I have an analogy that I use regarding leaders who are facing a transition at the end of their vocational leadership “career”: It's difficult for the Lone Ranger to step off the saddle. Or, for Wonder Woman to put aside her lasso. Those of us who haven't ridden the trail of leadership “at the top” aren't as familiar what it's like to come to the end of such an exhilarating job where so much depended on you every day. For decades, a leader took the risks, made the hard decisions, marshaled the people, explored the new territories, overpowered enemies, and provided the direction toward new frontiers. In what feels like as immediate as a change of the TV channel on a remote, the leader is then expected to step down just walk away from it all into the sunset.

And then what?

In the religious arena, the topic of church leadership succession has gained national attention lately with the announced transition at Willow Creek Community Church. Over the next few years, Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow, will be transitioning out of the pastoral role (he will still maintain a leadership role in the Willow Creek Association) and Heather Larson and Steve Carter will serve as co-pastors. Both have been functioning in leadership capacities already at the church.

From the outside in, it looks like a healthy process and I think Bill is wanting to model that for other church leaders. He knows what many of us know: Church leadership transitions have usually not gone well. We could name more that have gone poorly than ones that have gone well. However, perhaps the best church transition has been Southeast Christian in Kentucky. The 20,000 member church engaged in a five-year transition from Bob Russell to David Stone. By all reports, it's worked well and still serves as the model for other congregations.

With an aging pastorate, there are many other “founding pastors” facing transitions in the next handful of years. It's not an easy thing to navigate.

Transition: It Feels Personal.

It's difficult to step down. No matter the process, there are personal elements involved. And that step is one of the biggest identity struggles of that person's lifetime. More than adolescence was. I first learned this from my friend Paul Robbins, the founder of The Leadership Journal (now CTPastors.com). Paul and I were co-consultants on a two-year project. As we got to know each other over meals, we'd talk through a variety of topics. It was a leadership gold mine for me! He had just retired and was consulting with many organizations around the world. He often shared that he was discovering that a leader's biggest identity “giants” were still ahead; the end of leadership (especially in Christian ministry) was a difficult step. The saddle is high off the ground … and it's tough to get off the horse.

His words have been echoed repeatedly in my coaching with leaders. Up until about five years ago, I had mostly worked with younger leaders coming into churches for positions in youth ministry or worship leadership. But, as my coaching work has grown, I've been walking the road with older leaders who are facing transitions and some are even stepping into retirement. One reason that church succession is a new conversation in the church world is that we've never had so many larger churches (>1000 attendees). Many were started in the 1970s and early 1980s, so the founding pastor has reached what is often considered “retirement age.” We now face a wave of older leaders facing this coming transition – and there aren't many systems we can borrow to help us handle succession well. It's a reality that's helped advance the work of church-staffing agencies like VanderBloemen and Arbor Research Group.

Transition: It's About Identity

The difficulties of transition are not just seen in the church world. Perhaps it's more obviously spotted in sports. Fans can see the difficulties in stepping away from the spotlight for those who had become used to “the game,” were drawn to the stadium's roar, or who loved achieving performance goals. Many sports stars (e.g. Brett Farve) and musicians (Phil Collins and Garth Brooks) come back from retirement after retiring and being out of the spotlight.

For the Christian leader, the identity struggle includes the spiritual. Likely, Christian leaders are in their positions because they felt like they answered a call of God on their life. Their work, each day's agenda, and the reasons for working and leading were integrally intertwined with their Christian faith and how they interacted with God. They were on a mission. When the vocational “work” is removed, it's an adjustment period. A difficult one. Because for years their understanding of the world and their lives revolved around this central task; it shaped their lifelong pilgrimage with God. So…

Transition: It's Bigger Than it Seems

It's not easy to get some leaders to talk honestly about what they're feeling as they step out of their roles because they're not used to that level of discourse and honesty. While it's too easy and simplistic to expect it to be an easy transition, the reality is that it's supremely difficult. And often not for the reasons we think. There are qualities of leadership that are positive and beneficial to the leader. Asking him/her to just walk away without also providing grace, compassion, and sensitivity will contribute to a poor transition. At the same time, organizations need to provide a clear path for the transition so that the leader can take the appropriate and courageous steps toward the next phase of life.

