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  • Writer's pictureKeith Haney

How to Approach a Pastoral Transition?

In a magazine for pastors [Pulpit Helps, August 1997], one fellow wrote with one of those "you know you're in trouble when …" lists. This one is, of course, addressed to preachers and is called "So Long, Pastor" You Know It's Over When …

  • You return from vacation to find the visiting preacher's name in your mailbox.

  • Your church is about to split, and neither group wants you.

  • Shut-ins pull the window shades and pretend they aren't home when you come for a visit.

  • Your mom moves her membership to another church.

  • You're told God is calling you to the mission field — now!

  • You're cast as the donkey in the Christmas cantata.

  • Your wife moves her membership to another church.

  • The trustees have been marching around your house the last six days, praying and carrying lanterns.

  • Your secretary starts sending out your résumé.

  • The congregation forces the call committee members to wear sackcloths and publicly confess and repent.

  • Church members started referring to you in the past tense.

  • You're "love offering" is a two-for-one coupon at Furr's.

  • You show up at the church on Monday morning to discover the locks have been changed.

As a person who now works with many Churches, I see far too many explosions. What happens when a church calls a pastor to serve as their new Shepherd, but he is the wrong man for that congregation at that point in the congregation's history? Here is a scenario that you can identify with.

Why Things Blow Up?

Congregations who are facing a crossroads in their ministry need to be cautious. Leaders usually are gifted with the ability to see things others don't yet. While that is a huge blessing, it can also create the elements for the pending explosion.

Leaders see that the congregation needs to change the status quo, but for the people in the pew, the status quo brings comfort and safety.

Leaders see that the congregation needs a new leader with a fresh vision, but people who fund the ministry want a clone of the pastor who just retired unless they hated the previous guy, then they want someone just the opposite of him.

Leaders want to make huge changes quickly, and the regular attendees, who may have no idea what is happening in the church, in response, view change in this manner, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

Avoid the Explosion

The warning for leaders in a pastoral vacancy is to assess how open the congregation is to change. Before you decide the church is ready for a major change in direction, consider this:

Where are the majority of your member when on the openness to change scale? To make a huge shift in direction and need help understanding where most of their members are. So the results could look like this the leadership calls a phenomenal man of God. The leaders cheer him on, empower him, and encourage him to go full throttle to make a radical change, all the while not realizing that the very changes they are seeking are too far ahead of where the majority of the population is, so at some point you reach a critical mass and then the explosion.

People rebel against the leaders who once cheered him on and now abandon the naive man of God who bought in wholeheartedly to the fact that this is the direction he was called to lead this congregation through. When push comes to shove, the leadership tends to take the road of least resistance, and when they begin to field calls daily from disgruntled and angry members who blame them for the disaster that ensued, they abandon the change they were seeking. The pastor called to lead his change is now looking for a call, wondering what happened. Right idea, moved too quickly, a ministry is laid waste, shrapnel is all-around.

You can minimize this by clearly reading the congregation. Pray for discernment in the call process that God sends a man with the heart to build a relationship in the middle of change. Finally, remember all change is hard, be compassionate.

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