A Healthy Handoff: the Crucial Relationship between Former and Current Pastor

For Baptists Today

A Healthy Handoff: the Crucial Relationship between Former and Current Pastor

By Bill Wilson

The transition from one pastor to the next is a precarious handoff. Too often, the exchange is bungled and the ministers and local church suffer from a litany of bruised feelings, resentment, wounded ego, and crippled ministry. I regularly talk with current and former pastors, their spouses and their children, who express deep hurt and regret about the way a pastoral transition has taken place. I know there is a better way because I had a ringside seat for a transition that went well.

My late father, Bill Wilson Sr., was the founding pastor of a church in Brentwood, TN, and after twenty years as pastor, left to work for the state Baptist Convention. His successor, Mike Glenn, walked into a situation filled with both opportunity and peril. Over the ensuing twenty years, the church has relocated, grown exponentially and thrived. These two men and their families managed this precarious situation with grace, humility and wisdom. The result is a congregation that continues to live into its remarkable story with vigor, health and passion. Brentwood Baptist today is a congregation 8,000 strong, with an amazing story of growth and innovation.


Space for the new pastor

Mike and I spoke recently about his relationship with my father. Mike regularly and publicly affirms my father’s ministry and insists that when he does so, he is affirming the church itself and the fact that it’s past is inextricably linked to both present and future. One thing that helped the transition at Brentwood was the fact that for Mike’s first five years as pastor my father did interims, preached other places and attended a church plant. That time away gave Mike space to become the pastor. Eventually, Mike and the church called my father and mother back on staff as co-ministers of missions. Upon their return, Mike saw the congregation begin to enjoy the warm relationship between my father and himself. “People loved the fact that the former and current pastors were good friends. He never missed a chance to brag on me, and I never missed a chance to say how much he meant to me. He never tolerated criticism of me from others, even when it was deserved.”

Over the years, Dad became Mike’s counselor, prayer partner and encourager. Mike, never threatened by the respect and affection the congregation had for my father, even channeled it in positive ways. “One time, in the midst of a church-wide crisis,” he explained, “the anxiety in a large meeting was very high. At a critical moment, I told the congregation that the first thing I had done upon discovering the problem was to go to Bill Wilson (Sr.) for counsel and advice. When I said that, you could feel the tension ease and the whole church exhale. His voice of wisdom, earned over the years, was invaluable to me.”

Mike maintains that part of the strong growth and health of Brentwood Baptist has to do with how he, my father and the congregation managed that handoff from founding pastor to successor. I believe their individual ego strength and maturity were critical as the two of them modeled a healthy transition that perpetuated a healthy church culture.

Later, in my own career, I was blessed to succeed Billy Nimmons at FBC Dalton, GA following his retirement. Billy was always gracious and generous with his support and encouragement, which coupled with his undying love for the congregation, helped make our remarkable work there possible.

Another story of a successful transition involves Michael Lea, of the First Baptist Church of West Jefferson, NC, who followed Pastor Emeritus Ken Morris, when he retired after 33 years there. Michael entered the situation with eyes wide open: “I knew that Ken could be my greatest threat or my greatest ally.” Before coming in 2008, Michael discussed the transition process with the search committee and then spoke to Ken both by phone and in person. He was reassured of a healthy handoff, and said of Ken recently, “He has been my greatest asset.”


Healthy boundaries

Before Michael entered the picture, Ken prepared the congregation to love another pastor. He reminded them on numerous occasions that he was retiring because he wanted to, and he announced his intention to fully support the new pastor.

Ken stayed out of the search process, and was often absent from the church during the two-year interim between his retirement and Michael’s arrival. Like my father, Ken served other churches as he transitioned away from pastoring his long-time congregation. Serving as an interim pastor for two churches outside the county helped him separate. “That feeling that I belonged to another church helped me feel that not all of my roots were at First Baptist,” he said.

Today he calls Michael his pastor and friend. When Ken is asked to do a funeral, he requests that the family to go through Michael. Then he lets Michael assign him a role. If Ken visits church members in the hospital, he goes as a friend – not a pastor – and tells them, “Michael will take good care of you.”


