By John Piper
Strong and healthy transitions grow like trees in a certain kind of soil. Good transitions happen in many different churches that don’t necessarily have to have the same polity structures or beliefs as each other. I stepped down from my pastoral position at Bethlehem Baptist Church in March 2013. I do believe there is a causal connection between who we are and what happened. We had established a culture of biblical leadership that guided us through the transition. As you read these four suggestions for the fertile soil of succession, process what may work in your church during seasons of transition in ministry.
- God’s Word led us to establish a plurality of elders at the church who meet qualifications according to the Bible. When I first arrived at Bethlehem in 1980, there were no elders. They didn’t believe in them. Instead, they had standing committees that were formed based on competitive votes, which is never a good idea in a church. It is a prescription for unspiritual leadership. It took 10 years of preaching and studying the qualifications of elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3 before we finally implemented an elder board.
- God’s Word led us to formulate a higher doctrinal standard for the elders than for the newest member of the church. It took another 10 years to implement. We had a member statement of faith that was broad, generic, and vanilla. Elders did not have to commit to any higher standard than that statement, despite the New Testament calling for elders whose capacity to teach and standard of doctrinal knowledge and commitment is vastly superior to new members (Titus 1:9).
Because it was a congregational church, we had to convince the people it was a good idea to lift the standard. That’s why it took 20 years for these first two steps. We built trust by serving, teaching, and ultimately winning the people before we had eldership.
- God’s Word led us to nurture a culture of honest candor and vulnerability. I tried to model total honesty, forthrightness, and vulnerability anywhere I met with people. That meant no politicking, no half truths, and no distortions. Just truth, always. If we as elders did not know the answer to something, we admitted we did not know. We did not try to make ourselves look better.
If you commit to being truthful for years and years, people don’t put you above the Word of God (because you’ve not let them do that), and they don’t put you above criticism (since you’ve made yourself open to it), but they do trust you. If you try a transition without trust, you will have big problems.
- Finally, we developed a culture of writing papers to make proposals to elders and the church. Each paper included a statement of the proposal, explanation of what was needed, an offer history, and an explanation of how it was biblical. Paper trails are accountable. Without them, people will distort what was said or proposed, and you never want to win anything by coercion. It is a good thing to create a paper writing culture.
These four things allowed for a smooth search and transition from my pastorship to my successor’s. If our culture had been one of muddied waters and no clear leadership, it is much more likely to have caused pain and division within our congregation. Instead, under the guidance of biblical leaders with a culture of accountability and honesty, the transition was ultimately a success. If you create a similar culture in your church, you will be better prepared for any sort of ministry transition.
Adapted from Pipeline 2017: Succession at Every Level. To learn more about how to a leadership pipeline helps in ministry transitions and succession, check out our free Ministry Grid courses Introduction to Leadership Pipeline and Leadership Pipeline Competency Overview.