Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Create a Strategic Plan for Pastoral Transitions

Create a Strategic Plan for Pastoral Transitions

Far too often when pastors leave, their churches are thrown into chaos.  No one likes to talk about pastoral transitions.  But if you don’t plan for them, everyone in your church will suffer.  Taking the time now to create a strategic plan will help keep your church’s strength and morale intact when transitions happen.


Here’s how you can create a strategic plan for your church’s pastoral transitions:


Consider the key players’ roles.  The departing pastor needs to reflect on what he wants to accomplish in his ministry and what he wants to offer as a base for his successor to build on.  He should participate in developing the transition plan and negotiating how to execute it.  He should also honestly consider whether or not he wants to or can mentor his successor.  The church’s board should guide the transition plan’s development and be in charge of executing it.  The board should also choose a transition consultant to help board members design and execute the transition plan, search for a new pastor, and manage the exchange of information between the departing and arriving pastors. 

The church’s personnel committee should set expectations for pastoral performance, regularly evaluate and coach staff, and keep staff accountable.  The committee should also provide transitional support to the arriving pastor for the first year of his ministry at the church.  The arriving pastor needs to be honest with himself about the match between his qualifications and the job specifications.  He also must be willing to follow the transitional plan and publicly honor his predecessor without feeling personally threatened or denying the church’s history.


Study demographics.   Research the community so church leaders have a clear picture of the characteristics and trends of the area and how the church can best serve its community in the future. This information should help determine what type of new pastor to search for.


Formulate a vision for the future.  Create a vision statement for your church, taking into account the church’s core values and the demographic information about the surrounding community.  Analyze your church’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats as you figure out how best to plan to accomplish the vision.  Strive to build on strengths, shore up or accept weaknesses, capitalize on opportunities, and neutralize threats in the environment.  Include information about how a future pastor should help the church make its vision a reality.  Rather than having any new pastor focus on dysfunction and simply try to fix what’s broken, have him build on the positive work of a previous leader to take it to a new level and envision abundance for the church.


Count the costs.  Figure out how expensive it would be to replace your church’s pastor – in terms of money, morale, spiritual vitality, community impact, church leadership, and fellowship.  Create a practical budget for the transition. Strive to retain as many staff members and lay leaders as possible.  Be sure to talk candidly about the transition, answer people’s questions, manage conflict with strength and warmth, and be flexible as changes occur.  Identify the church’s unique mission components, plan for key ministries to continue, and make sure the new pastor supports them.


Manage the relationship between the departing and arriving pastors.  Figure out the timing: Will the two pastors overlap their work for a while?  Will the new pastor arrive almost immediately after the former pastor departs?  Will the new pastor arrive several months after the former pastor departs, creating a need for interim leadership (an interim pastor, lay professional, or skilled volunteer)?  Consider the relationship between the pastors: Will the departing pastor share any key information with the arriving pastor, and if so, what?  Will the departing pastor mentor the arriving pastor, and if so, how?


Deal effectively with crises.  If your pastor’s departure is sudden and unexpected, make sure the church’s members are physically, emotionally and spiritually safe. Ensure that the church will continue to operate and communicate with and serve its community.  Have preachers on call who can fill in during worship services on an emergency basis.  Restore normalcy as soon as possible. Try to use the crisis as a springboard to positive changes.


Adapted from The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken About Pastoral Transitions, copyright 2004 by Carolyn Weese and J. Russell Crabtree.  Published by Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint, San Francisco, Ca.,


Carolyn Weese is executive director of Multi-Staff Ministries, a consulting group based in Goodyear, Arizona, serving hundreds of churches from many denominations in 36 states.  She has 20 years of experience helping congregations with leadership development, succession planning, and other human relation issues.


J. Russell Crabtree is executive director of Holy Cow! Consulting in Columbus, Ohio, a company that offers organizational development services for religious, government, and nonprofit organizations.