By Aaron Earls
Planning helpful, but rare
Among practicing Christians who had experienced a senior pastor transition within the last five years, only 17% say the move was planned by the congregation and outgoing pastor, according to Barna.
Most (62%) were initiated by the outgoing-pastor. Few (13%) were forced transitions brought about by sickness, death, or crisis.
When leaving the senior pastor role, most (56%) leave the congregation entirely. Fewer take on a different staff role (15%) or remain at the church as a member or lay leader (20%).
In those instances where the senior pastor moves into another leadership role within the church, those in the pews believe the move had a positive outcome.
Two-thirds of practicing Christians (67%) say a transition from senior pastor to associate pastor ended well. Around half say the senior pastor entering into a co-pastor arrangement (52%) or taking on a lay leadership position (51%) was a positive move.
Fewer (42%) say it was positive for the pastor to step down but continue to attend as a member of the church.
A quarter of Christians (25%) believe the pastor leaving the congregation completely had a positive outcome, with 71% saying it went negatively.
In most cases of a leadership transition, the senior pastor leaves the church entirely. During forced transitions, 69% of pastors leave the church. The same is true of 61% of pastor-initiated moves.
Among, planned transitions, however, 40% of pastors leave. Around half (52%) stay on in some capacity.
Barna’s research found that planned transitions are often completely in a shorter time, which appears to be a factor in positive outcomes.
“Successful leadership requires careful planning,” said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group. “Planned departures go more smoothly, while forced or unplanned transitions are worse on multiple outcomes.”
More communication needed
In addition to planning, churchgoers believe the transition process would go better if church leaders communicated more.
According to Barna’s report, “regardless of the type of leadership transition and other factors surrounding it, communication emerged as a key to success for all parties involved.”
Yet only half of churchgoers (50%) strongly agree their church communicated clearly on a plan and process for succession.
Fewer than one-third of churchgoers (31%) say they felt the congregation had a high degree of input in the succession process.
Churchgoers who feel their church communicated about the transition and the eventual replacement were more likely to say the process went smoothly and more likely to say there was a positive outcome.
According to Kinnaman, churches should focus on long-term planning with regular, effective communication to their churchgoers to help times of transition go well and end well.
“Strong communication can cover a multitude of successions sins,” said Kinnaman, “but a ‘make-it-up-as-we-go’ approach simply has less of a chance of going smoothly, and often fails to find time and intention for other steps that improve a transition.”
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.