Scripture speaks to this clearly from Deuteronomy 34 and Joshua 1. I had the opportunity to offer reflections on these texts for a local PCA church that has just begun the transition stage. These ten points can be markers for a healthy transition in a church. If your church has recently entered a season of transition, I hope these will encourage and prepare you.
1. Mourn well. (Deut. 34:5-8)
Moses led Israel for 40 years. They had wandered in the desert for entire generations, so that very few who would enter the promised land could remember a time when Moses was NOT their leader.
Israel mourned Moses well. You have every reason to mourn the departure of your pastor. He has served you well, for many years. While he have gone on to serve God in other places, his leaving is no less stark to you. Mourn him.
2. Remember the character of the man/men who served you. (Deut. 34:7, 10-12)
What sort of man was Moses? Deuteronomy tells us: a man who didn’t act his age! And a prophet who was unmatched for the gifts that he offered Israel. He did so much for Israel, and was never forgotten for what he did.
A healthy church treats their pastors in the same way. They have served you and ministered to you in many wonderful ways, and they have shared their gifts with you faithfully.
Remember their service. Remember their gifts. As time passes, recall how they served our Lord and your church through their faithfulness.
Sometimes churches want to avoid comparisons to former pastors and give a new pastor a “clean slate”—but this can lead to forgetting the contributions of past generations of pastors. Don’t let this happen at your church. Remember these men and celebrate their ministry.
3. Remember the legacy of the man/men who served you. (Deut. 34:9)
Part of Moses’ ministry to Israel was to put in place a legacy. Perhaps you’re familiar with Joshua from earlier accounts of his work:
- Ex. 17—he led the army of Israel against the Amalekites
- Ex. 24—he served Moses on the journey to receive the tablets of commandments
- Num. 13 & 14—he went as a spy to survey the promised land
- Deut. 31—he was commissioned for leadership in Moses’ presence
Moses had, as Deut. Says, “laid hands on Joshua”. Joshua was chosen as the next leader because Moses had helped to prepare him for that leadership.
Perhaps it is this way at your church as well: your pastor has labored to raise up leadership in your church, and in the Church at large. How many of the Elders and Deacons have been trained under his ministry? How many lay-leaders have been prepared for ministry because of his leadership? How many seminary students and interns have benefited from the leadership of your pastor?
As Paul said to Timothy, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Do you here the generations of ministry legacy in that verse? Have your former pastors fulfilled this verse before you?
Remember their legacy—the men and women they have trained and empowered for leadership—and cherish it as the hope and promise of your church's future, just as Joshua was the promise of Israel.
4. Begin to look ahead. (Josh. 1:1-4)
There came a time in Israel when the mourning past. Deut. 34:8 says that Israel mourned and wept until the days of mourning were over.
At that time, with perfect frankness, the Lord said to Joshua, “Moses, my servant, is dead. Therefore, arise…”
What strength there is in mourning, then looking ahead! What comfort that, in the midst of change, the mourning is not the final result.
So it is, also, for your church. There is so much to look forward to, so much to anticipate. There will come a time—maybe not this week or even this month. Maybe the mourning must last longer for you than that. But there will come a time for the mourning to ebb, and for you to begin to look to what is ahead.5. Look for strength and courage in your future leadership. (Josh. 1:6, 7, 9, 18)
What is it that is asked of Joshua? There are many practical details that he must be faithful to. But the one particular aspect of his new ministry that God punctuates for him is simply to “be strong and courageous”.
I think this is a command of circumstance: Joshua, in taking over for a long-standing and much-beloved Moses, needs these two things for his ministry to be sustained. He must be strong—ready to lead when others are weak, perhaps because they doubt his leadership, perhaps because they doubt the Lord. And he must be courageous—able to stand firm and confident in the calling he has been given, not yielding to challenge or accusation.
