How to Prepare, Survive, and Thrive When Leadership Changes in Your Church
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"Everyone, I'd like you to meet your new Senior Pastor."
Look around the table when your church staff hears those words, and you'll see a variety of responses. For some, change is thrilling. These folks will react with excitement, imagining all their projects getting unstuck, thrilled at the prospect of a wider impact on their communities, and watching lives change.
For others, change is daunting or downright terrifying. They'll wonder if their jobs are safe or if their new pastor will want to clean house as soon as possible. Will their projects and ministries, the ones that enjoyed a special place in the old pastor's heart, be lower on the totem pole? Does this new pastor love where the church was headed, or do they want to change everything?
Whichever group you find yourself a part of you should have a personal plan in place to help you prepare, survive, and thrive when change inevitably comes to your church’s senior leadership.
Preparing For Change
Unlike the transitory business or public-sector job environments, churches tend to stay mostly stagnant, preferring to maintain time-honored traditions and personnel.
This is good news for us as youth pastors; most churches are slow to hire new senior leadership, which provides you an extended period to consider the reality of your situation.
You should primarily be asking yourself if the new pastor would want to keep you on their team and, just as importantly, if you want to be on their team. A few questions you should be asking yourself are:
- How successful have I truly been while I have been here? Can the results of my work be easily seen on paper or a spreadsheet, or are most of my successes anecdotal?
- Would I be willing to accept new people on my team if my pastor decided to replace my supervisor or staff?
- Could I support the changes my new pastor makes to ministry execution and/or strategy?
If you have great confidence that your role is safe, and you choose to stay in your current job, you should do some research on your new leader. Google their last church and get a feel for the church's identity during the leader's time there. This will give you insight into your leader's style. Are they a maverick who lives to change things up, or do they plan to copy/paste their style and strategy on the congregation you are serving?
Surviving The Change
Whether you find yourself delighted by or dreading a leadership change, you will likely feel tempted to begin ingratiating yourself with your new leader. You might even feel like the best way to start on the right foot with your new leadership is to impress them with all of your great ideas to improve things at the church. You have some great ideas, and they need to know that, right?
Slow down a little bit first. Remember that "drinking from the firehouse" sensation you had when you started in your current role? Imagine how much worse that experience would have been for you if a starry-eyed staffer whose name you couldn't quite remember began to bombard you with questions and ideas before you'd even settled in. If you can imagine being shoes of your new pastor, you'll quickly see that most of the people they meet for the next year are all as curious and as excited to share as you are. This can overwhelm and frustrate even the most patient pastor. Not a great first impression.
The fix is easy; give your new pastor time to acclimate to their surroundings. If the pastor is a good one, they will be very interested to learn about your ministry. They will ask you about it when they're ready to hear about it.
On that subject, you should expect them to come to you with a lot of questions. A great pastor that's new to your church might be skeptical of everything that you're doing and could question why you're doing it. Part of a new pastor's job is to introduce or explore new ways of thinking to your church, and they'd be doing that job poorly if they blindly supported your ministry without investigating it.
To be successful at surviving the change, you can't take your new leader's questions or skepticism personally. Disengaging your ego will give you a better opportunity to answer their questions with humility and positivity. Your pastor will be carefully listening to your answers because they will be evaluating you as a leader. Showing humility and positivity in answering their questions will be just as important as the answers themselves.
To be ready for the new pastor's questions about your ministry, you should prepare like you are interviewing for your job all over again. This leader is evaluating if changes to your ministry are necessary, and the leader is also determining whether they believe that you are the person who can lead those changes.
You can influence your pastor's evaluation by preparing great answers to their questions. Be ready to answer questions about ministry philosophy, ministry effectiveness, leadership styles, theology, budgets, and everything else that was important during your interview process.
Thriving After Change
You were probably hoping to read that after the change is made and the new pastor has settled into their new church, you can expect a return to "business as usual." This probably won't happen. You will likely find that your pastor focuses on the ministry areas that are the least healthy first. If you find that your ministry is mostly unaffected once the pastor understands your ministry, give yourself a small pat on the back, and then brace yourself. Change is likely still coming.
You might feel discouraged by that realization, and you may feel stuck in survival mode, without a clear path toward thriving. The difference-maker between a person who is perpetually surviving after a church change and the person who transitions to thriving ultimately comes down to your identity.
Before you dismiss this as "such a Sunday school answer", do your best to hear me out on this. A person who can make the transition from surviving to thriving can honestly say that their identity is in Christ, regardless of the circumstances that they find themselves in.
Are you sure that you are sourcing your identity in Christ? Be deeply honest with yourself; are you feeling emotionally affected by the changes that have been made in your church? Are you insulted that your new pastor doesn't like the ways that you execute ministry? Do you have a sense of betrayal because old promises weren't fulfilled when the old pastor transitioned off the church staff? Or do you feel a sense of hope, peace, and joy, regardless of the transitions that affect ministry?
Don't misunderstand here; changes to our ministries can still affect your heart, and you need to process those feelings with the people who are discipling you. You do have people like that, right?
However, if you felt and are continuing to feel overwhelming senses of anger, loss, hurt, and betrayal, these can be indicators that you have rooted your personhood and self-worth in the job that you're doing, rather than the one that you're supposed to be serving. If you are choosing to stay in your role and your identity is forfeit, it may be time to seek deeper counsel and help- because no matter how great you are in your role, Jesus is not asking you to climb on the cross for your job.
Share your thoughts with others in our YM360 community:
- What makes you nervous about leadership changes in your church?
- How do you think Christ might ask you to represent Him in that situation?
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