it without the Holy Spirit guiding you each step of the way. As our transition began to unfold, we learned a number of things very quickly, and the Spirit helped us course-correct.

First, we realized that we had designed our transition not to lose people, but we neglected to leverage our transition to reach new people. It was an honest mistake. We figured as long as we didn’t kill this great church then we did a good job. But we totally missed the reality that God didn’t want Crossroads just to survive, He wanted us to thrive. Very quickly, we realized that with a new pastor coming in, it created a tremendous opportunity to reach new people. As this became apparent, we began to embrace what we weren’t ready for. We began again to do weekly altar calls and watched people come to know Jesus in the sanctuary week in and week out. Long-term Crossroads families started to realize that our church wasn’t just for them, it was a place of healing and hope for our community, especially if they didn’t know Jesus!

Second, we realized that our transition was happening quicker than we imagined. I told you that our transition had to be completed in 24 months, but we got it done in 14 months. We had to be open to the Spirit to see what God was doing and adjust what we were doing and how we were doing it. We believe that if we had waited the full 24 months, we would have missed part of what God was doing. There was a palpable momentum we were experiencing, and we adjusted our plans so we could “ride the wave” that God was creating.

Finally, we learned that the transition didn’t end when Pastor Bill and the church leaders laid hands on me and I became the Lead Pastor. We learned that was just the first stage. After handing off of the baton, the next phase of transition began. Pastor Bill was now the founding and former lead pastor, I was now the lead pastor, and the entire church was in a new season. To be honest, after the Sunday service where we literally passed the baton, there was about another three years of transition that we had to manage if we wanted our church to be healthy. As things are changing and adjusting, it is very challenging, for everyone. In the midst of the turmoil that the transition creates, lots of beautiful and terrifying things can go on. I often get asked about those “things” and to be honest, I believe they are different for every situation. But the foundational principle is the same: What is Jesus asking the pastor, the leadership and the church body to do, and is everyone hearing and responding to it?

It is with great joy that I can stand here today and say that Crossroads has been a successful transition. Pastor Bill would absolutely say that same thing. The church has continued to grow in size and impact, beyond what any of us imagined. So as we see many churches already transitioning, and we know that many churches will soon begin that process, my prayer is that we transition well, and because of the success of those transitions, the world will know that Jesus is real!

Daniel Fusco wrote this article. He is lead pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, Washington.