If your senior pastor resigned, retired, or stepped down for any reason, here are three “Don’ts” to help steady the course.

Don’t panic.
With a solid plan and prayerful leadership, your church will continue strong!

Don’t hire fast.
Take your time; it’s better to wait for the right person than hire the wrong one.

Don’t create drama.
The enemy loves it when a church is stuck, benched or otherwise rendered neutral.

If panic kicks in, gossip begins, questioning starts, people take sides, and opinions start to fly, it’s easy to get stuck. Progress stops, and drama begins.

Instead, create a positive and proactive plan.

Four helpful guidelines for a smooth transition to a new senior pastor:

1) Select the transitionary leader and leadership team.

The most crucial question is, “How are decisions made?”

Answering that question will quickly get you to the real issues.

This is not a good time to make major decisions, particularly those that involve buildings and significant expenses. It is also wise to refrain from a major program or strategy changes.

Make only the changes that are necessary. Give your new pastor the opportunity to be part of the major decision-making when he or she arrives.

Focus your decision-making on the things that mature the people spiritually, keep the morale high, prepare the people for the new pastor, and help the church overall become more dependent upon God.

In selecting a transitionary leader, there are four common options:

An Interim Pastor

An interim pastor is often a good option in smaller and mid-sized churches, particularly where conflict is low.

This position can be filled either by a part-time or full-time person depending on the size of the church and available resources.

The interim pastor takes responsibility for the preaching, some weddings and funerals, teaching, and guidance for the staff and key leadership.

He or she focuses on morale, spiritual maturity, and preparing the congregation for the new pastor.

Attention is given to problem-solving, but not necessarily changing any ministry programs.

A Transition Specialist

A transition specialist (TS) is basically a turbo-charged interim pastor, who is a strong leader but does not want to become the new senior pastor.

A TS is a good idea for congregations with scenarios such as long tenure of the previous pastor, (10 years or longer), significant or unresolved conflict, or the manner in which the current senior pastor left has hurt the congregation.

The TS serves mainly as the official senior pastor would serve. He or she also pays particular attention to the church’s history and culture, while helping to clarify mission, vision, and values.

The TS works through any difficult leadership changes and helps the congregation discover and build on their strengths. The TS deals with deeper issues like forgiveness and trust.

The TS focuses on increasing morale, healing, spiritual maturity, and preparing the congregation for the new pastor.

A Current Staff Member

This is common among larger churches, but not exclusive to larger churches. It’s more challenging to find an interim pastor or TS who has the necessary experience or can adapt to the size of the culture fast enough in large and very large churches.

The positive is that the congregation knows this staff member, and the staff member knows the congregation, culture, staff, and systems.

The current staff member is up and running quickly assuming most of the senior pastor responsibilities with exceptions such as any major directional change, hiring staff, or significant financial commitments. It’s critical that this person works closely with the church board concerning these issues and the direction of weekend messages.

The complication with a current staff member is that it’s easy for a portion of the staff and congregation to rush to the conclusion that this person should be the next senior pastor.

He or she may be a perfect choice, but following the process is vitally important. Including considering other candidates.

A “Pulpit Supply” Pastor

A pulpit supply pastor is appropriate for smaller congregations that need someone to do the preaching on Sunday mornings, and cover weddings, funerals, and pastoral care. This is a part-time or even week by week honorarium contract. You can have two or three supply pastors rotating throughout the time of transition.

2) Communicate hope, mission, and security.

It’s crucial that the key leaders do not delay in communicating the following to the congregation.

You are confident in a bright future.
Communicate a clear sense of encouragement and hope.

With any transition, it’s important to remember God is in control and any situation did not catch Him by surprise.

The heart behind this should be like a shepherd who cares for the flock and wants them to be full of faith rather than worry.

The Great Commission hasn’t changed.
Stay focused on the vision and mission. Whatever it takes to keep moving forward, even by small steps. Keep Matthew 28:19-20 front and center to help keep the church focused on the gospel.

There is a plan in place.
Let the congregation know that a plan is being developed or is in place. And let them know (the big steps) as you get to each one. Don’t keep them in the dark, communicate regularly to keep the congregation informed and in the know.

3) Help the church find healthy closure.

If a church skips or ignores the process of finding healthy closure, they often spend years lamenting the loss of the previous pastor. Or, they struggle with anger and distrust because the former pastor did not finish well.

In the positive transitions, create a celebration where you thank the pastor for his ministry and say your good-byes.

In difficult situations, emphasize grace, forgiveness, the mission of the church and hope. This doesn’t mean to “cover up” truth, but focusing on the future is vital.

Time for healing is needed when the previous senior pastor didn’t leave well. Give the church time to breath, understand, and gain peace. Hurting and confused people will need your guidance for a healthy and appropriate way to talk through their hurt.

4) Establish a game plan to select the next pastor.

This will vary from church to church depending on many factors such as the size of the church, timing, if the transition is positive or painful, and if there is a denominational affiliation.

The following is not a comprehensive or detailed plan, but it’s an outline that will help get you started in the right direction.

  • Appoint an experienced search team.
  • Design a selection criteria and profile of the kind of leader you are looking for.
  • Decide if you will hire a professional search firm.
  • Consider no less than three legitimate candidates.
  • Make a prayerful decision.

Remember, this process has happened thousands of times, and most of these transitions are healthy and successful. Yours can be too!