Trust and respect

Like the friendship between Mike and my father, Michael and Ken’s relationship is one of trust and open communication. Michael explained, “Ken has provided a great deal of leadership here by saying to people, ‘Michael is our pastor now; let’s ask him,’ or ‘let’s look to him for leadership at this time.’” On the other hand, Michael understands that many in the church have a rich history with Ken, so they want him to be involved in funerals and weddings.  The two have proactively avoided triangulation. When someone mentions Michael to Ken, Ken responds with how fortunate he is to have Michael as his pastor. When someone mentions Ken to Michael, Michael responds with a narrative description of the great pastoral leadership that has brought the church to this point.

The respect between former and current pastor is clear. Ken refuses to serve on committees or teach Sunday school, but he stays involved in music at the church and occasionally volunteers in the library. Michael invites Ken to meetings of the larger staff. “This is Christ’s ministry,” Michael insisted, “not Ken’s or mine.”

A healthy handoff between former and current pastor never just happens. It requires careful planning and sustained effort. How can we manage this pivotal transition in a way that is healthy and promotes growth for all concerned? What follows is sound advice from Mike, Ken and Michael.

Advice for incoming pastors:

1. Do not rush the transition.

2. Recognize the principle of different gifts for different times. That allows you to bless your predecessor without reservation.

3. Be respectful of and sensitive to the history and culture of the church.

4. Honor your elders.

5. Watch your territorial language. Remember that it is Christ’s church , not yours or your predecessor’s.

6. Leave your ego at the door.

7. Work to build trust with the former pastor and congregation.

Advice for former pastors:

1. Work to find interests and an identity apart from pastoring that congregation.

2. Tell the congregation that you are no longer the pastor, and believe it yourself.

3. Show support and confidence in the church and in the new pastor and pastoral staff.

4. Set boundaries around funerals, weddings and hospital visits.

For BOTH: model health, even if it is not reciprocated.

– Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org) based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Please site Bill Wilson, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.

Read the Full Interviews

Read the full interviews with

Mike Glenn,

Michael Lea and

Ken Morris.

Share Your Own Advice

What have you learned along the way – both good and bad? Leave us a comment.

Resources for Transitions

The Center is available to help with your time of transition – as a minister or as a congregation. We can provide consultation, coaching, leadership development and spiritual formation.

Learn more at www.healthychurch.org. If we can help you in any way, please contact us!

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A Healthy Handoff: Interview with Dr. Mike Glenn

For Baptists Today

A Healthy Handoff: The Crucial Relationship between Former and Current Pastor

March 28, 2011

Interview with Dr. Mike Glenn, Pastor Brentwood Baptist Church of Brentwood, TN.

Q 1: When the former pastor’s name is brought up, what do you say?

A: That’s easy for me. I always affirm what he did well…your dad was father to this entire church, by affirming him, I affirm the church. What I have learned is that the seed for all that we have done since I became pastor was in our past. Those early stories of the church contain what is to come. What we have done is the next step of what was started by my predecessor. Every time we have a celebration, we talk about how this new day grows out of our past. It lessens our anxiety about the change curve and connects us to my predecessor and his success. By affirming the past, we help create our future.

Q2. Boundaries/Relationship?

A: Your dad set hard and fast boundaries, and was very helpful when people tried to get him to cross them. He would only take part in a funeral if I invited him, and I did that often. For five years after he left Brentwood, he did interims, preached many places, and attended another church that was just getting started in the southern part of our county. Your mother worked in a mission setting in Nashville for the first few years after they left, and then was part of the church plant also.  They gave me and my family space to become the new pastor.

Eventually, we called them both to come back on our staff as Co-ministers of missions. That gave them a way to reconnect with the church and they did that in an effective and affirming way. He never missed a chance to brag on me and I never missed a chance to say how much he meant to me. He never tolerated criticism of me from others, even when it was deserved. He once wrote me a letter that means as much to me as anything I have received during my ministry here. In it, he told me that God had answered his prayer for the future of this church by bringing me here as pastor.

