Completing the Handoff
From the standpoint of the spectator, relay races are won on the strength and speed of the various runners. Yet in reality, they are frequently lost during the handoff of the baton. For that reason, coaches may spend more time coordinating that move than on showing their athletes how to run.
Gifted pastors are like gifted runners: They may excel at what they are trained to do, but how many are naturally equipped to navigate the complexities of a pastoral handoff? It would be hard enough if this were merely a transition of two pastors. Instead, whole congregations are involved.
In some ways, one of the toughest parts of planning for our pastoral transition was starting the discussion. My name is Tom Beaman, and after 20-plus years serving as senior pastor at Grace EFC in Longmont, Colo., there was a comfortable flow to how the church was operating. No one wanted to focus on fixing something that wasn’t broken. But I could sense God preparing to shift us into another gear, and I knew we had to prepare.
My predecessor at Grace EFC had been a strong leader, filled with wisdom from his 40 years in the pastorate. He passed the baton to me with a steady hand and an unambiguous release. As I approached my own retirement, I knew that the congregation needed nothing less.
Here are some reflections on how we prepared for that transition, followed by impressions from the next senior pastor.
I began by raising the issue (in strict confidence) with the elder board, approximately two years prior to my expected departure. Our discussions led to much prayer, followed by strategic planning. We decided that six months’ notice for the congregation was appropriate. Before that announcement in September 2011, the elders prepared a draft for congregational approval, detailing qualifications for the next senior pastor and various policy issues. The intent was to anticipate as many of the necessary details as possible.
Subsequently, we arranged many opportunities for questions to be asked and answered, fears and objections to be expressed and received, and for the congregation to become involved in the process. The congregation then authorized them to find an interim pastor candidate.
The interim pastor began his ministry two months before I ended my own. During those weeks, we gradually increased his role and areas of responsibility while decreasing mine. He and I also alternated preaching through a series in Acts. During that time, the congregation selected a search committee, who then began a prayerful and methodical process.
In all of these procedures, we deliberately allowed for enough time—time to settle hearts, time to clarify vision and time to listen carefully to God—without letting the process stall or stagnate.
As a church grows, leadership at all levels becomes more necessary.
During my last seven years at Grace, I’d sensed that my influence had become stronger than I thought was healthy for the church. I also sensed a reluctance among our elected boards to follow Paul’s command to “lead with diligence.” As a church grows, leadership at all levels becomes more necessary.
So, with elder input and approval, I began leading Grace toward a more decentralized leadership. When the congregation assigned responsibility to a board, they had to also turn over the appropriate authority. I continued setting vision but was empowering representatives of our congregation to act. As a result, our leadership was strengthened and became more productive.
After I left and before a new pastor was called, the interim pastor had to resign for reasons of health. I think everyone appreciated the way our leadership functioned during that potentially vulnerable time.
Once the next runner has a grip on the baton, the first guy has to let go. If that release is not clearly defined, it can cause trouble. For that reason I declined the suggestion that I serve as interim pastor. The congregational dinner celebrating my ministry and retirement served as a formal marker, the point in time when I officially let go.
Part of the strategic planning by our elders was to define what continued role, if any, I would play at Grace. Would I be available for counseling? How about weddings and funerals? We needed to clarify each of these issues in writing to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding.
In view of the length of my pastorate at Grace, the elders decided that it would be prudent for me to observe a time of complete separation—at least until the new pastor had a year under his belt. While I did not see this as necessary, I willingly submitted to their judgment (remember the part about strengthening leadership?).
In retrospect, there were parts of that arrangement that worked out very well for me as well as for the congregation. It was much easier, for example, to decline counseling since there was a formal agreement I would not do it. The specifics about letting go are not as important as making them specific.
From where I sit (frequently in an old RV on a beach somewhere) these three principles have served Grace well. But what is more important is how well they worked for the next pastor. Here are some of his impressions.
How I see it
I’m Jeff Foote, and if leadership transitions are like relay races, I was definitely accelerating before I got the baton. Long before succeeding Tom as senior pastor, I loved Grace EFC. I was born in Longmont United Hospital, just up the road from the church, where my father was the pastor in the 1970s. I prayed to receive Christ after a Grace backyard VBS program, sitting with my back to my bedroom door in the house where the Beamans have now lived for more than 20 years (when they’re not in the RV).
I’m sure this providential homecoming contributed to the ease of the transition, but nostalgia is not a good justification for pastoring a church. This needed to be a divine call. When it became clear that it was, I focused all my energy into transitioning well and committed to a couple of big ideas.
Honor the history
Like most pastors, I like to think that I’m loaded with brilliant ideas of how to lead a church. After all, I’m a risk-taker who loves innovation, with experience designing a church’s infrastructure, DNA, vision and alignment.
However, none of that gives me permission to dismiss or dishonor what others have done to create Grace’s identity and health. The transitional elements that Tom mentioned were put in place largely to protect me and to set me up for success. I needed to reciprocate such grace with grace.
I knew that Grace reflected Tom’s ministry DNA, philosophy and language. It was my job to learn to speak the language of that culture before I tried to change it in any way.
Explain the why
Our shared values showed that I wasn’t a threat and that we could all change together and on purpose.
I was welcomed with love and excitement, but I knew that the honeymoon period would end and the unspoken dance of control and resistance would begin. I resolved to spend the first 12 months in the pulpit on big-picture ideas and values. I focused on the why of ministry instead of changing any of the what or how.
Thanks to the hard work Tom had done to prepare the congregation, we all realized how much we already had in common and that we could be excited about where we are heading. Our shared values showed that I wasn’t a threat and that we could all change together and on purpose.
I knew that any trust or influence I would have at Grace would not come from my ministry skills, my title or even how I compare to Tom. It would only come by getting to know the people personally, caring for them and investing in them. I took the elders out to lunch one by one. I sat in on missions, finance and women’s board meetings to network, watch and ask questions. I intentionally added more personally vulnerable stories to my sermons. Basically, I took the initiative to make a personal connection with as many key people as I could, and to publicly let the congregation know that I consider all ministry to be relational at its core.
Not every pastor gets handed a loving, healthy church full of disciples like I did at Grace EFC. I am immensely grateful and don’t take a minute of it for granted. I was able to hit the ground running because of the groundwork Tom and the leadership had laid, as well as how God had prepared me in my life in ministry. I’m excited to press on to the next stretch of track God has for us at Grace Church.
Tom Beaman spent 12 years in the concert sound business before coming to faith in Jesus and attending Denver Seminary. He served Grace EFC in a part-time role for two years before being called as senior pastor in 1991. Today, Tom is retired and writes a devotional blog called Freshbreadoflife.com. He and his wife, Ann Maree, have two children and three grandchildren.
Jeff Foote is a second-generation EFCA pastor, district chairman for the Rocky Mountain District and former church-planting coach. He spent some time as a professional musician and has written songs that are sung in churches worldwide. He and his wife, Abby, have three children.