My pastoral transition will take place in my 65th
year. I have been learning a lot about
myself in this new season. As Jan and I
prepare to hand the leadership of our church over to Ryan and Kate Rhoden, Ryan
and I have been having wonderful conversations about how to do this transition
Many of the leadership structures in the American church
resemble a totem pole where the leader on top must fall off or die before
change can happen. When we first arrived
in Medford the Lord told me to start giving the ministry away. In order to do
this the Lord asked me to lay down our totem pole structure of leadership and
begin leading horizontally.
Vertical leadership structures are challenging to work with.
Most of these function on the principle of addition – you add to the bottom of the totem
pole and it continues to grow upward pushing the primary leader higher and
higher making any future dismount difficult. A horizontal structure is
different – it is laid down on its side to give the pastoral team the ability
to move more freely in many directions and multiply itself instead of only
adding. While we are trying to do this, I still need to function from a Senior
Pastor role in areas of responsibility like document signing and denominational
representation. These functions don’t give life, they simply honor our process.
In this leadership transition, I have learned more about my
own personal fears and insecurities. Sometimes
letting go is more challenging than taking hold. These personal discoveries can
be opportunities for personal growth or they can become toxic responses that mess
up a good thing. How we handle what we discover about ourselves will determine
the direction and health of our future ministry transition.
I have come to see how important it is to allow younger
leaders the freedom to create a way to do ministry that is uniquely theirs. Our
transition will be two years from now, though Ryan and I have been talking
privately about this change for several years.
The assignment I gave Ryan for the next two years was to begin
to create a model of ministry that will fit him. I don’t want Ryan to try to wear Saul’s armor
or my style of ministry. God is calling
Ryan, not another Garris. For me, this means allowing a young man the freedom
to make his own decisions even before the change in leadership becomes a visible
reality. The closer leaders get to a
transition the more important it becomes to grant the incoming leader
permission to begin reworking the ministry and its structure to fit their unique
gifts and calling.
Some of this release took place when I told Ryan he did not
have to ask me for anything – it is already his. Healthy transitions have a sense of
inheritance. This concept will change how we relate to each other. Even our
theology is radically affected for the positive when we know we already possess
all that Christ gained on our behalf.
Don’t make young leaders ask for anything. Give before they ask. It’s
how God relates to sons.
Ryan is doing all of this with me with great honor. In fact, he once said to me, “I don’t want to do this if you are not going
to be here.” Jan and I will continue to make Living Waters our home church
after the change in leadership takes place.
We are looking forward to what is coming. Healthy transitions always
bring a new release of creativity for everyone involved. After the transition
how we relate to Ryan’s leadership will be important for the health of the
church and for the visible testimony of our leadership in our community.
There is a large group of pastors my age – the Baby Boomer generation–
who are entering their transitional years.
Many of us have bought homes in the cities we currently pastor and have developed
life-long relationships. We are not thinking about moving after we give the
leadership of our churches over to the young men and women who will follow
The Church-world is strewn with debris from failed
transitions and we don’t want to add to the garbage pile. For those of us who stay and live in the
place of our final pastoral transition our attitude and heart condition becomes
so important in the making of a healthy change. Who wants an old grumpy
previous pastor poisoning the ministry well with unresolved insecurities? I sure don’t, emerging leaders don’t and
neither does the church.
In one of our recent Monday morning conversations Ryan
shared something with me that brings such clarity to all of this. He said transitions are like the history
surrounding family Thanksgiving dinners. Ryan shared that as a mother and father prepares the Thanksgiving meal they have everyone over to their
house. As time goes on this arrangement
works just fine, but over the years, as the parents age, things begin to
change. Their kids grow up and have children of their own. They begin hosting the Thanksgiving meal at their house and
invite mom and dad over for dinner. A
transition takes place. The task involving all the preparation for the meal is
no longer mom and dad’s job – it has shifted to the kids to plan and host the
Thanksgiving meals develop their own history. Some things do
change over the years. The way the
turkey is done and how the table is set will change, but it would not be
Thanksgiving dinner if mom did not bring her green Jell-O salad. The green Jell-O
salad has always been on the table in our history as a family. Our taste buds have been programmed for the
flavor that mom and dad uniquely bring to our family meal.
As older leaders approach a time of transition, we need
to understand our roles will have to change before, during and after our
transition. The closer we get to this
time the more we need to define our “green Jell-O salad.” There is a flavor in
each of our lives that is unique to us and needs to be brought to the table for
the dinner to be complete. Bringing our green
Jell-O salad to the transitioning ministry table means our unique contribution
will add flavor to the future of the ministry, not dominant the table setting.