How to Avoid Becoming A Sacrificial Pastor
Christians would agree that there’s only one true “sacrificial lamb” in the Church, and his name is Jesus.
But far too often, when a beloved pastor leaves their church, the new pastor becomes a “sacrificial pastor.” In other words, they can’t escape the shadow that has been cast by their predecessor. Understandably, pastors who enter this situation often leave their post sooner than they expected to, and sometimes after only months. I’ve played a role in many church transitions, and in my experience, many sacrifice-pastor situations could have been easily avoided.
Here are the five lessons I’ve learned over the years to ensure a new leader is more than an interim leader.
1. Earning trust is essential in moving forward
A connection between a pastor and the congregation is special, and new pastors cannot take that bond for granted. This has never been more true than after the COVID pandemic. The bond between a church and the pastor that saw them through this crisis is arguably stronger than ever. Wise successors will realize this and focus a lot of energy on honoring the previous leader, particularly for their work during the pandemic. For a new pastor, gaining the trust of the congregation is important for them to accept any new changes. The first step in gaining favor with the congregation is earning the trust of the predecessor.
Since the exiting pastor has widespread influence, having their support is crucial. If a congregation sees their exiting leader treat this transition as an exciting new beginning rather than a tragic end, the rest of the church will likely follow suit. Having the respect and approval of a new church might take time, but remember to be patient - it probably took the last pastor a while to earn their current esteem.
2. Church leadership should be open to collaboration and counsel
If the predecessor and incoming pastors are fortunate enough to overlap, it is an incredible opportunity to make united structural changes that align well with the vision for the future of the church. When these changes occur under the leadership of the predecessor, and the approval of the new pastor, congregations are more likely to trust the process. Having mutual respect and open communication between church leadership makes the transition process run smoother. The congregation will find comfort knowing that the church they call home will not change overnight or stray too far from the qualities that make it special to them. Use this time of overlap to your advantage. Holding fireside chats after services or even preaching together during the leadership overlap will show that the incoming pastor is connected to the current vision and leadership structure. The more frequently this can happen, the better. This is particularly true as we come out of perhaps the biggest disruption to normal life that we have seen in the last century. People are craving trustworthy updates more than ever. Smart successors will grab hold of this unique opportunity and run with it.
This also gives the congregation time to learn the new pastor's preaching style while still having the comfort of what they’re used to. This overlap period is a great way to ease your congregation into new leadership.
3. Wisdom should be your top request from God
Changing too much too soon is a mistake that many sacrificial pastors make. However, there’s a balance now that we have faced COVID. Change too little and you’re irrelevant overnight. Change too much too quickly, and you’re suddenly an interim pastor. Knowing the difference between the two can only be gained by asking for wisdom. It’s one of God’s favorite requests to answer. Pray for wisdom like never before so that you can be one who “understands their day and time.”
Transition periods take time, and not allowing the congregation to grieve the loss of the previous pastor could be seen as insensitive. It is important to be patient and open to the concerns of the members of the church. Holding Q&As with the congregation during the transition period is a good way to allow people to be open about any questions or concerns they have. It also shows that the new pastor is willing to be transparent and connected. Every leadership style is different, and even within the same denomination, theology can differ from leader to leader. These changes can be tough on a church. That being said, new pastors need to be honest about where their style and values might be different from what a congregation is used to early on. Being as honest as possible upfront will build trust and set a tone for honesty within the congregation. Determining when to pour out honesty and when to reel in new behaviors can be a fine line that’s tough to navigate. Take time to check in with church leaders and members to gauge your speed of change. It’s important in this new time to use emotional intelligence until trust is fully gained.
4. Be confident that God will do great things through you
Congregations are drawn to pastors that have a spiritual fire and passion for what they do. This makes them more inclined to trust, respect, and listen to new pastors. Incoming pastors need to be confident in their ability to lead. Despite the inevitable challenges of joining a new congregation, especially if they’re well-established, remember that God has chosen you for authority over this new church. Remain humble by walking in step with God, but also lean on the leadership and eloquence that he gave you to lead people to Him. When this feels hard, lean on people that are closest to you for comfort and confidence. Ask them to remind you of the successes God has walked you through so that you can recall his faithfulness.
5. Make allies
In Genesis 2:18 the Lord said,“ it is not good for man to be alone. Humans are naturally starved for relationships and community with one another. New leaders are often tempted to get a lot done during their first years. The smartest leaders will focus on relationships first, and then allow tasks to follow. While leaning on your established circle of friends and family, new pastors need to have people within their new church that they can rely on during and after their transition period. These people can provide feedback, resources, and support through the process. Making allies is the first step in building a relationship with the congregation. Additionally, connecting with the church’s leaders is essential for the continued success of the new pastor. Having this trust, confidence, and support from influential people will make the transition period easier on the congregation and new pastor.
You don’t have to be a sacrificial lamb. That job has already been done. Study succession. Pray for wisdom. And you can find your way to following a great pastor with an even greater chapter of ministry.
For more help on planning your succession, order your copy of the updated and expanded edition of NEXT: Pastoral Succession That Works or contact our team to learn about our customized succession consultations.