Pastoral transitions are always difficult. The circumstances vary, but change remains hard regardless of the reason. One of the more challenging transitions in the church is when an Associate Pastor is called to become the new Senior Pastor in the same church. At the outset, let me say that I am no expert. I am learning “on the job” and have tried to ask a lot of questions from those who have done this before me—putting their advice into practice.
A few challenges are unique to an Associate Pastor becoming the Senior Pastor in the same church he has been serving for years.
First, there is no “honeymoon” period. A new Senior Pastor tends to have three months to a year before congregants express dissatisfaction. There is no such time for the Associate Pastor. Most congregants have already decided whether they like his ministry or not—whether that is fair or not. Second, the Associate Pastor becoming the Senior Pastor of the church has the added difficulty of getting over the hurdle of congregants perceiving him as “only” an Associate Pastor. An individual coming from another church does not have that hurdle to overcome, even if his previous call was as an Associate Pastor, because this congregation only knows him as a Senior Pastor. But the Associate Pastor, if he was effective as an Associate Pastor, was careful not to encroach upon the Senior Pastor’s leadership of the church. Therefore, the average congregant hasn’t seen this ability or gifting in the man and may have trouble accepting it. Finally, depending upon the circumstances, the Associate Pastor may have baggage due to his relationship with the former Senior Pastor. If the Senior Pastor was dearly loved, then he is not him. If the Senior Pastor was disliked, he can be easily associated with him. These are a few of the common challenges.
However, there are also benefits. First, the Associate Pastor moving into the Senior Pastorate of the church already knows the people, the culture, the “hot-button” issues, the weaknesses, the strengths, and the needs of the church. This affords him the opportunity to immediately be a more effective pastor. A pastor new to the church will need time to learn and assess; this will necessarily slow him and the church down in the early months. Second, the Associate Pastor becoming Senior Pastor already has relationships in the church. There is built-in confidence. In addition, the elders and staff already know his weaknesses (which all pastors have) and can compensate for them from the start. All of this allows the church to “hit the ground running” with the start of his role as Senior Pastor. Finally, he already loves the church, otherwise he would not have taken on this responsibility. Love for the local church lends itself well to faithful and fruitful ministry.
Allow time for the congregation to grieve the loss of their former Senior Pastor. If he left under hard circumstances, then there will be grief due to the difficulty. If he left as a beloved pastor, then time will be needed to grieve his moving on (to glory or another call). If it is the former, there needs to be time for congregants to regain some modicum of trust in the leadership of the church before the Associate takes over. If it is the latter, then there needs to be time for the congregation to grieve the loss to some degree so that they can fully embrace the Associate as their new Senior Pastor. If a congregation isn’t given time, they will feel as though they are betraying the former Senior Pastor. As one of my mentors, Dr. Harry Reeder, said to me on this subject, “Consciously or subconsciously there is a loyalty to the former Senior Pastor. It is much like marriage. And if there isn’t ample time to grieve the loss, they will feel as though they are cheating on him.” I think that is right, so church leadership must be patient.
Advice for the Associate Becoming the Senior Pastor
Celebrate the past, while laboring in the present, with a vision for the future. Do not disparage, critique, or criticize the church’s ministry under the former Senior Pastor. There are always things to celebrate. But even as you do, you must also remember that you are not the former Senior Pastor. You do not bear responsibility for keeping his vision going, his idiosyncrasies in place, or his passions at the forefront. As Senior Pastor, lead. Celebrate the past, but focus on the present. And in doing so, set a vision for the future. The congregation will embrace and celebrate such leadership.
You can “hit the ground running” and should. A pastor coming from the outside may take his time; you cannot. As stated above, there is no honeymoon. Launching vision at the outset and “cashing in a few chips” for some needed systematic or monumental changes is worth doing early.
As with any change in leadership, you will experience people leaving the church. This is normal. With any change, people leave. Some will initially leave with notification of your hire. Others will leave at the three-month mark, the six-month mark, the one-year mark, and again at the three-year mark of your ministry. That is normal and should be expected by both you and the leadership of the church. Help prepare them for it without being a “doomsday prophet.” You cannot and must not get discouraged. Your pursuit of the Lord in faith and faithfulness remains the essential ingredient for persevering through these transitions.
Preach from one of the Gospels as you start your ministry as Senior Pastor. There is nothing more important for your people to see from you than your love and delight in the Lord Jesus Christ. They will trust and embrace your ministry more readily as they see this in you. Preaching through a Gospel provides the most direct access to such a view.
Take a long-view. You are the Senior Pastor. This is your calling until you die or the Lord makes it clear He is calling you somewhere else. Love the people well, love the Lord well, love the Scriptures well and unite these three loves together in your ministry. Over time, fruit will be produced.
Advice for Elders/Leadership/Staff
An important aspect of persevering during such change is the uncompromising support of the Elders and staff of the church. This proves essential and cannot be underestimated. Be vocal in your support of the new Senior Pastor to him, the congregation, and one another. It cannot be said too much or too often.
Try and take something off the Senior Pastor’s plate. Expectations are high. Some will expect the same relationships with him and ministry from him that they experienced when he was the Associate Pastor. While everyone is expecting him to preach, lead, and engage in the additional responsibilities of the Senior Pastor, it will take him time to fully transition. Be patient with him and give some aid by relieving him of some responsibilities.
Persevere with him. Don’t focus on numbers. Stop mentioning what the former pastor did. Stand by him and let him know that you are in this with him for the long-haul.
Advice for Congregants
Encourage and be patient. Encourage your new pastor by praying for him faithfully. Spiritual warfare is real and you can support the entire church by praying for him. Be patient with him and his ministry. He may not possess the gifts or abilities the former Senior Pastor possessed in one respect or another, but he will surpass his gifts or abilities in other areas. It will take time for you to appreciate that. In addition, consider lending more time to serving in the church during this transition time. Some will leave the church, others will be in a “wait and see mindset,” and still others will “protest” his hire by withdrawing from ministry. More hands are needed on deck. You can be the answer to that need.
It is always helpful to remind ourselves, regardless of our position in this transition, that Christ is the Head of the Church. He calls who He wills. He is safeguarding and defending His bride. Whether we are the new Senior Pastor, an elder, a staff member, or a congregant, we are all to be aimed at the same thing—the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. And He is keeping watch over His church. In that, we can be confident. In that, we can trust.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.