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Committee on Christian Education Feature

Ten Tips for Surviving a Pastoral Transition

Kirsten L. Belh

Anyone who has ever been on a pastoral search committee knows that seeking a new pastor can be a tremendously long and arduous task. But many of us are taken off guard by the challenges that come once a new pastor arrives. Chances are, you came to your church under your previous pastor because you liked the church under his leadership. Now that church is changing.

Many churches can lose a significant number of their membership within the first two years of a pastoral transition. This can lead to discouragement for both the pastor and the remaining members. The discouragement can be so great that we may grow discontent with our church, lay the blame at the feet of our new pastor, and even be tempted to leave the church ourselves.

How can we prepare ourselves and our church to preempt the exodus and the heartache that so often follows a pastoral transition? Having witnessed several churches go through this, here are ten observations I have made that may make the transition go more smoothly.

1. Pray for your new pastor from day one.

Pray that God would accomplish what he has planned for the church through the ministry of your new pastor. Pray for his encouragement. Pray that he would grow in grace and in love for his new congregation. Pray for him each week as he prepares to administer Word and sacrament. Pray that he would have wisdom and insight into the needs of the church. Pray for his family. Do this from day one—don’t wait until the pastoral honeymoon is over!

2. Pray for yourself.

Pray that God would soften and prepare your heart for the work he is doing through this new pastor. Pray that you would grow in grace and in loving submission to his leadership. Pray that your ears and heart would be eager and prepared to receive and believe the Word preached each week. Acknowledge to yourself and to God that there will be disappointments and ask for his grace to face them even before problems arise.

3. Pray for the congregation.

Pray for peace and unity. Pastoral transitions often bring out the worst in churches as we inevitably hope for a pastor who will reflect our priorities (and not those of the guy on the other end of the pew). This can bring division to even the strongest church. Pray that the congregation would joyfully submit as one body. Pray for unity in the session; disunity among the leadership can destroy a pastor and a church. Pray for the pastor’s and elders’ wives.

4. Get to know the pastor and his family.

Often, we expect the pastor to reach out to us and get to know us—as well we should. It is one of his duties as pastor. Chances are, he is eager to do so. But remember he is the newcomer, and he may have one hundred new people to meet. If you are a longtime member, you already know the others at church and have only his family to reach out to. Invite him over. Ask him about his hobbies. Ask him about his convictions and who or what shaped him. Aim to do this regularly! As he inevitably brings changes to your church, keep communication open. Try to understand him and the new direction he is taking the church before suggesting your own.

5. Don’t compare.

Okay. Let’s be honest. This one is humanly impossible. You are going to compare your new pastor with your old pastor. You are going to compare his preaching with your favorite radio or podcast preachers. But don’t always give him the short end of the stick. It’s okay to miss your previous pastor and even mourn, but don’t forget to move on and embrace your new pastor with all his strengths and weaknesses. Try your best to overlook those weaknesses by God’s grace and to actively take note of his strengths.

6. Speak positively about him to others.

When your pastor first arrives, there is going to be a time of excitement. But after a year or two there will most likely be a period of disappointment as you find out that he’s just a man and unable to meet everyone’s expectations. It’s so easy for us to begin to grumble quietly among ourselves. We may even feel justified, with a chapter and verse to validate our discontent. Now is the time to avoid listening to the grumbling—whether inside your mind or coming out of someone else’s—and to start counteracting it with praise. Get your congregation excited again about your new pastor by praising him to others.

7. Encourage him.

We’ve all heard the statistics on pastoral burnout. It’s so much easier to complain than to encourage, and as a result, the criticisms your pastor hears probably far outweigh the compliments. Make it a point to encourage him and his family. Your pastor is sincerely devoted to your church and eagerly desires its growth in grace. It is his job to be concerned about its well-being full-time. It can be rewarding, but it can also be emotionally and spiritually exhausting. He needs your encouragement more than you know.

8. Get your hands dirty.

We all have our favorite ministries and priorities, and we want our new pastor to adopt them as well. But what if he doesn’t? Remember, the entire work of the church does not rest on the pastor. Get involved! If you see a need, ask him if you can help. Your pastor will be thrilled. Even better, ask him where he sees a need and then offer to fill it.

9. Commit for five years.

No matter what. Your new pastor may arrive and quickly make several changes, or he may arrive and keep things just as they are. Either way, give him time. Just as he cannot get to know an entire congregation in one or two years, neither can you judge his ministry in just one or two years. A pastor doesn’t begin to truly have an impact on a church until a few years in. Be patient.

10. Remember that this is the Lord’s church.

Things may not go in the direction that you thought they should. But God is sovereign, and he is accomplishing his will in his church, even if we don’t understand it. Be committed to the body. Don’t make your membership conditional on who is in the pulpit. Pray that the Lord’s will would be done, not any one person’s. Be encouraged. He will build his church, and the gates of hell will not stand against it!

The author is a member of Providence OPC in Rockford, Illinois.

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