Navigating Difficult Transitions in Ministry

Jim Rhodes with Dave Wiedis, Copyright 2018
Learn more about Jim Rhodes: Come & See

Every ministry leader -- whether young or mature -- must lead well, and this often includes navigating through the complexities of multiple transitions as God brings changes, challenges, growth, and even retirement. There are four critical areas a leader must address in order to transition well: Identity, fears, leadership style, and preparation. These challenges have the potential to sabotage you and your ministry unless you intentionally and proactively address them.

Identity

There is a pull for leaders to want to be remembered and emulated -- to build a legacy that will point back to them long after they are gone. This idea is not biblical but a direct transfer from culture into the Church.

This temptation to "make your mark" is particularly strong in young adults. Culture idolizes youth, but a person's greatest impact in ministry will usually be in their fifties and up.

Most young leaders believe they have to make their mark in their thirties. However, that is when crucial decisions about family, marriage, and character are beginning to be formed. The pressure is often to sacrifice important character formation while trying to make a mark now.

The foundation a leader builds in his or her younger years will either qualify or disqualify them for ministry when they reach the age of their greatest potential impact. Prioritizing character formation and Godly decisions early in one’s career is essential for lasting leadership.  

Certainly, more mature leaders also wrestle with the temptation to be remembered, promote themselves, and create a ministry that will outlive them. To correct this thinking, it is essential for seasoned leaders to remember Ephesians 4: God gave pastors and teachers to build up body of Christ, to do the work of service. Ministry is not something I own – it’s not mine. It’s a gift from God to a person for the benefit of body of Christ.

Fears

Transition in ministry can trigger a host of fears, doubts, and insecurities. One of great fears of my life was financial ruin. I was afraid I would lose my job, my family would suffer, and everything I built would be taken away.

To combat this fear, I had to recognize it and not give into it. I made myself vulnerable to mentors and trusted friends, and I had to bring my fear against Scripture, considering the sovereignty of God over my finances and family. The reality is that if I am afraid of losing my job, then I will become risk-averse, which is not where God wants me to be.

As ministry leaders, we need to acknowledge our fears, consider them in light of God's Word and our community, and ask ourselves, "Am I afraid of losing something God doesn't consider important in the first place?"

Leadership Style

Leadership style plays a critical role in determining how leaders handle transition and change. Many leaders fall into one of two styles: "Command and Control" and "Inspire and Align."

In the Command and Control style, the leader takes an authoritarian approach, making top-down decisions. Though this approach can be very efficient, the danger is that the leader can rely on authority, creating a culture in which team members salute a position rather than follow the leader himself. This type of atmosphere shuts the door for genuine feedback. The Command and Control leader may say the right words, but he never hears and can’t see his impact.

The alternative is the Inspire and Align style. In this leadership style, the leader inspires those he leads to follow Christ in the sense of 1 Corinthians 1:11 -- Follow me as I follow Christ -- and aligns his team members' giftings and responsibilities to Scripture. Though this approach takes more time and intentionality, it creates a culture of discipleship.

Command and Control leaders who hit 60 or 65 retire and are shocked to find themselves alone. People are glad to have them gone, because they did not have genuine relationships with them. These leaders look back and find that they have wasted many years. When Inspire and Align leaders retire from their ministry positions, they can continue to mentor and build relationships even without the position.

How do you know what kind of leader you are? Ask. Courageous ministry leaders solicit feedback, asking team members and staff, "How are you experiencing me?"

Preparation

When is the right time to start looking for your replacement? Sooner than you think.

If you are an athlete who loves to play the game, it’s hard to pull back and coach. When you play, it’s more fun. There’s more glory, and it feels like you’re having a greater impact. But it’s better to hand the ball to younger players. In order to do that, you have to acknowledge your fears of being overshadowed and forgotten. Instead of wanting to be remembered, we need to want Christ remembered.

How do you know when it is time to move on?

  1. When you are feeling indispensable to the vision. Elijah said, “I’ve been faithful, and slain prophets of Baal. If I die what will happen to your vision?” God responded, “I have 7000 men” [paraphrase of 1 Kings 19].
  2. When you feel like you don’t have what it takes to take your organization to the next step. This takes a lot of humility. If ministry is stewardship, then it is something you are trusted with for a time.

Transition does not change who you are -- it reveals who you are. If you are already thinking about replacing yourself, you are not shocked when God replaces you. Surround yourself with people who are more talented than you, and help them discover that. Always have two or three people in process to take your place.

How do we identify potential replacements?

As human beings, we see what we look for. When you are researching a new car, you begin to see it everywhere. It doesn't mean there are suddenly more of this kind of car on the road. You are just more aware. The same goes for seeing replacements as we pray for them.

When it was time for me to step down, I identified my replacement, trained him, and made the decision to serve under him. I received criticism from other leaders who disagreed with my decision to join the new leader's team. They told me that serving under the new leader would never work. However, I moved forward and found that the transition happened beautifully.

When you know that ministry is stewardship, why not build into those under you to pass it on to? Why not select leaders now? When we see God use us, it is thrilling and wonderful. It can be hard to see God using someone else. But the ministry was never mine ours the first place. If the ministry is Christ's, then it doesn't matter what my role is.

 

About Jim Rhodes

Jim served on the missionary staff of Cru for 38 years, mentoring students, missionaries and pastors, making secret trips to the former Soviet Union, and pioneering works in Japan, North Africa, and the Middle East. Jim has an incredible heart for the Gospel, his family, and discipling leaders.   

In his nearly four decades on staff at Cru, Jim experienced more than 18 position changes -- some welcome and others unwelcome. These changes included joining the missionary staff of Cru, moving into a supervisory role, identifying and training his replacement, stepping down to serve under his replacement, and eventually retiring.

You can also check out Jim's website: Come & See

If you would like help processing any of these issues surrounding transition and change, please do not hesitate to contact the ServingLeaders team.