10 steps for a healthy pastoral transition

December 27, 2023

Every church faces a season of leadership change at some point. These can be challenging times for both church leaders and their congregations, especially in the case of pastoral succession.  

When done correctly, a pastoral transition can be a time of celebration and joy. Unfortunately, many pastoral successions are poorly planned, rushed, or communicated. This can cause people to feel confused, disappointed, or discouraged to the point where they stop going to church altogether. 

It is imperative that churches handle pastoral transitions well not only for the sake of the church leaders involved but also for the people in the congregation who may be experiencing grief and concern about the transition.

Biblical examples of leadership transition

Let’s be clear at the outset: the Bible does not lay out guidelines for a sort of “theologically correct” pastoral transition. There isn’t a list of steps a church is supposed to take when replacing a pastor. However, we are blessed with plenty of leadership examples of transition in the Bible. And while these biblical examples of leadership transition are not prescriptive for how churches should change leaders today, they are helpful for churches that go through this process.

Consider the transition of Moses to Joshua, David to Solomon, or even Elijah to Elisha. While each of these transitions of leadership is unique in its own right, they all have some foundational commonalities that are worthy of note:

  • A planned succession 
  • Incoming & outgoing leaders preparing in advance
  • Prayerful listening & obeying of God’s instructions for the transfer of leadership
  • Preparing the people for change
  • People adjusting & getting accommodated to their new leader post-transition

Again, churches would be wrong to see the list of steps above as a sort of “biblical prescription” for how to manage a pastoral transition. But seeing these common traits of biblical leadership transitions can be helpful and instructive for churches going through similar leadership transitions today.

Model the love of Jesus

Leadership transitions can bring out the best and worst in people. Emotions run high. When a pastor has been fired or let go, there is one overarching principle that can make all the difference. 

Above all, your church leaders should model Christ’s love to your congregation and community. What does this look like? As the previous pastor leaves your church, show them the same level of love, graciousness, and kindness that you displayed when they were first hired. 

This isn’t just a spiritual principle. How your church offboards staff says even more about your culture than how you onboard new staff. Even when situations are difficult, we as Christians should reflect Jesus’ love to others.

10 steps for a successful pastoral transition

Let’s dive into practical steps your church can take to ensure a healthy pastoral succession and keep your congregation safe from common leadership transition problems. 

Pre-transition preparation

Ideally, you should have months or even a year to transition to a new pastor. However, in some cases such as death or moral failures, your window of time may be much shorter and emotionally difficult. 

These three steps will help you lay the internal groundwork for a pastoral succession that works before you even begin the public-facing process of removing a pastor and installing another. 

1. Take time to self-assess & reflect

There is a temptation during a pastoral transition process to focus so much on the future that you forget to reflect on and learn from the past. Resist this temptation! 

The outgoing pastor should reflect on their ministry, achievements, and areas of growth, and barring an emergency removal of the pastor, the church should provide space for the pastor to do this kind of reflection. Likewise, if the pastor is leaving on healthy, good terms, the church should celebrate the work of the pastor. 

Practically speaking, for an outgoing pastor and the remaining church staff to reflect on the work of the pastor, a few steps can be taken. It would be wise for the pastor to do a personal evaluation of strengths and weaknesses, identify key accomplishments and lessons learned, and consider personal and professional development opportunities.

As your church moves through the pastoral transition process, resist the temptation to only look forward! Take time to look back, for the sake of the outgoing pastor and the church.

Solutions to church problems

2. Plan your communications

Effective church communication is an underrated part of a healthy pastoral transition. When it feels like more and more pastors are resigning from their churches due to moral failure, it is important that churches communicate clearly why a pastor is leaving so that gossip and rumors about “hidden” reasons for their resignation aren’t able to fester. 

Also, church leadership should establish transparent communication channels to manage expectations with the other leaders and the congregation. This is accomplished by informing church leadership early about the upcoming transition, hosting gatherings like town hall meetings or forums to address concerns, and clearly communicating the reasons for the transition.

3. Begin succession planning

Every pastor at every church should have a succession plan, but this is especially true for senior or lead pastors of churches. A church should ensure a smooth transition by identifying and preparing a successor to the senior pastor. 

How does this happen? Church leadership should work in conjunction with the senior pastor to identify potential candidates. Part of this process can be creating an ideal candidate profile. It is important for churches to not look for a clone of the current pastor, but to identify the best kind of leader for the next season of the church.

