Updated: Mar 23
On a sunny spring day, my mother and I stood staring at each other, in front of the closing garage door. “We can never go back in there again,” she said.
“There” was the house I grew up in, the place I thought of as home, the gathering place for our whole family, grandma and grandpop’s house. We had completed the final walkthrough. Leaving memories behind with the keys, mom shut the door one last time and we were forever on the outside.
Transition is like that. Change delivers a “you can never go back there again” moment. Pastors, in particular, have felt this as “nearly two in five pastors have considered quitting full-time ministry,” according to Barna. When you leave your church as a pastor, your experience fits this category. At some point, the momentum takes over and even if you have regrets, even if you have job-changers remorse, you are stuck in the pull of an irresistible force. Change is happening and you cannot stop it.
When I think of pastoral changes, I think of three clients who represent three dynamics:
Driver’s Seat: Tom had been a senior pastor for 10 years. He was loved, effective, and tired. After several years of private counsel and prayer, he decided to take a position in a faith-based ministry and leave his church. Tom decided to leave. He was in the driver's seat. He initiated the change process for an opportunity that represented better stewardship of his gifts for the dawning season in his life.
Worn Down: Carol was on her third career. After completing seminary, she was anxious to serve a congregation directly. The process of finding a congregation that would affirm both her orthodoxy and seminary degree was more challenging than she expected. She finally landed a position as a pastor of care in a small church in a distant suburb. Five years in, she was still part-time, struggling to be trusted by the church leaders and congregation, worn out from the burdens unloaded on her and lack of supportive connections with her church. Tired, defeated, and a bit disillusioned, she resigned. While Carol ultimately decided on the change yet it was made under duress. She was worn out into this course. Eventually, she found a new role as a chaplain in a nursing home.
Terminated: Travis was terminated from his youth pastor role after being caught in a moral indiscretion involving a volunteer on his team. Travis had absolutely no control over the process. Church leadership took over–terminated him immediately, provided some counseling for him and his shattered wife, and wished him well with great (and justified) disappointment. He had no idea what he would do next.
There are countless variations to this story. Every leadership position is temporary. At some point, you will leave your leadership position. It’s been my story. After 19 years as a lead pastor in a church outside of Philadelphia, I found myself in the throes of transition.
Out of that experience, and after coaching other pastors through transitions, I’ve developed a framework for leading through the stages of transition with grace. In this piece, I’ll share three things:
A framework for understanding the process of transition.
Best self-leadership practices for each stage along the way
Best organizational leadership practices as you leave your current assignment and begin a new one.
The Stages of Transition
Transitions move through three phases: Shock, Ripples, and Forward.
Consider the story of David ascending to the throne in 2 Samuel 1-4. The transition is precipitated by the death of his predecessor, King Saul. When the news arrives that Saul and his son Jonathan have been killed, we have Shock. We read:
Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword. (2 Sam 1:11-12.)
Shock is the moment you know you are leaving. You’ve signed your new employment contract, inked your letter of resignation, or been told you have to step down. It is that point of no return moment. In my situation, my decades-long tenure ended as our church merged with another church. After several months of top-secret due diligence, we signed an agreement. The end was really coming.
After David’s shock moment, he composed a lament–a song of remembrance and sadness. He “ordered it taught to Judah” (2 Sam 1:18). Here he is facing the Ripples, the beginning of them at least. He is in charge, marking the moment with the community.
The ripples have to do with the immediate consequences of your decision. They throw you and those you lead into rough waters, where you lack stability, are dealing with lots of emotions in yourself and others, and are not completely sure what the future holds. As a Hebrew, David was formed in the art of grieving, in sitting with the pain and uncertainty instead of wishing or working it away. William Bridges calls this middle phase of transition the “confusing in-between.”
We announced that our church leadership was proposing a merger and that I would not be staying. That’s when the ripples started: Grief, sadness, uncertainty. I didn’t know what I’d be doing next. I didn’t have a bow to tie on the story during the ripple phase.
Finally, after an undefined period of time, David looks ahead.
In the course of time, David inquired of the Lord (2 Samuel 2:1). David is moving Forward, charting his next moves through the discipline of prayer. Using David as a model, we can identify a road map for seasons when we are holding the leadership baton in transition.
I began an intentional (and very part-time) search to move forward during the ripples phase of my transition. After I finished at my church, my full-time pursuit was finding my next assignment. That became clear within five months. And the ripples kept coming, though less intense, as my full-time energy was devoted to my new calling, building a new ministry in New York City.
