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While there is no shortage of opinions (ie. take the first year slow, keep everyone together, show results over time) on pastoral transitions in a traditional (ie. mainline protestant, Anglo, suburban, middle-class, educated) context, there is a clear need for guidance on how to successfully step into a ministry role in the current digital-first, post-modern, and multi-cultural era.

Here, we present three basic principles that defy conventional wisdom.  Our first stop is the fashion world where, recently, a big deal transition took place:

“Viard hasn’t been called in to fix the brand, but complacency won’t fly either. She needs to draw in a new generation of customers while appeasing the faithful clients who buy head-to-toe looks every season.”

– Chanel lost its iconic designer this year. Meet the woman who replaced him.

As you can see, the responsibility and expectation for leadership transitions is similar in any industry, especially in an institution with a long heritage: connect with new people and keep the old people happy.

But, what if the industry itself is in decline because its foundational institutions and its products are no longer relevant or needed by the majority of the population?  Well, the new leader would have to prepare the institution for innovation and new vision.

Here are three basic principles for doing so in the world of ministry:

Principle One: “Don’t be safe; be skilled.”

The new pastor should make every effort to earn the trust and confidence of the people by displaying her strengths early on.  It will give people a sense of where the ministry can go beyond where it went with the previous pastor.  While conventional wisdom tells the new pastor to be cautious and avoid mistakes in the first year, we believe that it would be more effective to try some things, make some mistakes, and then to show the people how this new pastor behaves (hopefully humble, not defensive) when such mistakes are made.

Pastoral leadership is about precedent as much as it is about reputation.  Weeks. or even months down the line, the ministry will encounter a situation that requires a risky decision.  What they must be able to do is to point to a time in the past when they did that, “and things turned out okay with the pastor’s leadership.”  Nobody wants a clumsy, bull-in-a-dishware-shop pastor who offends everybody and is not publicly respectable.  But, neither will anyone be inspired to follow a pastor who avoids conflict.  The leader must first show how redemption for mistakes is not just a matter of personal discipleship; it is a communal and collective requirement of any group of people who wish to experience a transformative God.

Principle Two: “Don’t move to trash; move to recycle.”

The new pastor should make every effort to discover new value within an existing ministry for new people and situations.  While conventional wisdom tells the new pastor that there are only the two choices of keeping everything the same or replacing everything with what is new, we believe that there are the third and fourth options of trying an old thing in a new context or doing a new thing in an old context.

Pastoral leadership is about presence and its potential for positive ministry impact.  The coming of the new pastor must not necessarily mean the departure of people who others do not like as this only perpetuates the actual problem, but that what must seemingly be thrown out can become absolutely useful, just in a new context.  The pastor can exemplify this by asking out loud, “what if,” questions of ministry leaders.  “What if the church choir went out to secular venues?  What if a typically secular Saturday activity was held on church facilities?  What if…?”  Then, see what happens.

Principle Three: “Don’t think long-term; think medium-term.”

The new pastor should make every effort to make the first year a preview of how bad things can become good, good things can become great, and great things can become new with the new pastor’s leadership.  While conventional wisdom tells the new pastor to plan to stay for seven years, we believe that it would be more effective to plan in terms of achievements and milestones of specific metrics rather than time.

Typically, in the new pastor’s first year, the ministry will grow as those from the past return and there will exist a general sense of new possibilities.  In the second year, the ministry has gotten to know the pastor and will begin to politely verbalize their dissatisfactions.  In the third year, the ministry will divide into two generic groups: one that supports, and the other that is against, the pastor.  Unless the pastor has succeeded in implementing specific changes of strategic importance by the third year, the ministry will enter into a more formal and deeper state of decline in the fourth year which will likely take two to four more years to thwart or escape.

As such, we believe that the first year is, in actuality, the most important and valuable year which determines the outcome of each successive year.  If the new pastor can, in the first year, successfully earn the trust of the people through her strengths and show how new value of the ministry is possible just in different contexts, then innovative pastoral leadership will be seen as natural and needed.

last updated: july 8, 2019