This is a blueprint for you, too. You have enjoyed a (hopefully) fruitful ministry from a faithful and beloved servant of God. You will need a leader of many gifts, but among other things he must be strong and courageous. Look for that. Pray for that.6. Recognize God’s hand on your new pastor. (Josh. 1:5-9)
In looking at these verses from Joshua 1, there can be no doubt that God’s hand of blessing was on Joshua’s ministry. The Lord had set Joshua apart as the successor to Moses, and He had given his assurance that the succession would be accompanied by his presence, protection, strength, and authority.
I think one of the most difficult things we must do in the church is to transfer our trust and confidence from a pastor who is familiar, known, and loved to one that we have little or no knowledge of. Let me say here that God provides for this. His blessing on His people includes pastors who we, the Church, can trust.
God’s hand is on your new pastor. Even as you’re getting to know him, learning his ways, you can be comforted in how God already knows him and has gifted him for ministry to you.7. Gird yourselves to follow a new leader. (Josh. 1:10-17)
After receiving his charge from God, what does Joshua do? He took action, leading the people. See how he talks them through the next steps, working with the leaders, guiding the people? See how God uses him to prepare Israel for entering the promised land?
How do they respond? Do they test him? Do they sit back and wait to see how he will do in his new leadership role? Do they question the judgment behind his decisions?
No—they follow immediately. They say, “as we followed Moses, so we will follow you.” The willingness of Israel to be led by Joshua is surprising, and convicting.
As hard as it may be for you, you must prepare yourselves for this as well. How will you respond when your new pastor begins to lead you? Gird yourselves to follow the leadership God will place before you.8. Be supportive of the ministry of the church. (Josh. 1:17-18)
Even as they are responding to Joshua’s leadership, Israel does one more thing that is surprising and delightful: they become encouragers to Joshua in his new ministry.
See how in vv17-18 they give him words of encouragement and strength. And what are these words? Echoes of the words of God himself: be strong and courageous.
Are you ready to support and encourage the leadership of your church? Are you ready to strengthen them from Scripture as they lead? Will you offer reminders of God’s faithfulness to your new pastor?9. Get ready for growth. (Josh. 1:13-15)
Moses was precisely the leader that Israel needed to see them through the wilderness and prepare them to enter the promised land. But, in God’s peculiar providence, he was not the one God ordained to lead them into the promised land and conquer it.
Your former pastor has been the man God had for your church for the seasons he has served here. But God has other things for him—and He has other leaders to take your church in directions and into places he did not.
The horizon before your church is vast-- who knows what the future may bring? Just as Israel was called to get ready for growth in the first chapter of Joshua, so your church should get ready for growth in the beginning of this chapter of your history.10. Look to Christ. (John 1:1-18)
Who is the one responsible for the safety, prosperity, or hope of Israel in this text? Is it Moses? Joshua?
Survey this text and look at how many times it is the LORD who acts:
- v.1 the Lord said to Joshua
- v. 2 go into this land that I am giving to Israel, says the Lord
- v.3 every place I have given you, as I promised Moses, says the Lord
- v.5 the Lord says, I will be with you to Joshua, and will not leave you or forsake you
- v. 9 I (the Lord) have commanded you
- v. 11 prepare to pass into the land that the Lord has given you
- v. 13 the Lord your God is providing you a place of rest
- v. 15 until the Lord gives rest; and until they take possession of the land the Lord is giving them
- v. 17 the people say to Joshua, may the Lord be with you as he was with Moses
Calvin wrote, of this passage: “Here, first, we see the steadfastness of God in watching over his people, and providing for their safety.”
Likewise—who is the one responsible for the safety, prosperity, and hope of your church? Is it your former pastor? No—it is Christ!
Look to Christ for your safety. Look to Christ for your prosperity. Look to Christ for your hope.
Take comfort in Christ.
As you face this change, look to Christ. As you mourn, go to Christ. As you remember, turn to Christ. As you hope and pray for this change to become progress and growth, look to Christ. Christ, and Christ alone, will see you through this season of change.