The transition committee that is charged with looking for a pastoral successor should know exactly what they are looking for in a candidate, so this needs to be clearly communicated by the leaders. Closer to the time of succession, the current pastor should mentor the successor and provide ways for them to connect with the congregation.

Transitional phase 

Now that your church has prepared for this leadership change, what does it look like for the church to begin a transition of leadership from one lead pastor to another? Here are some pastoral transition guidelines to take to safeguard your congregation through this transition.

4. Call for a unified emphasis on prayer

As a church approaches the time for pastor transition, the importance of prayer will only become more evident. Calling for a unified emphasis on prayer during this period is important not only because talking with God is important, but also because a church can foster unity through collective prayer. 

How does this happen? First, the church can initiate a dedicated season of prayer for the transition. Then, church leaders can encourage the organization of prayer gatherings of different groups of people—from children to senior adults. 

During this time, the church should emphasize seeking God’s guidance for everyone involved and provide prayer resources and prayer prompts related to the transition. Finally, be sure to encourage congregants to thank God for the past and pray hopefully for future ministry.

5. Create collaborative transition events

A church can support its outgoing and incoming pastor by creating environments in which the congregation can see both leaders leading the church together. This helps the congregation understand that the transition is amicable and not tense, and it fosters a sense of unity among all involved. 

What does this look like in practice? Consider having both pastors lead some church services and events together for a season. Arrange some collaborative teaching opportunities for the two of them. And of course, plan farewell and welcome ceremonies to celebrate both leaders.

6. Allow people to grieve & provide support

Leadership transitions are usually difficult for people to process emotionally. Pastors oftentimes have made deep personal and spiritual connections with their church members. As with any loss, this can trigger a variety of emotions, so it’s crucial to allow everyone time to go through the grieving process. 

How can your leadership help? Encourage open conversations about the feelings of loss or anxiety that people feel. Facilitate counseling sessions for both the outgoing and incoming pastors—this transition is likely more draining on them than they realize. Then work hard to foster a culture of understanding and empathy within the congregation.

Post-transition stabilization

Now that the transition has happened, it’s time for church leadership to stabilize the church and charge ahead to the next season of ministry. What does that stabilization process look like? Here are some steps that churches can take to stabilize post-pastoral transition.

7. Begin transitioning pastoral duties

A church that has endured a pastoral transition needs to maintain continuity of leadership. The rest of the church staff and other leaders involved need to ensure a smooth handover of all responsibilities from one pastor to another. This involves an actual hand-off of duties, providing ongoing support as the new pastor gets settled, and encouraging ongoing collaboration between the outgoing and incoming pastor as appropriate for the near future.

8. Build deeper connections with the new pastor

A new pastor getting plugged into an established church staff is sort of like a new organ that has been put into an existing body—careful attention needs to be given to ensure the transplant is a success and that the new member isn’t rejected. 

The established church staff and congregants need to build a relationship with the new pastor to make them and their family feel welcome. A church can do this in a number of ways. The church could organize community-building events,activities, and small groups. And be sure the pastor’s family is included in such gatherings. Likewise, the church should emphasize its values and the different tenets of the congregation that bind the church together.

9. Seek leadership & congregation feedback

An important part of supporting a new pastor is receiving feedback on their behalf from leaders and congregants and communicating that feedback in an appropriate manner (a pastor doesn’t need to hear every bit of feedback someone may want to provide). 

The church can do this by conducting surveys or feedback sessions with congregants. Leadership should seek feedback on how the transition process was conducted, and they should follow up by addressing any challenges they faced and use the feedback to refine future transition plans.

10. Adjust & celebrate

Finally, the church should allow the congregation to continue getting to know and embracing the new pastor. Some congregants may leave the church, and that’s okay, yet others may be excited and invite new people to come to the church. Allowing the dust to settle on a transition can take a long time, but this time is crucial for setting the foundation for the future.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

Hundreds if not thousands of churches face pastoral transitions every year. Some of those transitions are easy, and some are difficult. It is important for churches to “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst” as they approach pastor transitions. 

Transitions take time, and churches should be careful to not rush this important process. Caring for the spiritual welfare of the congregation is crucial amid pastoral transition, and rushing it along can severely cripple the congregation.

More resources for pastors


Chris Martin, Guest author

Chris Martin is author of several books including The Wolf in Their Pockets and Terms of Service: The Real Cost of Social Media. He serves as editor of BibletoLife.com and content marketing editor at Moody Publishers. Chris lives outside Nashville, TN with his wife and two children.

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