He was the founding pastor of this church, and I am only the second pastor. 2 pastors in 41 years is very unusual today. A big part of our success can be traced to the way all of us managed that transition. When he came back after being gone 5 years, he was a beloved figure and the congregation began to really enjoy our friendly relationship. They took pride in the face that they could love both of us. Something in the chemistry of the church changed when they saw us laughing and loving each other. It was like an injection of good health. People loved the fact that we were good friends. We’ve had people tell me that they joined our church because that wanted to be part of a church with a heart big enough to love both pastors.

Over the years, Bill became a counselor, prayer partner, and encourager for me. We were so close that, when he was hospitalized, the doctor would come into the waiting room and ask for the Wilson family, and I would stand up with the rest of you!

Q4: how did you get comfortable with hearing praise for your predecessor?

A: As a pastor, there are certain life events/moments when you are present for a family that bond you together forever. Death, birth, tragedy, baptism, marriage, etc. I knew that Bill had those bonds and I had to learn to acknowledge that he would forever be uniquely linked to certain people. In the same way, I am now linked with many people through similar circumstances. The appreciation for him does not lessen my role in any way. There is also the modeling of behavior for others that I hope my successor will exhibit toward me. That is a healthy pattern we have tried hard to establish.

I also learned to appeal to that devotion when it was appropriate. One time, in the midst of a church-wide crisis, the anxiety in a large meeting was very high. At a critical moment, I told the congregation that the first thing I had done upon discovering the problem was go to Bill Wilson for counsel and advice. When I said that, you could feel the tension ease and the whole church exhale. His voice of wisdom, earned over the years, was invaluable to me.

Part of what you learn as a pastor who succeeds another pastor, especially a founding pastor, is that your gift sets are very different. We were both called to the same church, but at different seasons. Appreciating what your predecessor did does not diminish what you can and will do. One time your dad came to me and said “I could never have done this”, meaning all the things that had taken place since his departure. My response to him was “we could never have done this if you had not done what you did”.

We have to model for our people what we teach and preach: there are different gifts and talents that are used in unique ways in unique moments. Our bottom line has always been: we love this church, it is always about what is best for the church, not what is best for us as individuals. The fact that we both believed that made a huge difference.

Q5: tips to incoming pastors?


-Take your time. The transition will be slow in the best of times. Patience will pay off. Rush it and you’ll be sorry.

-Recognize the principle of different gifts for different times. That allows you to bless your predecessor without reservation.

-Remember that what was done prior to your coming allows you to live into the future God has brought you there to help create. Never separate the past from the future.

-Honor your elders. Simple, true and right.

Read the full story of A Healthy Handoff.

A Health Handoff: Interview with Ken Morris

For Baptists Today

March 22, 2011

A Healthy Handoff: The Crucial Relationship between Former and Current Pastor



Interview with Ken Morris, Pastor Emeritus, First Baptist Church, West Jefferson, NC

1.  In what ways did you prepare your congregation to love another pastor?


I worked so many years as an associate pastor that it helped me to know how to work with another pastor. I had witnessed a situation where the pastor was not supported by the former pastor. I decided to be gone from the church a lot during the two-year interim period. I took off on weekends. I was ready to retire and do things with my family. I wanted to come to church to play hand bells or sing in the choir, not much else. If I was needed to preach during the interim, I told the congregation to be supportive of the next pastor.

I offered to the search committee that I would take a year off before returning to worship here. They said to keep coming, because they were sure they would hire someone I would get along with.

2.  Did you put boundaries in place for yourself after retirement regarding things such as funerals, weddings and hospital visits?

I had boundaries and I told the congregation about them. I said, “I want to retire and I want to support the new pastor.” Once Michael came, if someone asked me to do a funeral, I would tell them to go through Michael. Then Michael could ask me to do it. If someone was in the hospital, I might drop by, but not as a pastor. I would say, “Michael will take good care of you.” Sometimes Michael would ask me to make a visit with him.