Three stages: shock, ripples, and forward. Three different dynamics. And they all overlap. So what does effective leadership look like at each stage?
Effective Leadership for Each Stage
Our team at VOCA has developed a model of endurance for those in positions of responsibility; we call it Resilient Leadership. In our three-pillar framework, effective leadership begins with the leader. The first pillar says leaders must operate from a secure center. When you are facing the shock, start by leading yourself.
Leading through the Shock
Leading Yourself: Before you can help others, you have to “get yourself together.” This is the oxygen mask principle from every pre-flight safety briefing.
In 1 Samuel 30, David’s home village was burned to the ground. Every soldier's wife and child had been hauled off into servitude. David’s men were threatening to stone him.
Then we read:
But David found strength in the Lord his God. (1 Sam 30:6b)
How do we do this? Spiritual practices, quiet, reflection, prayer. To have a solid core as a leader you must have a solid foundation of intimacy with your heavenly father. Add to these the best self-care you’ve learned over the years, and you are ready for the choppy waters ahead.
Leading Your Organization: Depending on the dynamics of your situation, you may have a great deal of organizational leading to do or virtually none at all. The task is speaking about the crisis: sharing the news, debriefing the facts of what has happened, and being a nonanxious presence. To the degree that you control how people hear about the news, think in terms of cascading circles, starting with those closest to you organizationally and personally.
Hiding a crisis or major change from the people who need to know does no one any favors. At the same time, your organization is not the place to fully process your sadness and excitement. There is a bit of a parental responsibility we bear as senior leaders–filtering but not hiding the truth. Leverage strategic listeners outside the ecosystem for unfettered processing.
Leading Through the Ripples
What is the Resilient Leadership response to the Ripples phase of transition? Pillar 2 is Extreme Team Engagement. Resilient leaders engender the full-throttle contribution of their team. Most pastoral transitions require you to invest in two teams.
Leading Yourself: As you garner the personal resources to make progress through the challenge, you will need people in your life. This is the time to call on mentors, coaches, and a personal board of directors. These women and men will pray, share wisdom, and make introductions that will assist you with your next chapter. It is very risky and can be downright insensitive to pull your personal board from the church you are leaving.
Leading Your Organization: Some of the most meaningful meetings I’ve had with leadership teams have come when facing a crisis or monumental decision. Everyone knows their participation matters. How much should you participate? The short answer, less and less. This is where wisdom and strategic listening come to play.
Think of David, making everyone sit in the loss. No denial here. Get your team together early and often when facing transition or challenge. Who will be the “David,” now that you are exiting? You need to pass the interim baton to someone, so the team can prepare for life without you at the helm.
The Forward phase of transition blends with the Client side of our Resilient Leadership model, Pillar 3. Jesus promised that whoever wants to be first among “must be a slave of all” (Mark 10:44 ). Executives who produce enduring results do so by focusing on the needs of those they serve; in business applications of the model we call them clients.
Leading Yourself: As you lead yourself through the process, you have to be others-oriented. What impact has God called you to make? Though Resilience Leadership starts with you, it never ends with you. There is no room for toxic ego or self-serving moves in effective change. As you depart your church, celebrate others, always choose what's best for the congregation, and never lobby for things that are only what is best for you. As you pursue your next opportunity, prayerfully ponder, “What contribution does God want me to make in this next season of my life?”
Leading Your Organization: Help the team envision future stories of impact and transformation as you take the learnings of the crisis and turn them into even greater service to your key beneficiaries. Focusing on the centeredness of Pillar 1 and the Engagement of Pillar 2, Pillar 3 looks at making a greater difference beyond the walls of your organization.
God led David and his band of misfits into the center of power in Israel. It took years of constant attention to self, team, and service. God has a future for you and your organization that is being shaped by your transition leadership now. Slow down. Get centered in his wisdom. Trust your colleagues. And then move forward to whatever “next” He is providing.
For me, this meant words of encouragement and challenge through dozens of individual conversations and a final series of sermons. It also meant keeping in touch with people after I departed and letting them know we were okay, but it also meant a clear ending. No hanging around in the shadows, questioning new leadership, or getting involved in the inevitable backchannel conversations that arise during church change.
Leading and Leaving
Part of leading is leaving. We see it over and over again in Scripture: Moses to Joshua, David to Solomon, Jesus to the Disciplines. Transitions can be positive momentum builders for you and your former church. Solidifying your center and making the right leadership plays at each phase of the process sets you up to live God’s wisdom as you end one assignment and begin the next.