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Transfer Without Trauma: Thoughts on Effective Ministry Transition

One of the benefits to the traditional approach to furlough (four years on the field, one year stateside) is that it affords ample opportunity for a missionary to step back and evaluate what went right and what went wrong during the previous term. As Itacyara and I engage in this process, one of the sources of greatest joy – something for which we can only give glory to God – has been the transition of pastoral leadership at the Ebenezer church.

We look back on this “peaceful transfer of power” with no small amount of relief, as many church plants have tripped up precisely at this moment. The pitfalls are especially numerous for international ministries such as ours, where differences in personality are compounded by differences in culture. With this in mind, we are ecstatic to see Ebenezer’s growth trend continue, and even increase, under the ministry of Pastor Francivaldo.

As I’ve mulled events over in my mind, and answered the questions of friends and supporters here in the US, I’ve been able to pinpoint three courses of action we took that had a positive influence on the transition period of our ministry. I share them here in hopes that they may be a blessing to other pastors and missionaries who are looking ahead to a future transition.

Prepare the People

For though I am absent in the flesh, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ. Colossians 2:5

The Lord allowed us to minister to the people of Ebenezer for over eight years – a good deal longer than the average pastoral stay. And yet from literally day one of our ministry, I was telling them that they needed to be preparing for the day when I would no longer be with them. Throughout our ministry I made a point of constantly keeping our departure before the people. This, I believe, had several positive effects:

1. It prevented the church from becoming a cult of personality.

Many churches – especial church plants – become identified with their founder. “Oh, that’s Pastor So-And-So’s church.” To my knowledge, people in the community never referred to Ebenezer as “Pastor Andrew’s church”, and part of that was due, I think, to the effort we made in reminding people that our stay – however long it happened to be – was ultimately temporary.

I’m of the opinion that many pastors don’t put their eventual departure before their congregation because they themselves have lost sight of its inevitability. They somehow believe they are going to be there forever. True, a pastor might indeed stay at a church for a long time, but be it four years or twenty-four years, every ministry will eventually come to an end, and part of pastoral responsibility is to make sure the church is ready for it.

2. It reinforced the need for congregational participation in the daily life of the church.

“Pastors come and go. A church is defined by the work done by its members.” I don’t think I ever went a month without repeating that phrase – or some variation of it, to our congregation. One of the dangers of a long ministry is that people become accustomed to the pastor just…doing things. A church that understands that they could be without a pastor at any time is a church where the members actively hold the reins of ministry – as it should be.

3. It was an effective antidote to complacency in giving.

One of the major hurdles in the development of any new local church is financial independence. When a church understands that one day it will be responsible to financially support a pastor and his family, it presents a sense of urgency in giving. We encouraged this by highlighting, in our monthly meetings, the amount that had come in from our congregation, versus what we had received from outside sources. We then compared this amount to estimates of how much the church would need, monthly, in order to be self-sufficient.

(Full disclosure – the Ebenezer congregation does not pay Pastor Francivaldo full-time…yet. However, they are well on their way to being able to do so, and have also been able to set sizeable amounts aside for construction and other projects.)

4. It taught the church to think about what kind of pastor they should be looking for.

Whenever we had a special speaker at our church, I would encourage the congregation to think of him in terms of being a possible replacement for me. Thus, the church developed skills in evaluating men for the pastoral position.

Develop the Disciple

And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. II Timothy 2:2

When we launched the church plant that became Ebenezer, the man who is now the pastor of the church was young, single, and demonstrated much potential. Shortly after the inception of the church plant, God opened the door for him to go to Bible College. The congregation, though on a tight budget, sent him support, and payed for him to return on vacation to minister with us. As the church grew, Francivaldo grew with it. Upon his graduation, it was the most natural thing in the world for Ebenezer to call him to minister side-by-side with them.

I understand that not every church will have the experience of calling someone who has grown up within the church. And God does not call everybody developed by a certain local church to remain at the church. Yet, based on how great this experience was for us, I would encourage all pastors to make an effort to disciple their own replacement, and all churches to invest in promising young men with an eye to elevating them to the pulpit.

Francivaldo was not the only young person we invested in over the years, and not every investment paid off. But our investment in him made all the others worth it.

Stagger the Switch

From my point of view, one of the reasons church plants fail at the point of transition is due to the abruptness of the change. In the case of cross-cultural ministries, one week a relatively mature American missionary is standing before the congregation, and the next week it is a young, untested national pastor. Some churches never survive the whiplash.

In non-church plant situations, this same abruptness might account for the observation that many long pastorates are followed by comparatively short-lived ministries. Perhaps these “transitional ministries” would be more profitable if the “switch” were less traumatic.

Pastor Francivaldo served as my associate pastor for over two years. Then, in 2020, we switched roles. He took on the title and responsibilities of senior pastor, and I stepped back into a support position. During this time I saw it as my job to get the people used to the idea of Pastor Francivaldo as their pastor. Then, as the year drew to a close, I stepped completely out of the pastoral position, leaving Pastor Francivaldo as the sole pastor of the church. My job became to give him as much space as possible to spread his wings and develop his own ministry style.

How did that work? Much better than I had even dared to hope. As we prepared to return to the US, with all the stress and upheaval that this causes, we could stand back and appreciate how the ministry of the church continued seamlessly under the ministry of Pastor Francivaldo.

In conclusion, I would encourage you to see these three courses of action as broad principles to follow. They will look different in every church, but I believe the provide a blueprint of sorts to a healthy transition of pastoral leadership.

As always, I would love to get your feedback in the comments section.

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4 Comments

  1. Wow thanks for sharing. These are critical issues that aren’t taught in seminary. Or at least not in my seminary.

    1. Thanks Mike! Glad you enjoyed it. I agree…for such a critical point in the church-plant process, it seems as if the transition period would have more time dedicated to it in the literature.

  2. Longer transition time i think is very important like you said. I liked the idea of placing the financial goal on a porcentage basis from day one. A big visual to show them where they are at. Thanks for the share

    1. Hey Ben! Glad you enjoyed it, and you are correct, the visual was a monthly dose of reality for the congregation.

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