Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Special Circumstances: the Assistant/Associate Pastor becomes the Senior, part three

In part one of this series, I addressed why this sort of hand-off is valuable. In part two, I answered the question, "should the Assistant/Associate become the Senior Pastor?"

Now, let's look at some strategies for the newly named Senior Pastor for an effective transition into the new role.

I recommend three essential steps toward moving forward into the new role as Senior Pastor.
  • Deal with changing relationships. The new Senior Pastor already has existing relationships with the staff, leadership, and congregation; that's one of the real benefits of this sort of hand-off. But those relationships have been defined, at least in part, by his former role as an Assistant/Associate Pastor. That role is gone, and the relationships MUST change along with his role. Sometimes this will mean frank conversations, or even open discussion of it in a congregational meeting, during Sunday School classes, etc. At other times, the leadership needs to proactively step in to run interference for him (for example, when someone wants him to continue to fulfill one of the duties of his former role). It may mean changes in leadership structure, and even leadership personnel-- in fact, it may even result in staff changes. The important part is that EVERYONE involved in leadership be on the same page about what the new Senior's role now is, how he will fulfill it, what the "chain of command" is, what things he won't do any longer, and other details such as these. I think it would be helpful for the new Senior Pastor to lead a retreat of his staff and leadership in order to work through all of these.
  • Recruit mentors. The odds are good that the new Senior Pastor has never been in this sort of position before-- even if he has served as a Senior Pastor before, it has likely been in a smaller congregation with substantially fewer responsibilities. (Very few men who have been Senior Pastor of a medium or large church move into Assistant or Associate roles in other congregations.) It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that the new Senior will encounter questions, issues, and puzzles that he may need some assistance figuring out. A mentor-- a seasoned pastor of another congregation, for example-- may be invaluable in such a setting. They are also great for prayer support, general encouragement, and simple fellowship and accountability. In my Presbytery, our Church Care Committee has begun working to put these sorts of mentoring relationships in place with ALL newly-installed Senior Pastors. What is more, because this sort of transition (from Assistant/Associate to Senior in the same church) is atypical, it may be worthwhile to find someone else who has been through a similar transition. I e-mailed a leader in my denomination about this, and he provided me with a list of a half-dozen pastors who had made this transition. I'd be surprised if most of them (if not all) weren't willing to offer counsel to someone else venturing into these waters.
  • Own it. As I pointed out before, one of the tangible benefits of this kind of transition is that there is no "honeymoon" period wherein substantial changes and progress are more difficult; instead, in this kind of transition the new Senior can hit the ground running. So he should. As I suggested in part two, if the church is moving in a healthy trajectory, then the new Senior ought to already be asking, "what's the next step down that road?" And he should be ready to lead the congregation in taking it. For example, a pastor I know recently made this transition, and he knew that the church that he served essentially needed revitalization (even though it is a larger congregation). Knowing that I have a particular interest in that subject, he asked me for some "summer reading" recommendations, and we also talked about the value of taking his staff and Session to a conference on church revitalization sometime soon. He's owning his new role, and leading them in the next step toward greater congregational health. Not every such church will be in such need of revitalization-- the next steps will be different for every congregation. But the important part is that the new Senior Pastor not tarry in owning and accepting the leadership that has been given to him.
I believe that, if the context is right (as discussed in part two), and the new Senior takes these steps, then all of the conditions are perfect for a thriving ministry as Senior Pastor. In part four, I'll address succession planning and how a congregation can prepare for this sort of hand-off effectively.

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