Far too many gifted student pastors flame out in their transition to senior pastor. They were superstar student pastors then struggling senior pastors. Why does this happen? It’s rarely a shortage of talent, energy, or vision and the church is most often very supportive. We could state the obvious and say that the role of senior pastor is so much larger in scope, but then that doesn’t explain the many student pastors who successfully make this transition. I believe the answer lies more in leadership nuance than anything else.
After comparing successful and unsuccessful transitions, let me offer a few thoughts that may make your transition better. It is easier to make this transition in a different church than where you were student pastor, but it’s very doable either way.
1) It’s essential for you to see yourself differently.
At the earliest point you know that you’ll be senior pastor, you need to no longer view yourself as a student pastor. It’s not because that experience isn’t valuable, it is, but I’ve watched too many guys fail to make this inner transition. It’s like the day before you have your first child and the day after. Are you really different? Yes! You are now a parent and you weren’t before. You are different.
2) It’s vital that the congregation see you differently.
When you see yourself differently, the congregation will see you differently. You will carry yourself differently, make decisions differently, and communicate differently because you view the church differently. Some student pastors would continue to literally say: “I’m just a student pastor learning my new role as a senior pastor.” Nope. You are a senior pastor learning your new role. Then the congregation will believe it.
3) Learn the culture before you cast vision.
Vision is extremely important, but the right vision in the wrong culture won’t work. Make sure you understand the culture and whether or not cultural changes are needed before you publicly launch your new vision. You can plant seeds for your vision, for example, with the board and staff, but get the culture right first.
4) Practice the 2X principle.
This is simple to understand and challenging to do. What I call the 2X principle: invest twice as much into your people as you expect back out. As you practice this principle of 2X leadership development, I recommend starting primarily with your staff and key volunteer leaders.
5) Understand that good preaching won’t save you.
No matter how good a communicator you are, your teaching alone will not insulate you from relational mistakes. Without investing in relationships no amount of talent will keep you out of hot water if the people don’t feel loved by you. The good news is the opposite is also true. If you invest deeply in relationships, the people will forgive much in the pulpit because they like you.
6) Hearing God’s voice is your first and top priority.
Your skills, relationships and resources are so important, but the significance of hearing God’s voice as a leader is huge. Ask him what He wants you to do! Ask for wisdom! Ask for clarity! Ask God to tell you what He has planned for your church… I mean, His church.
And of course, if you are young, remember I Timothy 4:12:
Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.