I served as an interim for two churches outside the county during that transition time. I have refused to teach Sunday school and I do not serve on committees.

3.  How did you avoid triangulation? I.e. – congregation members coming to you about a problem at the church or with Michael

We have had no triangulation issues, because I tell everyone how fortunate I am to have Michael as a pastor. Michael invites me to sit in on staff meetings, and I have done that one or two times. I said to Michael, “I need you to pastor me as I grow old,” and he has been my pastor.

4.  How did you leave the church behind?

At age 66, I was ready to go and they knew it. As I said goodbye, the church made a big deal of my leaving. And I made it clear that I was leaving.

5.  How did you settle into a new role once you were not a paid minister?

Doing two paid interims helped. My wife, Judy, and I enjoyed those. For one church, I just preached and led Sunday and Wednesday worship. In the church in Virginia, we stayed weekends. That feeling that I belonged to another church helped me feel that not all my roots were at First Baptist. Filling in elsewhere and being gone is very important.

6. What tips would you pass along to a retiring minister?

I would stress the importance of finding new interests and a new identity. I would say not to be totally wrapped up in being a minister. I would tell them to keep a sense of humor.

7. What is the key to a successful transition?

Michael invited me into his world. He was not protective. The church had already made me pastor emeritus. I had not elevated the pastor’s role, and I wanted others to be able to fill in for me. I told Michael that I would not interfere and even asked him to work me out of the job.

Read the full article A Health Handoff.

A Healthy Handoff: Interview with Michael Lea

For Baptists Today

March 22, 2011

A Healthy Handoff: The Crucial Relationship between Former and Current Pastor

Interview with Michael Lea, Pastor, First Baptist Church, West Jefferson, NC

1.     When the former pastor’s name is brought up, what do you say?

  • “Ken Morris, he’s great isn’t he.  I love Ken.  He has been a great mentor, friend, and support to me. I can’t imagine ministry and life here without him.”


2.     How have you helped your predecessor and the congregation set healthy boundaries around their relationships?

  • First and foremost, Ken laid the groundwork by providing a model for healthy boundaries.  Some healthy boundaries were already in place when I got here. Secondly, in the interview process, I quizzed the Pastor Search Committee on Ken and how they imagined the transition working out, and even how they imagined life after the transition.  I also met with Ken before I accepted the call here, both on the phone and then in person. After our phone conversation and then that first meeting in person, I knew things were going to be ok.  Since then, Ken and I have worked together openly about each of our roles and tried to set an example as a team as to the boundaries that we feel are healthy for everyone. The key I think is trust and open communication.  I trust Ken and he trusts me.  That trust also extends to the congregation.  People see that trust and I think that helps.


3.     How are you able to share pastoring duties? Have you invited him into your ministry?

  • I believe we have shared them quite well. We have officiated quite a number of funerals together.  Many of the people and families in our congregation have been members of this church long enough that they have a rich history with Ken, so they want Ken to be involved in events like funerals and weddings.  At the same time, the church has been open to my leadership from the very beginning.  Ken has provided a great deal of leadership here by saying to people “Michael is our Pastor now; let’s ask him or look to him for leadership in this time.”
  • From day one, I invited Ken in, but the invitation works both ways. Ken invited me in and helped me, especially in that first year.  I asked him to go visit people with me quite often in those first several months.  I also don’t like the phrase “my/your ministry.” It’s not my ministry.  Its Christ’s ministry, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, it’s the church’s ministry.  As Paul says in Phillipians 1:3,5 “I thank my God every time I remember you…because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now”.  I believe as long as we approach ministry in this way, maintaining and embodying the philosophy that we have this ministry together, that we are called to a sharing in the gospel ministry of God, then I think the invitation is always there for us to do what we feel God is leading us to do instead of becoming possessive and territorial about the landscape of ministry.  Ken and I as well as the church share that philosophy; and I believe that has made all the difference in a healthy sharing in pastoral duties.    


