How to Avoid Getting Sideways in Pastoral Transition

When even best intentions can’t keep you out of trouble

bewilderedClassic Yogi Berra wisdom, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up some place else.”

Solomon put it this way, “Ponder the path of your feet, then all your ways will be sure.” (Prov.4:26)

How many church leaders, when trying to help the body of believers they serve navigate pastoral transition, suddenly find things have gone sideways? It’s not going as planned, and the potential outcome appears to be getting worse.

After the initial quiet and sober reaction to the blunt news that the senior pastor has, or is, leaving -now tempers are flaring…accusations are being hurled right and left…trust in the leadership team has evaporated…key volunteers quietly mention they are thinking of taking a break…key families haven’t been seen in worship for weeks. The mood around the church feels tense!

What happened to our church?

Those who are tasked with leading through the transition can be left scratching their heads in bewilderment. What happened? We told the church the truth….we’ve made provision for carrying on and moving forward….we believe, as painful as this is, that God is going to bring something good out of it.

Here’s the unfortunate truth that must be faced: best intentions are not enough. They need to be in harness with astute insight. Many churches get sideways in pastoral transition, not because of malicious intent, or incompetency, but because the dynamics of what is happening are not understood and effectively addressed.

There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out. ~ Russian Proverb.

Change versus Transition

What is commonly unknown is that pastoral transition requires leaders to manage both change and transition. This is not semantics. Change and transition are not the same thing, as William Bridges shows in his book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (2009 Perseus Books Group).

  • Change is the outward form. It’s what our senses realize is different. Change alters our behavior because it asks (or forces) that we do something in a new way.
  • Transition, on the other hand, is the inward form. It’s our emotional reaction of trying to adapt to the outward change.

Most church leadership teams when facing pastoral transition focus on leading change: rethinking, reorganizing, re-visioning. Meeting agendas are focused on money, decision-making processes, pulpit supply, staff responsibilities, etc. Necessary? Absolutely. But grossly incomplete.

Just as necessary is thoughtful consideration for leading through the transition:  helping people to grieve, to let go, to build hope, and learn anew. People react to change with their own unique mixture of fear, insecurity, uncertainty, frustration, resentment, anger, sadness, depression, guilt, distrust, and even a sense of unfairness and betrayal. They need shepherding help to move forward and not stay stuck!

All of which points to the need for an intentional interim pastor. Someone trained and experienced in helping churches with both change and transition. Someone who can address both in order to see the Lord bring the church to recovery, revitalization and recommitment.

Michael Wakefield says in his book Leading With Authenticity in Times of Transition (2005 Center for Creative Leadership), “When leaders ignore or minimize the people side of managing change, perfectly good strategies and change initiatives stall or fail.”

Need an interim pastor, or help with leading your church through pastoral transition? Let’s chat! Contact me at

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