TRANSITION & 5 Things Every Leader Should Do Now to Prepare for Transition by @BobWhitesel published by @BiblicalLeader Magazine.

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., Biblical Leadership Magazine, 11/16/19.


Warren Buffett has a famous rule he calls the Noah Rule: “Predicting the rain doesn’t count, building an ark does.”

Because most leaders in today’s fluid job market will transition to a new position sooner than later, leaders should be preparing for transitions. Currently I am writing a doctoral-level course on “interim and transitional ministry,” and in doing so I have been reminded by multiple authors about the importance of creating a transition plan before you need one. Here are five lessons to consider.

1.  Don’t call it an exit plan, because it should be a transition plan. If the leader looks selfishly at the transition, they will usually see it as a way to exit a situation. But looking at it this way will usually leave the organization in the lurch. Rather leaders should be preparing a transition plan that helps both organization and individual. Jesus had many hard conversations with his disciples about his impending crucifixion and resurrection (Matthew 16:21; Matthew 17:22; Mark 8:31). What if Jesus had said, “I have an exit plan.” That would be self-centered and inauthentic of Him.  Rather Jesus spoke of “the new covenant (promise)m written in my blood” (Luke 22:20, Message Bible).  So create a transition plan that takes into consideration the the church, as well as the leader’s, needs.

2. A transition plan allows the leader to find and nurture mentees. As I conduct research on transitions, I find that one of the most damaging aspects of leadership transitions is when the leader has been a hands-on, do it all themselves person. This leaves a huge gap when the leader leaves, that often cannot be filled quickly. As a result the organization often declines during the transition. Again Jesus‘ example of selecting his disciples years before his ascension, reminds us of the time needed for delegation and experimentation to foster a smooth transition (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-34; Luke 5:1-11).

3. Letting others know about your plans will not necessarily push you out sooner, but can actually give you time for a transition. One of the first consultations I conducted 30 years ago was for a pastor who the board was forcing out because he wouldn’t embrace contemporary worship. He explained to me that he was ready to move on to a church that practiced mostly traditional worship, but they were hard to find and he would need 12 to 18 month to find one in his denomination. I encouraged him to meet with the leaders of the church and discuss his heart’s desire in worship style. I told him to explain that he was not against contemporary worship, rather it was not for him. He replied, “That’s not the way it’s done in our denomination. Once you tell them you’re thinking about leaving, they push you out.” 

I reminded him they were already subtly trying to push him out, so it really didn’t matter if he told them. And I reminded him that if he told them now it would be a sign of candor and honesty. “If they appreciate your many years of loyal service,” I replied, as I believe they did, “They will work with you if you demonstrate that you want a transition that is good for the church and is good for your family too.”

He did as I suggested and offered to spend 18 months helping the church make a transition to a new pastor. The church leaders agreed, because they too did not want to be without a pastor without sufficient notice. Today that Pastor is “pastor emeritus” of the congregation. He is invited back to preach several times a year and for all church milestones. “I was skeptical,” he said to me many years later, “But being open and honest resulted in a long-term relationship I am thankful for every day.”

4. A transition plan takes more detailed planning than most people think. A transition plan isn’t just transitioning from one leader to another, but it is also usually a time of transitioning the organization and even sometimes the staff. Therefore the change is not just about a person, but it’s about two more things: a) the people who are friends or work alongside the leader and b) the future personality of the church. 

a) Some churches require that staff members resign when the lead pastor resigns. This can be good in some situations, especially if there is a toxic leadership culture.  But at other times this is a denominational or church tradition. Yet in almost all situations it puts hardships upon the paid staff who must resign. Putting together a transition plan in advance allows these people to prepare as well as look for other positions. When the leader keeps to themselves the information that he or she is going to leave, they often rob the other staff members of the ability to plan for their professional livelihoods. Without planning staff members are often unfairly upended and their families bear the pain. Church leaders who say they want to build a family church, must consider the families of those who will leave or be forced to leave when the leader transitions.

b) Also when a church’s personality needs to change, it will take some time to figure out what this new personality will be. Set up meetings with key stakeholders in the church to discuss and compromise on where the church is headed. We see this at the Council of Jerusalem, when James brought together all parties to discuss and foster a compromise that would allow the Great Commission to expand while respecting differences in cultures (Acts 15).

5. Finally making a transition plan in advance allows you to modify your transition plan as the leader and the church’s circumstances change. Planning a transition and giving it time to develop allows the church time to plan for the transition and figure out what it wants to be. And, the leader might find that the type of position she or he or she desired has now changed. As Proverbs 16:1 (Message Bible) says, “Mortals make elaborate plans, but God has the last word.”

In 30 years of consulting I have observed that time and planning allow for prayer, dialogue, experimentation and the Holy Spirit to guide a transition that does not thwart a church’s health or growth, but enhances it.

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