4.     What have you learned from your predecessor about leaving well?

  • Grace and humility in leaving.  Ken has shown a great deal of both in his transition from Pastor to Pastor Emeritus. 
  • Show support and confidence in the church and in the new pastor and/or pastoral staff in moving forward.
  • The life of the Pastor is never really over, until life itself is over.  At the same time, I have learned from him how to live into a new role well.


5.     What tips would you pass along to an incoming minister?

  • Be open.
  • Don’t be territorial, i.e. know that it is Christ’s ministry through the church and not “your/my ministry”.
  • Be respectful of and sensitive to the history and culture of the church.  In other words, know what you are walking into.
  • Leave your ego at the door.


6.     What is the key to a successful transition?

  • Respect for and genuine interest in the story/stories into which we are entering.  Respect for the ones who have come before you, no matter what kind of job they did.  In my case, Ken has provided great leadership and helped provide a healthy church for me to help lead.
  • Working hard at the relationships and dynamics of the situation in which you are placed.  Ultimately, if everyone works together, then you have a chance at being successful. If one person or group of people in the transition decides not to work together, then I imagine you are going to have problems.  Its hard work and you have to be consistent in this work.  
  • Building trust with former pastor, new pastor, and congregation.
  • Openness to people’s requests and respect for their history with the former pastor as well as recognition of the new relationship being built with the new or current pastor.
  • Time and patience.

Read the full article A Healthy Handoff.

Constructive Approaches to Calling a Minister

For Baptists Today

Constructive Approaches to Calling a Minister

By Jack Causey with Bill Wilson

When a pastor search committee is working, it is the most important committee in the church. The decision of whom to call as senior pastor is one that has repercussions for generations. Calling any minister – from senior pastor to children’s minister – takes prayer and preparation.

Churches used to search for the best preacher for their congregation, and the denomination provided the few services needed to guide the process. Those were simpler times; today the search landscape has changed. It is far more complex. Denominations are no longer homogeneous; churches must depend less on seminaries for help; and the leadership skills required to lead congregations extend far beyond teaching and pastoral visits.

What is needed today to call a minister? Certainly, two things have not changed – whether for a senior pastor or a staff minister – every search process is unique and God’s spirit must lead the process. Members of the search committee and congregation should pray for spiritual guidance for the committee, the candidate and the congregation.

The other essential to calling a minister is establishing and adhering to a multi-step plan. The process should go in pre-determined phases. That way the committee can keep the congregation apprised of progress by reporting on what phase they are in without divulging a confidence. I recommend that a search proceed in set stages. These were developed for calling a senior pastor, but can be modified for any ministry position.

Stage One:  Getting Organized and Acquainted

The committee must get to know each other by sharing prayer, faith stories, experience with former churches, pastors, etc. It is important that members bring forward any personal agendas and biases.

During this initial stage, the committee should select officers and establish the search process. It is important for the committee to determine exactly how they will make the final decision. Will it be a unanimous vote or a majority consensus? If the pastor is part of the committee searching for a staff position, will the pastor make the final decision? A coach or transition consultant can be helpful. Whatever the process, the committee must let the congregation know what is going on. Regular reports to the congregation and requests for prayer are essential.

Stage Two:  Gathering Information / Self Study

This stage is crucial to calling a pastor who fits with the church. It is the same stage recommended for an intentional interim process. Although lead by a team of lay leaders and clergy, often with an outside facilitator or coach, the congregation does the work. Steps involve looking at a church’s heritage – celebrating some parts, grieving and healing from others. It involves looking at the mission of the church – exploring the core values of the congregation – and clarifying vision. At every step of the search, the committee must seek alignment between the position for which they are hiring and the focus and mission of the congregation.

Leadership issues need to be determined during this second stage and connections with ministry partners/denominational alliances and relationships clarified. The direction of the church must be prayerfully considered and verbalized by examining the church’s resources and core values. Once that is established, members of the leadership team can develop a profile of the church and its demographics as well as a leadership expectations profile describing the congregation’s expectations for its next pastor. This phase must not be rushed. A congregation must know who it is before calling a leader.

