Note: Over the next 10 years in the United States alone, there are expected to be 480,000 pastoral transitions with an astounding 90% of them (roughly 430,000) occurring in churches with no succession plan in place. These numbers are staggering by themselves, but also consider that a large church (defined as 1,000-plus in attendance) takes 12 to 24 months to replace a pastor, resulting in numeric attrition, financial shortfalls and leadership departures.
Transition is a topic that we frequently cover in AVAIL Journal—often surrounding the challenges of weighing the risks and rewards of new opportunities, identifying when your current assignment is drawing to a close and preparing a successor. But what happens when you’ve taken the leap into a new role? What are the pitfalls you must avoid and the priorities you must pursue as you take the baton from someone else? This article is a special preview of an upcoming book by Sam Chand, Maury Davis and Ron McManus, releasing this fall, titled Transition Tsunami, which offers practical insight to outgoing and incoming leaders on the best practices of leadership succession and transition planning.
If you’re succeeding an outgoing leader, you may already know that the bookshelves lack specific guidance for your situation. Highlighted here are some ideas and thoughts for your consideration.
THE ‘DON’T’ LIST
Don’t expect things to be the same for you as they were for your predecessor. If people seem resistant, try not to take it personally. Realize that it’s a loyalty issue and that some folks just need more time to adjust to change. You can’t expect the same response from people that your predecessor led.
Try thinking of your tenure as a bank account. Any bank account requires deposits. In this case, your stakeholders must make the deposits based on their level of trust in you. Getting that account built up takes time. Your predecessor’s years of deposits into the account enabled them to get the desired responses. Unfortunately, that account was closed when you became the incumbent; you must now establish your own account. In time, your faithful work will yield similar results.
Don’t be quick to make changes for which you lack the necessary relational equity. If you start disassembling everything that preceded you or initiating too many completely new endeavors, it’s going to put everyone into a state of shock. People who are in shock aren’t going to be too keen on making the necessary deposits into your account.
Sometimes, incoming successors make promises, or attempt to cast an organizational vision that’s totally unrealistic, in an effort to get people behind them. Without a relevant track record with their people, they’re going to have a very difficult time.
Incoming leaders must realize that all change is a critique of the past. Even something as seemingly insignificant as painting a wall can be misperceived. In some cases, new leaders begin taking too many drastic actions. Their people find themselves wondering what was wrong with the way things were and why it was necessary to make so many changes.
It’s always better to start small. Since change that’s imposed is change that’s opposed, focus on building relationships at first. It’s vital relationships that will provide you with the equity you’ll need for successful future efforts. You can make incremental changes, but be sure to balance those endeavors with getting the necessary relational support. Until you do, you may find yourself writing checks that you cannot cash.
Don’t think that people are going to view you like they viewed you before you came. Hard as it may be to believe, there are people who may have wanted a different leadership candidate in your spot. Sure, they were courteous and pleasant when they met with you during the selection process, but they may have had other preferences. Don’t rush them; give them time to adjust. Sometimes, they may not have been involved in the entire decision-making process; they may have just received an announcement. You have likely had more time to adjust than they have.
Don’t try to be your predecessor. Certainly, you should be respectful toward your predecessor, honoring their accomplishments and their character. If you’re following a tremendous leader, one who casts a large shadow, it can cause you to feel compelled to live up to their accomplishments or their reputation. Resist the pressure to become their carbon copy. Your organization doesn’t need another person like your predecessor; they need you.
THE ‘DO’ LIST
Honor and celebrate your predecessor. In many cases, the predecessor who left you an organization to lead is loved and revered. Since people are in the process of shifting their loyalties from that leader to you, it serves you well to honor and celebrate him whenever there is opportunity. As you celebrate your predecessor, you make it easier for people to make their transitions.
Exercise patience. Following a founder, a successful entrepreneur or a much-loved senior pastor is no easy task. It requires self-knowledge and patience, diligence and patience, as well as patience and more patience.
It’s important to remember that acceptance can take time. How quickly a successor is accepted varies with the organization. In many cases, acceptance isn’t synonymous with arrival. It may help if you can acknowledge the grief and loss associated with the change. Be a realist by acknowledging what people are feeling. Offering them understanding can only help you.
Build relationships with people who have the wisdom to give you advice from the organization’s past. Create a counsel of trusted advisors, which is sometimes called a “kitchen cabinet.” Realize that you need counsel to help you to make good decisions. Then, connect with the right people. Build good relationships with those who have the experience, the wisdom and the power and influence.
Take time to understand the shifts within the organization. You may think you know the organization inside and out, perhaps because you were there while you were being developed for your new role. But even though you were in the boardroom before, you were in another chair. Now that you’ve moved into the first chair, everyone else is relating to you in a different way. When you moved, they changed too. Because of this power shift, you have to adjust your understanding of the organization.
Be flexible and not overly sensitive. Some people will insist on being your critics. We encourage you to carefully inspect each criticism for some truth that can help you to grow. There is a shred of truth in everything. If you approach criticism from this standpoint, every critic can actually help you to grow into a better pastor, a better leader, or a better CEO.
GROW continually. The letters in the word GROW can provide an easy way to remember many of the important transitions that you’ll have to navigate.
Grasp the organizational culture, as every organization is different.
Respect and honor your predecessor, as well as the local traditions and customs.
Organize your strategic thinking and planning while you learn about the organization.
Work at willingness. Be open to criticism, value and seek out the opinions of others.
Remember, you are not an owner, but a steward. Your role is temporary, and some day you will pass the baton to someone else. Your responsibility is to be faithful with the time and resources you’ve been given and leave the results to God.