Leadership Transitions (7 Ways NOT to Follow a Great Leader)

imgres-7Are you considering following a great (or long-term) leader in a new position? Whether you are a pastor, associate pastor, or business leader, never underestimate the unique differences between the previous leader and you.

There is also an organizational story that needs to be listened to and learned from in order to help you make a discerned decision and lead well if you assume the new position.

Here is the “Cliff Notes” version of a chapter in my leadership story. Call it a “cautionary tale…” Once upon a time I followed a great leader who had a long tenure at a widely respected church. I failed to do many strategic things. It went really bad, really fast, for everyone. The end. Wait, by God’s grace, there was more to the story, there is always more to the story. For now, here is some advice on making healthy leadership transitions and 7 Ways NOT to Follow a Great Leader (and how to do it well!)…

1) Don’t meet with your predecessor when possible and ask them tons of questions throughout the process, even long after you arrive. I met with mine… briefly, pleasantly, over dinner. This was a token meeting at best. We both said we were willing to further the conversation. Neither reached out or followed-up until it was way too late and too much damage was done. Ultimately, this was on me.

DO seek them out when possible and not only ask for an open dialogue, but get permission to talk about them and their tenure with those you are about to lead. Why? Because their DNA saturates the ministry just as yours does the ministries you have led. Ignore this at your own peril. Besides, if they are the quality leader everyone believes them to be, this won’t be a problem. If they or the present leadership aren’t okay with this, that may tell you all you need to know.

Specifically talk to them, the present staff and leadership about things such as…

  • Differences in personality
  • Differences in leadership style
  • Differences in communication style
  • Differences in role
  • Differences in vision/values

There are valuable lessons to be learned about yourself, the church and the leadership as you discuss these differences. Don’t miss out.

2) Don’t meet with present staff and ask what they really think about the health and trajectory of the ministry. Again, I did do this, but wish I had gone deeper. Actually, I had but a brief phone conversation with the longest serving staff member. Not smart. Agree or disagree with their assessment, they know many people and many things you simply don’t and you need to know where they stand.

DO meet with the present lead team as a group and individually. Specifically ask the following type of questions…

  • What do you love about the church and how things are going/run?
  • What don’t you like about the church and how things are going/are run?
  • Regardless of official polity (leadership structure and process), how do things really get done and through whom?
  • Let’s talk “sacred cows.” What are they and which ones need “tipped.” Which ones are “land mines?”
  • When was the last big staff conflict? What was it over? How was it resolved?
  • How have you been hurt in ministry? How are you going about the healing process?
  • What are the 3 biggest needs of the congregation? In other words, “What’s broke?”
  • What would you do first and/or change if you were me? Why?
  • What would you definitely NOT do if you were me? Why?
  • What are your plans for the future, if any?

Sure, you and everyone else may simply want to look to the future in faith and talk vision, and you should. However, skip a thorough assessment of the past and present and you won’t have a future. At least, not a preferred one.

3) Don’t talk extensively about the local/regional culture. Every area is unique. Not learning about what makes the culture and it’s people special will keep you distant and disconnected. I skimmed the surface on this one and even assumed I might bring more of my culture to them. I’m not saying to start faking an accent… but simply to embrace and even celebrate the culture that is unique to the people there.

Do talk to the staff, lead team and people to find out…

  • What should I do/not do to embrace the culture and “fit in?”
  • What are 3 of the most important cultural traditions/events here?
  • My family and I like to do this… does anyone else?
  • What cultural distinctives come with who we are as a family? How might these translate over time, if at all?

BONUS: Ask around at some local places such as coffee shops and restaurants about the church you may be leading? What do they know about it? What is the church’s reputation, if any?

4) Don’t ask even tougher questions, such as…

  • What do you really want to ask but are afraid to? (You may still want me to come anyway!)
  • What are you hoping I won’t discover or figure out until later? (I may still want to come anyway!)

I know. This sounds a little jaded, right? However, sometimes people’s hearts may be in the right place but they fail to address the critical issues. They are only trying to protect you or someone else. Perhaps they don’t want to overwhelm you? They might even want you to come so much that they forgo some of the finer details and paint a picture of the church (or of you to the church) that isn’t accurate or complete. Dig deeper. Trust the Lord and people enough to go there.

5) Don’t get it in writing. Whether it has to do with your compensation or agreed upon roles, vision, staffing, etc, trust that a general sense of agreement is good enough and clearly understood by all necessary parties. And, don’t follow-up to see if important items have been communicated as agreed upon. I did the first part, but assumed the second. Not good.

DO understand that putting things in writing isn’t a lack of faith in the Lord or anyone else, it’s wisdom. Doing so has a way of involving the appropriate teams in a more specific way and helps to clearly affirm expectations and goals. From a practical standpoint, there is just too much information exchanged to remember it all. And, from an eternal standpoint, this decision involves the lives of too many saints and sinners to take anything for granted. Assume little. Besides, at your prayed up and processed best, you and the congregation will be taking a big step of faith regardless of how thorough you are.

6) Don’t involve an outside coach and a prayer/accountability team. Keep it just between family and close friends who will encourage you and mostly tell you what you are hoping to hear. This isn’t their fault. They genuinely want to support you, but they may be too close to question or call you out when needed.

DO invite a coach and/or a group of seasoned leaders to question you and second-guess you as much as they pray with and encourage you along the way. They’ve likely “been there, done that.” You need to know what they know. Stay humble, confess your ignorance. Ask them a lot of questions and listen up! Speaking of listening…

7) Finally, don’t listen to your spouse, kids and their “feelings.” Naively believe only the best in people and their motives throughout the process. Do your best to protect your spouse by seeing things only in the brightest and best of lights. Above all, avoid probing and sharing your true feelings with one another under the guise of faith. On the other hand…

DO listen to your spouse. Trust that they have a perspective and a discernment that you may lack. Listen closely to what they are saying and take it to heart. What are they feeling and sensing about people and the situation in general? Do they honestly feel they can be real with you and you with them? This is too big not to! God put you together for a reason. Besides, if it isn’t healthy for your spouse and kids, it isn’t worth it, regardless of how much the new position may promise. 

Did I forget prayer? No… but prayer goes beyond something you check off the “to do” list. You simply can’t pray over this decision enough privately, as a family, with trusted advisors, with those you may be leading and more. Just be sure not to lead yourself and others in prayers that only affirm the direction you want to go and then blame God for it. Pray to listen and learn, discover and discern. Then, be obedient to what the Holy Spirit is saying to you and through others.

So, there you have it, minus the gory details. Eventually, and by much grace, there was and continues to be healing for the church and for our family. Praise God, He really does “…work all things together for good…” (Romans 8:28). Hindsight has revealed some amazing ways the Lord has used this to mold and make us and others into more effective disciples of Jesus Christ. However, years later, scars are present as reminders of hard lessons learned. I hope they prove valuable to you as you make your own leadership decisions and fulfill God’s will for your life and ministry.

What advice would you give someone considering a new position, especially following a long-term leader? Share your thoughts below in the Reply section…

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