4 Principles for Smooth Staff Transitions at your Church

Change is hard.

It doesn’t really matter what kind of change we’re talking about, it’s all stressful.

This is especially true in churches. Perhaps it’s the tradition. Maybe it’s the relational nature of ministry. It could be that trust is crucial for a church to work. Whatever the reason, change is especially tricky in churches.

Here’s the thing, change will happen, particularly when it comes to people. The beloved youth pastor will grow up and become an associate pastor (I can say this because I’m a youth pastor), a key volunteer’s job gets transferred out of state, or the senior pastor retires. Change is coming.

Some churches seem to navigate these transitions with minimal damage and others… well… don’t. Why? What’s the difference? And, most importantly, how can we become the kind of church that navigates staff and volunteer transitions well? I have four ideas.

PRINCIPLE 1: FOCUS ON CULTURE

In my opinion, the strongest predictor of healthy transitions is culture. If the church’s identity is rooted in a shared culture that everyone believes in, and lives out, there is a great chance that the transitions will go well.

The strongest predictor of healthy and smooth staff transitions is culture.

However, if the church’s identity is rooted in the personality of a particular leader, or a past era, you might be in for rough waters.

How do you build an amazing shared culture? Well, it’s hard work, but work well worth the effort. Basically it comes down to collectively answering three key questions and then disseminating the answers to all aspects of the church.

1. Who are we?

The purpose of this question is to define your values. What are the characteristics that define your church staff behavior? Here are the core values of my church:

  • Hospitality: We value making those on the outside feel like they’re on the inside
  • Clarity: We value simple structures and clear communication
  • Relationships: We value making connections that help move people towards Christlikeness
  • Generosity: We value sacrificially investing in the well-being of others
  • Integrity: We value doing what we say and saying what we do

2. What do we do?

The purpose of this question is to define your mission. What is it that God has called our specific church to do? For us it’s this: to lead people into a relationship with God and His church that transforms them to Christlikeness.

3. How do we do it?

The purpose of this question is to define your strategy. In other words, how will you pull off the mission? This question usually can’t be answered in one sentence. Also, parts of your strategy will change over time.

Why is culture so important? Because culture creates a powerful sense of “us.” People don’t like leaving “us” cultures. Also, a strong “us” is incredibly attractive to the kind of people you want in your church. A great “us” is magnetic. In other words, by focusing on culture, you’ll have less transitions and better options for new staff when transitions do occur.

PRINCIPLE 2: IT’S NOT ABOUT ME

The best thing you can do to work toward healthy transitions is to build a strong culture. A second strategy is to instill within each staff member and key volunteer, “It’s not about me.”

Why is this phrase important? Because, staff and volunteers who make it all about themselves are hard to replace. When they leave, there is a massive void because they were the ones doing all the work and they forced everything to go through them.

The solution to this problem is to empower and equip others. This is the biblical way to lead:
“…to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (Eph 4:12 NIV)”.

I discovered the power of “it’s not about me” firsthand when the student pastor at our church took a senior pastor position at another church. He had led our student ministry for about 12 years and he had an incredible teaching gift and magnetic personality. This was a classic scenario for leaving a void, but he had spent 12 years empowering and equipping others. We didn’t skip a beat. In fact, the year that he left we actually grew.

By empowering and equipping others, you can practically ensure smooth transitions. I have a friend who sometimes says it this way:

“What would happen if you woke up this morning and a got hit by a beer truck on your way into work? Who is ready to take over leadership of your ministry?”

beer_truck

I still can’t figure out why it is always a beer truck that kills me, but the point is incredibly valid. Who are you empowering and equipping? If the answer is no one, there is a good chance that the transition will be a rough one. But, if every leader and key volunteer is empowering and equipping others, the chances are great that transitions will be smooth in your church.

PRINCIPLE 3: HIRE EARLIER AND ONBOARD LONGER

Something we are learning is to hire earlier and onboard longer.

Here’s what I mean: If we know we will need a new staff member for the fall ministry season, we are learning to hire that person in June so that they can learn our culture for 3 months before getting to work. This 3 months of learning is what we call onboarding. This process includes learning our values, mission and strategy, interacting with all the different ministries in our church, meeting with assigned mentors and generally “drinking the kool-aid”.

hire_eariler_onboard_longer

This process has helped ensure that when a new staff member begins leading people and engaging in important tasks, they do these things with our values through our strategies. One of the main reasons that transitions go badly is that new staff lead in unexpected or unwelcome ways. In other words, they haven’t been taught or haven’t taken the time to respectfully learn the culture. You can improve in this area by hiring earlier and onboarding longer.

If interested, you can find more on hiring great people for your church here.

PRINCIPLE 4: PROMOTE WITHIN

In my early days of leadership, I believed that the best hiring strategy was to hire the most talented and gifted people out there. That was before I understood the importance of chemistry and cultural fit. What I’ve learned is that people who don’t currently fit the culture of your church will probably never fit the culture of your church, no matter how many times you try to smash that square peg into a round hole.

What I’ve learned is that the best hiring strategy is to hire the most talented and gifted people who you ALREADY know fit your culture. This often means that the best hire you can make is probably a superstar volunteer who already lives and breathes the values of your church or ministry.

promote_from_within

Or, it means, hiring a person who is already on the staff of your church, but in a different department — if they are good fit for the specific position in question. In other words, promote within!

I recognize that this approach won’t work with every staff position, but for most, it does. You can develop skills. You can send people to seminary. You can coach new practices, but in my experience you can’t force someone who doesn’t currently believe in your values, to begin living out your values.

Perhaps the best thing you can do to promote healthy transitions is to promote within.

Begin Preparing Now

Transitions are hard and they’re inevitable.

The good news is that we don’t have to wait until someone puts in their two weeks notice to work on them; we can prepare for them now. What is it that you sense would most help your church prepare for smooth transitions?

  • Is it working on your staff and church culture?
  • Is it being more intentional about equipping other leaders around you?
  • Is it deciding how long your onboarding process should be?
  • Is it beginning to identify internal volunteers or staff who you could see taking a certain role?

There you have it – I hope this helps make your next transition incredibly smooth!

Has one of these principles worked especially well for you? Are there any principles we’re missing here? We’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas and feedback in the comments below.

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