The 5 Qualities of Leadership that Make it Difficult for Leaders to Retire from their Roles

  1. Leadership provides a sense of purpose. When you're “on the job,” you wake up each day with the day's tasks in mind. You have a to-do list. People will be counting on you. The entire organization will depend on you for its mission. Take that away and there's a 40+ hour void. There will be a sudden shift in how to think about work. You no longer feel that you need to coordinate a retreat, to lead a goal-planning session, or to sign up for the hottest conference.
  2. Leadership provides a level of authority and influence. You don't have to tell a leader that he/she matters. It's obvious to them (and us) each day. They make decisions, set the course, decide who is on their team, and have people enacting their desires. When you're used to that for over a long period of time, it's difficult to find it elsewhere when it's gone. In fact, the truth is that it may never be found at that level again. And that's difficult for many leaders to come to terms with in retirement.
  3. Leadership provides a dynamic community of like-minded people. This is not covered well in the literature, but it's a leadership reality. When you walk into the place of work where you've been for a long time, you are teamed with people committed to the same task. There is a level of trust and support among the team. But, too often leaders don't value the team element enough … until it's gone. Only when it's gone do leaders realize what a valuable part of life that was and how they missed it.
  4. Leadership provides a vitality. It helps focus your work and energy and it invigorates your thinking. It stretches and more. There is a beneficial element to leadership because your work often drives you to be in your best “shape” mentally, spiritually, and even physically. The various problems, highlights, and even the routine provide a playing field that keeps you in shape.
  5. Leadership provides work that matters. This sounds like #1, but you can have purpose without making a difference. You can simply be at your work to provide for yourself. However, leadership not only provides a purpose to each week, but it matters to others. The sense of purpose, the authority and influence, and leading a team are constant reminders that you're making a difference in your community and context.

7 Steps we can Take to Help with a Leadership Transition

This is the question that those of us who coach leaders get to help organizations and leaders answer. I'm sure we'll be seeing a number of books coming out about the topic in the next two years in the Christian publishing world. There's already a long list of titles in the business world. Bob Buford's FINISHING WELL has been a resource for Christian leaders, but there's a need for a new title. The reality is that it's difficult to know how to make this transition well for churches who have little training on the topic and even less history.

Here are some immediate steps I would recommend for those who face this transition. This list probably leans toward churches who I'm sure I'm missed some, but these seven are good starting points:

  • Be ruthlessly committed to honesty. Everyone. The temptation in transition is to withhold the truth or re-shape it. Power and self-preservation are the temptations here and each person needs to be “on guard” for them. The moment deception creeps into an organization, you've lost a key battle in moving the organization forward.
  • Draw together in close community. You've made it to this point so you clearly have a deep relationship. Scheduling in times during meetings to make sure relationships are healthy will help with the transition. Tensions rise during transition because there will be uncertainty and even skepticism. This is an opportunity to come together, pray together, and let your community truly be one where God is present.
  • Create a timeline for the transition. And then stay committed to it. This should happen at the highest level of authority (like the board of directors), but should be agreed upon by all and then managed by the board who will continue in leadership after the transition. 
  • Review the polity of the church and make sure the structures are appropriate for decision-making, especially when trust and goodwill are low. The chances are high that the year or two after the transition will include a higher level of discomfort and maybe even some conflict. In spite of the best efforts, it's still change. And the new leader will be making some changes about a year after the transition anyway. Make sure your decision-making structure is in place to keep your organization moving forward in choppy waters.
  • Be sure to have open communication about how people are feeling. I consistently remind people that this is a difficult thing to do and much of it feels personal. People will feel extra vulnerable and it will be important to have the opportunity to share. In a transition, feelings can be easily hurt, especially those of the leader transitioning out. Honest sharing will help keep these at bay.
  • Celebrate like crazy. Too often a transition is about the systems. It ought to be about the people. One of the greatest joys I have in my work with the Arbor Research Group is when we come it to help an organization or church with strategy and, due to our qualitative methods, we uncover a rich encyclopedia of stories of impact. Celebrate the stories of your people. Remember well. Dream about the future. Have fun recognizing you all get to be a part of this group during one of it's biggest chapters ending and one that's beginning.
  • And then leave. This one is for the leader transitioning out. And I'm open to being wrong on this because I know cases where it's worked ok. However, I hold the strong opinion that when the lead pastor is done leading, he/she should not stay in that congregation. Until recently, all of the examples where this happened turned sour. But, because we have larger churches with multiple levels of ministry programs in them, there may be a model or two where it works. However, I would want to have an honest conversation about why the leader would want to stay. What if the reason for the transition is that God has a new frontier to roam? What if the reason for staying is just that it's comfortable and safe? And, honestly, it's hard for a leader to answer those honestly. Case after case you can see this to be true in the church world. And that's why the board (or other entity) who leads after the transition is done should have the final say on this matter.

What are your thoughts? What would you add? Change? Agree with? I'd love to hear from you on this topic. It's one that's going to get a lot of attention in the next 5-10 years. Leave a comment below, send me an Email, or engage with me on Twitter (now that we have more characters to use!).

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash