Healthy churches and pastors typically build strong connections to one another; that relationship is an important, natural part of congregational life. At the same time, that attachment comes with its challenges.

One of the most uniform challenges congregations face is the fact that (as much as most churches would like to pretend otherwise) their current pastor will eventually leave. Whether because of age, ability or another assignment, every pastor eventually transitions out of congregational leadership, opening up pathways for another pastor to take their place.

In the words of William VanderBloemen (founder of VanderBloemen, a prominent staffing organization for churches and faith-driven enterprises), “Every pastor is an interim pastor.”[1] Whether their tenure is one year, seven years or 20 years, every organization eventually faces the prospect of leadership transition.

Few congregations, however, do advanced planning for leadership transition and succession. Two congregations who have recently experienced purposeful transition processes — Spooner Wesleyan Church in Spooner, Wisconsin, and Calvary Wesleyan Church in Harrington, Delaware — are examples of congregations that have walked through successful transitions.

During conversations with the leaders of these churches, we discovered the following reasons boards and congregations have in delaying their engagement with the succession process.

Succession isn’t urgent: “Isn’t time yet”

Many congregations are busy, focused on pressing challenges: balancing the budget of the current fiscal year, finding key volunteer positions for understaffed ministries, conducting pastoral visits and funerals, and keeping track of important details around services and programming.

With so many pressing concerns, the prospect of taking on another non-urgent challenge seems unnecessary or even like a foolish allocation of resources better spent on day-to-day ministry focus points.

Challenging to ego

For any pastor (especially those with a long tenure), putting on a “turn signal” toward the next season is an exercise in humility.

Reverend Ron Gormong, senior pastor of Spooner Wesleyan Church since 1988, shared, “Part of the process of selecting a new senior pastor was identifying that what our church needs in the next season may be similar in some ways to me, but different, too — that can be a hard thing for many pastors to admit; but it was important to our committee to find someone who could build on the strengths of our church, capitalize on the many changes we’ve made over decades, and guide them into a process to build trust with the people of our church.”

Time consuming and difficult … even painful

Church search committees often talk about a variety of important factors in hiring — the “Three C’s” of character, competence, chemistry being common categories to use when searching for a candidate. But all those categories are attempting to measure a more global question of “fit.”

Every church has differing expectations of their pastors; and within one church, there may be several constituencies (e.g. the board, young families, teenagers, senior adults, community partners, global missionaries) that each have differing expectations of the pastor’s role in their weekly life and work. Some may value excellent administrative gifts, others may hope for a pastor with strong skills in preaching — and others may hope for a pastor skilled in mentoring, community development or pastoral presence.

Identifying the next candidate is in many ways a long exercise in diagnosing the needs of the present congregation while also anticipating the future needs of the church. That listening work is time-consuming, and it can also be painful for the outgoing pastor to confront areas of hoped-for growth that remain unrealized.

“Our process for pastoral succession was two-and-a-half years long and certainly thorough,” said Reverend Caleb Dunn, senior pastor of Calvary Wesleyan Church (CWC) in Harrington, Delaware. Rev. Dunn’s role as lead pastor came on the heels of Pastor Ken Figgs’ 20 years in the role; and as he considered succession, Pastor Ken had been hoping the next senior pastor would build on CWC’s long legacy of loving their congregation and creatively reaching their area.

“Pastor Ken and I shared many conversations about the history of the church community, present needs and shared values for a future vision of Calvary Wesleyan,” continued Rev. Dunn. “And the key to this process for us was humility. Pastor Ken and I have a deep conviction that the ongoing ministry of Jesus is larger than either of us. We simply share in the work the Lord is already doing by the power of his Spirit. From a shared position of trying to steward God’s people in God’s larger work, he and I were free to prayerfully listen to one another, support the church’s vision, and work alongside each other.”

Hearing these stories of supportive, prayerfully executed transitions, we culled important learnings that can help congregations in planning (or gathering wisdom for) their own succession processes:

Start earlier than you think

Because so much of ministry happens in urgent moments, it can be easy to put this off until a pastoral transition is imminent. “Doing so is a costly error,” says Rev. Gormong. “We entered the transition process thinking a senior pastor select would appear within a matter of a few months, after which we could start the transition process. Identifying the right candidate ended up taking over a year.”

Because Spooner Wesleyan had a search committee committed to finding the right candidate (and because they started working ahead of time, instead of starting from behind) they were able to find the right candidate without sliding into a panic.

Hire for health and humility … but mostly, love

Whenever churches hire a specific pastoral candidate, they are taking a calculated risk with the future of their church: that risk is usually worth it, however, if committees screen potential pastors for health and humility.

The dimension of health has to do with everything from emotional intelligence to resilience in stress to the candidate’s approach to systems and structures of church governance. When search committees are screening for health, they’re trying to answer the following questions:

  • Is this pastor committed to maintaining their own health — emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially and mentally?
  • Does this candidate have a track record of cultivating health in other people and systems through diligent processes, healthy conflict resolution and transparent accountability?
  • Does this pastor develop a diligent approach to their life at work, and their life at home, such that their work and home life flourish as central priorities?
  • Does this prospective leader have the maturity to be a wise influence in the culture of our congregation and community?

The dimension of humility is especially important in a transition process because the candidate will have to embrace some amount of submission and accountability to the current pastor and leadership. When search committees are screening for humility, they’re trying to answer the following questions:

  • Does this prospective pastor have the openness to absorb new information about doing ministry?
  • Does this pastor stay curious, and change first impressions over time?
  • Does this pastor multiply others’ effectiveness and help others be the face of a public “win”?
  • Does this pastor stay “current” with incoming streams of formation, wisdom and knowledge (e.g. books, podcasts, counseling, spiritual direction), so their opinions are informed by others?
  • Are there authorities in this pastor’s life for submission, transparency and accountability?

As Rev. Dunn thinks about his own experience of transitioning into the lead pastor role, he offered the following admonition toward practicing humility: “Honor your predecessors well. In every instance, we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. We inherit what God has built through their legacy of faithfulness, and the years of sacrifice, leadership, dedication for the kingdom should be celebrated.”

As important as both health and humility are, the intangible quality most search committees are looking for is love between the congregation and the clergy. Love is different than just “people-pleasing” or “affection.” It’s a genuine commitment between the pastor and the congregation to each other’s good. This can include hard conversations and even hard changes — held within the context of committed relationships over years. When hiring committees screen for love, they’re trying to answer the following questions:

  • When this pastor has led a congregation through hard change, what was their posture toward those who were grieving or resistant to the change?
  • How has this leader demonstrated care and love in moments of challenge, rebuke or correction?
  • How has this candidate built (or contributed to) a culture of care, support and challenge in previous cultures they’ve participated in?

Articulate a handoff process

Especially in congregations with a long-term outgoing leader, a public timeline is important for success. Spooner Wesleyan Church decided their incoming candidate would undergo six months of supervised learning (serving as assistant pastor under Rev. Gormong), and six to 12 months of co-leading with the second year being a transition to Rev. Gormong assisting and the candidate leading. Spooner is now embarking on the co-leading part of this journey with the senior-pastor select, Reverend Jason Sanders, increasing his role in preaching and administration.

“Really, this process allows me to put whatever ‘change’ is in my pocket (credibility) behind Jason’s leadership as he steps in,” reflected Rev. Gormong.

Beyond the transfer of credibility, the process has allowed the congregation to absorb the transition and put their full weight behind Rev. Sanders as he takes on further leadership at SWC. Calvary Wesleyan Church’s process, too, was purposefully long enough to allow Rev. Dunn and Pastor Figgs to work together, build shared vision, and help the congregation absorb the change as a natural process, instead of a disruption.

For more stories of God’s ways of renewing lives, churches, and communities, visit

Rev. Ethan Linder is the pastor of discipleship at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and contributing editor at The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development Division.


[1] See full video here: