Alabama University football coach Nick Saban rarely fires anyone on his staff.
Rather, explained an ESPN commentator during a recent SEC football game, he employs a strategic transition plan.
Although I am not sure of all the detail involved, Saban’s program is known for retooling coaches and has a reputation for preparing coaches to move on to become respected coaches in other programs.
Although the world of vocational ministry is quite different from collegiate coaching, perhaps churches could learn a few valuable lessons from effective leaders like Saban.
Transition is healthier than termination in most cases.
I am convinced that churches should rarely terminate a staff member. Rather, congregations can employ healthy strategies for transitioning staff that look after the best interest of the church, the staff member and the kingdom.
Paul encouraged the early church to “let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). As we emerge from the pandemic and engage in the next chapter of ministry, churches would be wise to apply that principle to staff transitions.
Unhealthy transitions are often painful and conflictual for the staff member and the congregation. It usually takes churches several years to recover from a forced termination. And churches who dismiss ministers routinely develop a reputation for being “cutthroat” toward staff.
Healthy transitions, however, tend to minimize the grief of departure, enabling the congregation to bless and follow the ministry of the staff member with great pride and to welcome the next staff minister with enthusiasm and excitement about the future.
Here are few routes to healthy transition:
- Internal realignment
A plan to reassign or promote within the existing staff has many advantages, including familiarity with the minister, maintaining the cohesiveness of the staff, cost savings on search expenses and moving expenses and providing longer tenures.
- Vocational redirection
Occasionally, a church may call a minister who discovers that he or she may not have the durable sense of calling to serve on a church staff. Or a staff minister may perceive a call to a different vocation. Part of a church’s mission is to assist and affirm her ministers in a clarification of vocation. Rather than imposing an abrupt termination, a church can opt to network with staff ministers as they search for a new position and to bless their new role.
- Ministerial relocation
Healthy churches may have a mix of long tenured staff ministers who anchor the church’s leadership team and short tenured staff ministers who are being mentored toward serving in other congregations.
A church should never think of itself as the ultimate destination of every staff minister they call. Rather, a church that embraces a teaching church model should celebrate that the ministers (including residents and interns) on its staff are being called as leaders for other kingdom outposts.
Additionally, some ministers whose gifts and personality did not prove effective in one congregation, may be just the right pastoral leader for another.
- Redemptive recovery
What should be the church’s response when a minister is caught in a moral failure or a life crisis?
As the people of God, churches have an obligation to demonstrate both grace and accountability. This means helping the staff member enter a season of redemptive recovery.
Depending on the circumstances and the receptivity of the minister, this may or may not mean the minister will return to vocational ministry. Redemptive recovery may be needed after an addiction, a divorce, a health crisis or an act of infidelity or breach of trust.
- Gradual retirement
In the future, more and more ministers may choose a gradual reduction of workload as a step toward retirement, rather than a one-time transition from full-time service to complete retirement.
Such a phased retirement strategy could be a part of a succession plan in which a minister-in-waiting works alongside the minister-soon-to-retire, with the retiring minister relinquishing responsibilities at mutually agreed upon dates.
Or a phased retirement may prove to be a valid option for ministers who are ready to take steps toward retirement and are willing to fill other ministerial roles on a contractual basis, such as a full-time associate pastor who would like to phase toward a half-time minister of pastoral care role.
Healthy churches call and transition staff ministers in purposeful and proactive ways. Ministers may need to transition for many reasons including a fresh sense of call, an economic downturn in a congregation, ineffective ministry or incompatibility with the church’s vision. Strategic staff transition is a viable part of kingdom work.
When Saban speaks to community groups regarding leadership and success, he frequently refers to their “process” at Alabama.
When pressed for what he means by the “process,” Saban explains, “The process is really what you have to do day in and day out to be successful. We try to define the standard that we want everybody to sort of work toward, adhere to and do it on a consistent basis.”
In aiming for excellence and effectiveness in ministry, churches need a healthy process for mentoring, affirming and, at times, transitioning their staff ministers.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.