The Desert Vineyard is a multi-ethnic, multi-generational church in Southern California. 5 years ago, Senior Pastor David Parker began to consider transitioning leadership of the church. This year, they completed the transition and he passed the church to Jonathan Rue. Below they share some of the key things they’ve learned from the process.
From Outgoing pastor David Parker:
When I began to seriously consider transitioning leadership of the Desert Vineyard to a younger pastor, I had a pressing awareness that next generation challenges needed to be met by next generation leaders. As I approached my twentieth year as the lead pastor of the church, I was in my mid-fifties and I had every reason to simply continue the fruitful course we had been on for over two decades. But I felt the conviction that God was asking me to make a change and begin to transition the church. He was telling me this was the best plan for my life and the church’s future.
Here are some critical areas to consider in the process of transition:
Discern the Right Time
From the reading I had done on leadership succession I was aware of two unfortunate facts – that succession usually does not go well, and that senior leaders are often guilty of holding onto their positions long past the optimum time for transition. I hoped to be an exception. At the time I had no idea that I would be diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. In retrospect it made the sense of urgency I felt more understandable, and it confirmed the necessity and timeliness of the decisions we made. As a general counsel to other leaders about timing, I would say that you want to err on the side of beginning too soon rather than waiting too late.
Secure Your Identity in Christ
The identity of both the church and the senior leader is challenged by succession. For the church, it is important to embrace change and welcome the differences a new leader will bring even as they pursue a consistent vision. It is a mistake to think you need to get someone as much like the predecessor as you can.
For leaders, we should not tie our own identity too closely to our position as a pastor. To not know who you are apart from what you do is a disaster. Sometimes as leaders we begin to feel lost when we no longer hold the position that has become so central to our sense of self. Learning to hold leadership offices with an open hand is essential to successfully navigating change into the future and allowing God to have his way in our lives.
From Incoming Pastor Jonathan Rue
David passed the baton of leadership of the Desert Vineyard to me on the same weekend that we celebrated the 40th birthday of the church. While this transition has a beautiful symmetry to it, it also has been an incredible challenge. We were in the middle of the transition when David was diagnosed with cancer and he went directly into treatment for five months. When that occurred, we were grateful that we had already done significant succession planning and had many honest conversations about what the process would look like. When we were thrust into immediate change, we were able to continue moving forward. We were able to stick to our plan and timeline for the formal transition, which occurred 10 months after cancer diagnosis.
Here are some key things I learned that may be helpful to others facing transition:
Remember how God is Orchestrating Things
David had a sense of urgency about transitioning the church long before he knew anything about cancer, which is why he asked my wife and I to moved out to explore taking the church before he was ready to retire. No one at the Desert Vineyard wanted David to transition out and no one understood why he was initiating this change until the diagnosis. Then everyone understood how much God is involved. He cares about his church and he cares about these moments of transition.
Get Outside Help
If you are considering a leadership transition, the reality is that your pastoral team, the staff, the board, and your key leaders may be too emotionally involved to be objective. Consider getting an outside perspective. Hearing from experts that deal with transitions every day is very helpful because most of us have very little experience with this sort of thing.
First, we went to a Leadership Network succession gathering. Then we brought out a consultant who had recently transitioned his church and then brought out another to work up an assessment of our transition plan. It’s critical to include the church board in receiving outside help too so that they can learn about transition best practices and appropriate compensation packages for incoming and outgoing pastors.
Ask For What You Want
Honesty is so important in conversations about transition and yet it can be a bit difficult at times. There is so much to discuss that can be potentially awkward (finances, roles, boundaries for change, etc). However, one phrase that we learned is that “healthy people ask for what they want”. I recommend that you don’t secretly hope for something but never say it. Have open and honest dialogue about the important things in the context of love, respect, and trust.
These are just a few learnings that we took away from our transition that I’m happy to say has gone very well indeed and our church is continuing to be a community where people can seek after Jesus and experience his love, grace, and forgiveness.
Looking for your next step in church succession? Check out our resources here.
David Parker is pastor emeritus of the Desert Vineyard in Lancaster, California.
Jonathan Rue is the Lead Pastor of the Desert Vineyard Church. He’s married to Staci and they have 3 young children. Jonathan is a graduate of Fuller Seminary, and has been in the Vineyard since birth. For fun he roasts his own coffee beans and likes to read a lot.