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A smooth transition sends clear messages about the health and future of the group, while a rocky transition can handicap the new leader and set the group or organization back significantly. We need to be deliberate and biblical about leadership transitions.

Anywhere Baptist Church was in the early stages of welcoming their new pastor when the first rumblings began. Rev. Jones, the recently retired pastor, was unhappy with the level of enthusiasm shown to his successor, Rev. Smith, and was making his feelings known to his friends in town.

Before long, murmuring began about the new pastor’s salary, the quality of the retirement gift to his predecessor, the neighborhood into which the new pastor had moved and the dubious planning process he had initiated. Members began to form groups loyal to one minister or the other. Many parishioners started visiting other churches. Even Rev. Jones, his feelings bruised, began attending another church in town, sending a painful message to the church family and community. Instead of surging forward, the church stumbled badly and lost an opportunity to allow a time of transition to be a stimulus for growth and progress.

This fictitious scenario plays out in varied forms again and again in churches, non-profit organizations, businesses and educational institutions. Leadership transition is one of the most precarious events in the life of any organization or movement. Dangers lurk at every turn.

Some groups suffer from “founder-it-is,” the unique situation created when a founding figure is unable to hand off the church or organization to a successor. Some deal with issues of rivalry among camps of followers of past leaders. Some suffer when the new leader shows a lack of respect for what has taken place to date. Some wrestle with former leaders who meddle and manipulate to their successor’s detriment. Some are unable to make clear and crisp endings and beginnings. Others never deal with substantive issues lurking just beneath the surface of the church or organization that will surely erupt regardless of the leader.

A smooth transition sends clear messages about the health and future of the group, while a rocky transition can handicap the new leader and set the group or organization back significantly. We need to be deliberate and biblical about leadership transitions. The demographic data tells us clearly that, as Baby Boomers reach retirement age in record numbers, many opportunities will arise in the near future to manage transition well, or poorly.

Elijah was fully aware that his ministry as prophet was drawing to a close. Earlier, he had heard the voice of God directing him to delegate his responsibilities to those who would succeed him. Elisha was called to follow, and he obeyed …

Bill Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga.

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