How do you pass the baton in ministry?

One of the sad realities in church life is that pastoral transitions rarely go well. And, it seems like the longer a pastor has served a church, the more likely it is that the transition to the next pastor will be a complete disaster. Passing the baton is hard.

I’m particularly interested in this topic because my church’s senior pastor has been in that position for over 20 years. He has definitely put his “stamp” on the church. And, although he’s not that old yet, you know that a transition has to happen sooner or later. The only question is whether the church will transition well. And, the odds are not in our favor.

So, I was keenly interested in this video of three seasoned Christian leaders discussing the challenging of pastoral succession. Tim Keller, Don Carson, and John Piper all offer some thoughts on how they’re preparing for the future. And, probably the most interesting insight, is that none of them are entirely sure how to go about doing this. Piper and Keller in particular are upfront about the fact that they’re aware this is an issue, but they’re just not sure what the right answer is – or even if there is one. As Piper said, quoting from his own sermon,

When God-centered leaders don’t know what to do because it’s not in the bible, they know what to do about not knowing what to do because that is in the Bible. Namely, pray

Here’s the video. If you have some time to watch it. I’d be curious to hear what you think. And, if you’ve ever been part of a church that went through a pastoral transition, how did it go? Did you learn anything from the experience?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 29, 2011, in Pastoral Theology. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. hubris. you dont pass the baton as though the church were your fiefdom and your lordship had the right of appointing an heir. that’s just plain old fashioned blasphemy. God calls ministers to churches, pastors dont appoint successors.

    • Taking the time to think about what’s going to happen when it’s time for a pastoral transition doesn’t mean that we’re automatically acting like lords appointing heirs for our fiefdom (great image, though). I know that there are occasions when that’s exactly what’s happening, but it’s also entirely possible for it to be a healthy reflection on the part of the church’s leadership (including the pastor) to think about what’s going to happen when it’s time for the pastor to move on (for whatever reason). That’s just good wisdom. And, given how often the transition goes badly, it’s probably something that churches need to think about much more intentionally.

  2. Very interesting video. I found it refreshing to hear these men say, “I don’t know but we’re praying.” I think they should come back every two years and speak on this again so we can watch the process unfold.

  3. I have been a member of a church that experienced a terrible passing of the baton. The minister of 40 years had to retire because of denominational rules..and he didn’t want to. I saw the parish council refuse to pay the new minister, people sent disturbing letters and made obscene phone calls…

    Yet I have also seen it work in a Godly manner – as recently our current pastor stepped down to take up a new position elsewhere, giving the church plenty of notice and both the church and pastor was able to work through the grief and pain of the separation. Our church is in the process of self reflection and working through the process of choosing another pastor – which has been an interesting experience in and of its self.

    • I’m sorry to hear about the first experience. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that stories like that are all too common. But, I’m glad to hear that your more recent experience is going well. That can be a great time for the church to sit back and assess what’s going on. I hope the transition to the new pastor (whenever that happens) also goes well.

  4. How refreshing, to hear such seasoned and high-profile leaders candidly acknowledge their certain, imminent decline as they age! And to do so when they are still (in my opinion) such powerful, effective leaders is noteworthy to me!
    Our transitions at Grace have been poorly planned and destructive to the shalom of our community here. That history, and my own experience of battling cancer as a younger man, has caused me to think a lot about the transition in leadership at Grace. My hope is that the transition, whenever it happens, will represent a genuine, God-focused risk on that part of our congregation–I want them to decide on their next pastor in such a way that they (as a congregation) are acting on faith and desire to increase in ministry, and not simply keeping the wheels turning and the bills paid, etc. I hope they will take a risk on calling a younger leader, with the hope and commitment of investing decades in he and his family–instead of calling an older (ie, in his 40’s, like I was…) pastor with the best resume. Also, although I am not at all suggesting selecting a pastor by ethnicity, I would love to see our values for multi-cultural ministry reflected in a consideration and openess to call what would be our first non-white senior pastor to the church, too. (That’s just me, and I hope I’m not seeming too far out of line on that desire….)
    Our new constitution has deliberately provided a means for the congregation to choose to follow the suggestion of their elder team in terms of filling the position, and then only utilizing the “pulpit search committee” style if they so choose–but the first line is now to hear the counsel of their elders on the best course to follow in the transition. Also, in preparation for the transition of leadership here, we are trying to deliberately mentor and develop as many seminary students as we can, so as to always have a “short list” through the years of pastors whom we know well, know us, and have an pre-existing relationship with the congregation.
    In the interview above, I wondered why we assume that the transition talk should only start once it’s clear that the senior pastor is declining, ill, leaving, etc., and not from the very beginnings of his ministry? Why is it that we only are talking of “passing the baton” when the runner is winded, slowing down, and at the end of his own strength and resources? What would our senior pastors communicate if they made a habit of passing batons to the younger leaders from the very start of their ministries, instead of only when they begin to see the end? Thanks for this post, Marc!

  5. I’m in a church-network that, as far as I have seen, has not had any issue in “passing the baton,” but perhaps it is only too soon to tell. Our network is only about fifteen years old, I believe.
    The founding pastor of our network felt that God had called him to give his church (Vine Community Church, Carbondale, IL) over to a younger guy and start a new church-plant (Blue Sky Church, Seattle, WA). The network has also sent out several other church plants, taking the time to train up new pastors (who were already members of the congregation) so that they could become effective, God-worshiping, God-fearing, spiritual men.
    Seeing how this has worked so well in the past, I imagine the churches in this network will do the same for when the time comes to pass the baton.

    On the other hand, I grew up in a church that dealt with in a very poorly-executed manner. The pastor decided to quit without ever bothering to find someone to replace him. So members of the church gathered a team of people that met for months together and brought someone from outside of the church to become the new pastor. Since then, the church’s attendance has drastically declined, the programs aren’t working and many are expecting the church to close down soon. Very sad, indeed.

    So, keeping my experience in mind, I think I like the idea of raising up a new pastor from within the congregation best. This way, we can be almost completely assured that the church isn’t going to veer off course or cease in its God-given mission. We have internships offered at my church (and the other churches in the network) and it’s a fantastic opportunity for those young men to learn, watch, pray and grow with the guidance of the older men.
    An excellent way to pass the baton, I think.

  1. Pingback: Elsewhere (06.30.2011) | Near Emmaus

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