It’s about a year since we made the announcement that I would be stepping down from the role of senior pastor of our church, and handing that role to our then-associate pastor. I would be continuing in a two day role at the church, primarily as a preaching/teaching pastor.
In light of that past year, one that I think has gone very well for our church, I’ve thought a lot about why and when a senior pastor should hand on the baton. Now this is not taking into consideration moral or ethical failures, but simply those “use-by-date” things that need to be addressed.
And in light of the fact that I planted our church, a further question raises itself: Is the person who planted the church the same person who will, by God’s grace, be the person who sees it grow under their leadership? I am convinced that this is not the case.
I think there are a number of signs that tell us when the right time is to hand on the baton, and here are four of them.
- You Revisit But Don’t Resolve Bottlenecks
As our church grew beyond the initial plant of fifteen or so, it reached a stage – at about eighty in size – where we started to experience some bottlenecks in terms of communication processes and leadership structures. Things were slowing down, because structures were not being put into place that would open up the bottlenecks.
As the person who planted the church, and who is generally described as a “gatherer of people”, the idea that we would actually reach bottlenecks at that size had not occurred to me. But when they did, although I could see that they were problematic, my first instinct was not to figure out ways to open them up. I needed help with that. And the bloke who planted the church with me was good at that.
But at that point I could see the future coming. Bottlenecks in churches may not be the most “spiritual” matters to attend to, but the structures of a church help the spiritual health of the church far more than many realise. The key issue for me was what to do if and when another growth spurt in the church caused another bottleneck.
Which, of course, having had the first one sorted, the next one arrived. Only it was more complex as we reached 150 people. And with the increased complexity came both a decreased ability – and decreased desire – by me to resolve it. As someone who had planted, and gathered, and preached, it felt like a huge effort, and an inordinate use of my emotional energy to try and resolve it. In fact the things I was good at started to suffer because they got less of my time and energy.
I didn’t just need help, I needed someone to do that for me. It was beyond what I was gifted to do. And when that is the case, holding on to the role, while not fulfilling it, became problematic.
2. You Elevate Other Interests
I noticed this early on. There was a point when my writing and speaking roles took off in a way that I had not anticipated. And I really enjoyed these aspects of ministry. They were things that God had gifted me in, and I used them whenever possible. And as the church grew in size, so did my opportunities to write and speak.
Something had to give. If I were going to remain in the senior pastor role it would mean that I would have to put an increasing amount of time and attention into the one area of ministry – leading a team in a bigger church – that didn’t really push my buttons. I would have to stop those other things for the sake of other people.
And I don’t say that with any sense of being selfish, merely that I didn’t enjoy the senior role as much as I had when the church was smaller. And I believe that’s a signal that something has to change. For a while I pushed it to the side, and spent a good deal of time writing and working for the church.
Trouble is, that didn’t help our church. And over time, if those growing pains and structural issues are not attended to, then the church itself will start to struggle and could decline in health and size.
I know those all sound like non-gospel metrics, but leadership is crucial in the life of a church. And those gifted in ” administrations” as it is called in 1 Corinthians 12, should administrate. Conversely those not so gifted, should not! Certainly not at a level beyond their gifting. If you notice yourself giving more and more time and energy to side projects – all in the hope that they energise you to enable you to do the role you don’t have as much passion for then it’s time to think about handing over the reins.
3. Your Leaders Start Discussing It
Let’s be honest. No really, let’s be honest! There’s nothing worse than a leadership team that does not have the permission to talk about this area of gifting in the team. What you will notice – if you have gathered enough people around you who can speak honestly to you – is that they might start speaking honestly to you!
For me, the key issue was in employing an associate. My good friend who planted the church with me was an excellent administrator. Still is. However there were certainly points of tension as the church grew, where he believed that the structural matters of the church were being overlooked by me. He is a structure-guru as well as a good start up-guy: absolute gold when it comes to church planting (and no, you can’t have his name, he’s doing great things in his current role!).
This overlooking of structure was also coupled with a tendency to come out of my office with a finished plan of what things were going to be like, instead of a blueprint for wider discussion about what they might be like. In other words, as we got bigger, it became evident that I worked better by myself. Trouble is, the church wouldn’t work better if I worked by myself.
The linch pin, however, was not the first associate appointment, but the subsequent one. Our second associate – now the new senior pastor – started to ask the same questions of me in terms of structure and team far earlier than the first associate had. Basically we’d had a four year run before we hit the first speed bump, but only a two year run for the second. Whatever the issue was, it was becoming more pressing. How long would a third associate last?
Here’s my theory: If you go through ten associates over a ministry lifetime – and they have all been the problem in the working relationship – then the problem was probably you. That’s a sign that, at best, you lack critical self-awareness, or at worst, you’ve got a problematic personality.
I listened intently to our second associate repeat some of the observations of the first, and point out the pitfalls ahead, and in consensus with our network, we decided that although we could cover some of these pressing matters with a staff appointment (executive pastor anyone?) we had neither the money nor the inclination to do that. I felt I had reached the limit of church size that I could lead as senior pastor, without needing to find some latent skills I had thus far not discovered. And at fifty-two what are the chances they’re there, hidden like unearthed gold in an already exhausted mine.
4. It Worked!
Of course the final sign that it’s time to move on is a bit like the doctrine of Providence. You only see it after the change has been made. But when we made this move, we look back and have seen that it worked.
There’s something encouraging about making that sort of decision and looking back at the decision as a key moment in the church when a series of bottlenecking problems were unlocked. And if you were operating outside your gifting and passion you’ll be happier about this also.
How did it work with our church? The key indicators. The church has seen conversion and numerical health in the past year. True it took a bit of time to adjust, especially since I planted the church, but things smoothed out.
Just as importantly, the leadership team has flourished under the new senior pastor. I am on the eldership still, and there is a greater sense of clarity and direction than there was under my leadership. Our eldership are friends, so it been a rich time this year as we pray and plan.
The new senior pastor has also flourished. It’s encouraging seeing a young guy, who I suspected was gifted to do the role, actually doing the role well, and doing it better at the size it is than I could have done. And he’s enjoying it immensely. He’s not looking for a side hustle to counter the strain of a role he isn’t fitted to do. Needless to say others are enjoying him doing the role. As the year has rolled out it’s confirmation that we made the right decision.
And even more importantly than all of that, the opportunities for more people to serve has increased. Healthy teams have been established. Opportunities to serve inside the church, and outside the church have increased. We’ve noticed younger leaders come to the fore, and as a settled leadership team we’ve also been able to help them as they go out into the world to serve in their work and study spheres. Things just feel like they are running in a less clunky manner.
The bonus of course is that, if this is done well, the person who leaves the senior role, can still remain at the church. Our church plant isn’t first and foremost my job, it’s my spiritual family. If you don’t have to leave to work elsewhere, then staying is a great way of showing your people what it looks like for the body to work together well.