Stage Three:  Considering Candidates

During this time, the committee gathers names for potential candidates from church members and friends, organizations, seminaries and divinity schools. As the committee begins to read and prayerfully consider resumes, an outside facilitator can be helpful. There are resources to help the committee prioritize candidates relative to the pastoral leadership expectations developed in Stage Two.

Stage Four:  Contacting and Interviewing Candidates

In Stage Four, the committee narrows the search to five to 10 high priority candidates, with the intention of interviewing at least three of those. A letter of inquiry sent to each asks about their interest, and includes the church, congregation and community profiles.

All interviews must be confidential, and the church should pay for travel, food and lodging. The initial interview should include the candidate’s spouse and consist of carefully prepared questions. One important thing to learn about a candidate is their level of emotional intelligence. A candidate’s ability to relate to people is as important as preaching ability or public persona.

A visit and worship in the candidate’s church should precede a second interview. The committee should consider candidates one at a time and notify each in a timely manner as to where they stand relative to others in the process. By the second interview, candidates should be offered an opportunity to interview with staff ministers who accept the principle of confidentiality, and know that while their observations are important, the committee must make the final decision. The committee should ask permission to conduct criminal and credit checks, and should check references carefully, even “going behind” by seeking additional references.

In consultation with the stewardship committee, a compensation package should be prepared. In doing so, it is worthwhile to consider incorporating a sabbatical or study leave, vacation time commensurate with or greater than what the candidate has currently. Providing leadership coaching for your new minister is a wise way to encourage success. For new ministers, it is especially wise to offer coaching to help them transition from academia to the congregational environment. Some congregations provide in-church support teams. It is important to offer things unique to your congregation that can help your new minister to be successful.

In the third interview, the formal compensation package is presented – but not with the entire search committee present – and any lingering questions are answered. It is important to establish whether the candidate will accept if called. If so, then determine when the candidate can visit the church for congregational visits and a trial sermon.

Stage Five:  Presenting the Candidate

Now is the time for the candidate to visit the congregation. A warning: be careful when releasing the candidate’s name and biographical information to the congregation, as he or she will want to carefully inform the home church. Coordinate that timing.

This is an exciting time for the congregation. When the candidate visits, opportunities must be set up for meeting as many people as possible. Dinner with the deacons, breakfast with youth leaders, a congregational reception after church and lunch with more leaders…. Send the candidate home exhausted, and vote that very day. The next step is extending the congregational call as soon as possible and welcoming the new pastor.

Two items need to be emphasized about any search process. The first is to select the committee carefully. A strategically chosen committee, representing the various facets of the congregation, has more chance for success than a committee elected by popular vote.

The second item of importance is to treat every candidate with utmost respect. Retain confidentiality and let candidates know where they stand during the search process. Do not string anyone along. For a minister, investigating opportunities elsewhere is a secretive and emotionally draining process. Conduct a search with authenticity, integrity and confidentiality, and remember, ministers do talk to each other. If someone feels mistreated, it can hurt the reputation of your congregation.

The stages spelled out above are tried and true. For any search, it is important not to hurry the process. Skipping a stage can result in a bad fit. The process is spiritually deep and intensive, but I can promise that the reward is worth the effort.

– Jack Causey is services to ministers coordinator for the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org) based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

– Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health.


Please site Jack Causey, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.

Share Your Own Experiences

How has your own experience compared with this process? Share in our discussion.

Resources for Calling a Minister

The Center is available to help with your process of calling a minister. We can provide consultation, search committee process development, Interim Ministry, as well as transitional support once a minister has been called.

Learn more at www.healthychurch.org. If we can help you in any way, please contact us! We are also on Facebook and Twitter.

Search Committee Experiences

  • What was your most perplexing/confusing experience with a search committee?
  • Worst? Best? Most humorous?
  • How can our current call system be improved?
  • What have you learned about the search process that might save others much headache/heartache?

In the April edition of Baptists Today, we ran an article titled “Constructive Approaches to Calling a Minister” by Jack Causey with Bill Wilson.

Feel free to comment here!