Jeff Jones succeeded Gene Getz—the founder of the Bible Fellowship Church movement—as the Senior Pastor of the Bible Fellowship Church in Dallas. Their transition was a smooth, well-planned process.  Below are some thoughts from Jeff about the process.

When looking at handing off the baton in a church, begin planning to make the transition sooner rather than later. Especially when there is a founding or strong Senior Pastor, a significant time of transition is critical to a smooth transition for these reasons:

  • The successor can build his/her team.
  • The congregation can “know the voice of the shepherd.”
  • The exiting pastor can build the credibility of the new.
  • Significant changes can be made around the new leader’s style with the existing leader still there and supporting it. This way the changes don’t seem to be a rejection of the old.

Establish a timeline that is short enough to be transitional but long enough to put people at ease. This allows you to shorten it. Shortening is possible; lengthening is not.

Transition will take on a life and timeline of its own. Be sensitive to that and be flexible.

The existing pastor will be releasing authority over time, and when a co-pastor situation approaches it is time to pull the trigger.

The exiting pastor has to free the successor to lead, teach, relate in his/her unique style and celebrate the differences.

The more you both can speak well of each other, the better. People need to see you honoring each other consistently and authentically.

Transition brings out new temptations for the exiting pastor and the entering pastor that can draw a wedge between the two and undermine the transition:

  • For the entering pastor, there will be groups of people who will try to align with you and convince you the time needs to happen sooner … that the church would be much better if it happened now … and they will try to begin to manipulate circumstances to eventuate a quicker transition. Some of these people probably have hidden agendas but some of them are just excited about what is to come and want to see it happen as soon as possible. A transition killer is when the successor starts to believe these people and tries to control or manipulate the transition inappropriately.
  • For the exiting pastor, other groups of people will try to hang on and convince you that the church needs you … that this is not the right time. They fear the future and will try to cling to you as their leader, their pastor. You can either help them leave you and cleave to the new, or hang on and allow them to stroke your ego. A transition killer is when the exiting pastor begins to manipulate the timing around his or her ego and desire to feel needed.

Adonijah in 1 Kings 1 is a great example of this. Adonijah sets himself up as king before the King does, and he listens to the wrong people. David should have done a much better job communicating and deciding earlier who would be the successor. He waited until he was dying in bed to do so.

Ideally, the exiting pastor should be able to stay in the church after the transition—but only if …

  • He/she really can be supportive of the new.
  • He/she never entertains complaints.
  • He/she has no leadership role that casts a shadow, which probably means no formal leadership role.
  • The new pastor is comfortable.
  • The successor and exiting pastor work hard to maintain good communication and relationship.
  • He/she understands the opportunity they have to continually express support for the new, even though it will be different (therefore challenging). This can be a huge help for the new pastor in change management.
  • He/she is able to control their ego.
  • He/she is able to let go and give freedom for the new pastor to change.

The exited pastor and the new pastor have to maintain regular communication if he/she is staying in the church. The Army has a division in the Pentagon whose job it is to keep retired generals informed about what is going on, so that they feel tied in, are informed, and can be supportive of the military when asked by the press.

It is probably a great idea for the exiting pastor to go on a sabbatical or extended ministry tour at some point shortly after transition to give space for the new leader … not essential but probably a good idea.

Immediately after transition, don’t go slow in deference to the exiting pastor. Move ahead and be ready to move ahead with fresh vision quickly. If you’ve done it right up to that point, people are chomping at the bit to get going. The exited pastor’s job is to communicate excitement about the fresh vision whenever possible. But the new pastor needs to be pedal-down right off the bat. People expect it and will allow a lot of change in that early time period.

The board needs to consider a succession plan of its own, not for the whole board to exit immediately—but to form a plan to build a new board over time around the new leader.

It is not wise to give the exiting pastor a formal leadership role in the church post-transition, certainly not a board role. But it might be wise to give the exiting pastor a ceremonial/representational role such as Pastor Emeritus. It links them into the church as they pursue their wider ministry, and the church enjoys keeping up with what their former pastor is doing.

On the backside of transition, you have to be sure that the exiting pastor has plenty to do to keep them very busy outside the church. This is particularly true with a type-A, high accomplishment leader. Gene Getz (former Senior Pastor, Fellowship Bible Church North) has a ministry of writing, consulting, speaking, and radio that keeps him busy working with churches and groups around the country. Often these are not the kind of people that are going to play golf or use metal finders at the beach the rest of their lives, so you have to be sure they have something significant to keep them focused outside the local church operations.

Internal succession makes sense in organizations that …

  • Are healthy
    • where you want to perpetuate the current culture (as opposed to blow the current culture apart)
    • where you want continuity of the culture
  • Have one or more viable leaders who can pull it off.
  • Have in their culture a value of leadership development.
  • Have an exiting pastor whose ego can handle the shift.
  • Have strong trust between congregation and leadership.

Milestones In Our Timeline

Sometime in 2000

  • We announced the transition plan
  • At that point, it was a seven-year plan

January 2001

  • Jeff led the staff and strategic development as the Executive Pastor
  • Jeff preached a third of the time
  • Begins building his team
  • Alignment process in swing

November 2001

  • Jeff and Gene do a Vision Night together

November 2002

  • Alignment process nearing end and laying out new strategy to church
  • Jeff takes the lead in Vision Night
  • Gene involved in the Vision Night also
  • Jeff begins preaching half of the time
  • Local outreach vision and focus communicated and growing

September 2003

  • Elders and staff communicate discomfort with a co-pastor situation developing
  • Some organizational paralysis
  • Local outreach vision and focus growing very strong

November 2003

  • Gene recommends to elders that transition should take place ASAP
  • Transition announced to church

January 2004

  • Transition takes place
  • Forty Days of Purpose

March 2004

  • Relocation decided and announced … land search begins

September 2004

  • Land found and purchased

Spring 2005

  • IMAGINE Campaign raises money for relocation

August 2007

  • Anticipated move date