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As my sabbatical nears its end, I am pleased to say that my assignment is finished as I have completed a 19,000-word, 41-page document addressing the matter of pastoral transition. I believe it has been a fruitful exercise, one that will help our church, and perhaps other churches, when a pastoral ministry comes to an end. In this regard, the transitional ministry of John the Baptist to the ministry of Jesus Christ has some lessons for us.

In the book, The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken about Pastoral Transitions, I was helped by the authors’ reference to the ministry transition that occurred from that of John the Baptist to the ministry of Jesus Christ. The transition from the preparatory ministry of John to the fuller/fulfilment ministry of Jesus contains principles that are helpful in pastoral succession. Both sides of the equation provide helpful insights to equip the local church for a healthy and happy transition.

John the Baptist had a significantly important ministry of preparing the way for the Lord Jesus (Mark 1:1–2, etc.), but this would come to an end. And he was okay with that. His ministry would end, but Messiah’s would commence. John the Baptist had a faithful and fruitful ministry, but Jesus’ would be more so. Similarly, Joshua’s ministry was more fruitful than Moses’, and even Jesus made clear that the ministry of his disciples would do greater works than his (John 14:12)! Every transitioning pastor should desire this, and such an awareness will aid him towards a humble rather than an envious disposition. Consider these humble, honest, and helpful words of John the Baptist as Jesus began to eclipse his ministry: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). This is a key transitional principle. As the “new guy” comes in, the “former guy” needs to humbly get out of the way. In what I have researched, it seems that humility—especially on the part of the outgoing pastor—is key to a healthy and helpful transition. The outgoing pastor should see himself as one whom the Lord used to prepare the way for a greater work. And this means that the outgoing pastor will need to try to discern when he should step aside, when he has reached the end. How will he know?

A veteran pastor who recently passed the pastoral baton told me that one motivation for his initiating a transition plan was so that he and his elders would have “a pathway to consider so they would not be faced with the quandary of seeing his time overdue.” He then quoted another pastor who said, “I was minister of __________ church for 44 years. It should have been 40.” That is what we should all want to avoid.

So, what are some indications that pastoral succession should be on the horizon? John the Baptist knew his ministry was reaching its end when a dove settled on his successor and was confirmed by a voice from heaven (Matthew 3:16-17). We should not expect such a sign when I reach the end. Therefore, less sensational “signs” will help us.

John Piper reached his decision to step aside as senior pastor based on a few factors, including the conviction that “good pastoring is than more preaching.” He writes, “A disconnect between the pulpit and vision-casting will not work for the good of the church.” He concluded that he had reached the stage in his life and ministry where he lacked the ability to apply the intensive effort required to lead the way in new ministry. He felt that the church had grown in complexity and that he lacked the ability to lead organisationally. Additionally, Piper said he wanted to finish strong. He writes, “It seems … that it is wise to step down from this role before my weakening leadership competencies jeopardize the amazing potential of this church.” This is helpful. Being honest about a pastor’s diminishing competencies will go a long way to discerning when his ministry is reaching the end.

Anther providential indication may come in the form of someone more gifted who appears and is wholeheartedly accepted by the flock. The senior pastor needs to be humbly open to this. In fact, I think he should be praying for this to happen.

Another gut indicator might be the silence of the lambs. Though this can be very subjective, nevertheless, when the congregation is clearly not benefiting from a pastor’s ministry, it may be time to go. Perhaps it is way past time. This calls for the pastor to be honestly self-aware. If he is married, his wife can be helpful in his self-assessment, as will his fellow elders. Relatedly, when the flock is consistently not reproducing, when the ministry under the current leader is merely maintaining, or perhaps even in decline, perhaps he has come to the end?

A seeming providential opening for fruitful ministry elsewhere is sometimes the proverbial voice from heaven, or health (physical and/or mental) limitations, or domestic challenges such as aging parents that need to be cared for, or the need to care for his wife with serious health issues.

Whatever the indications, it is important that honesty prevail. If the current pastor is losing his ability to communicate, to connect, and to be constructive—and if this is obvious to the eldership and to the congregation—then a transparent discussion needs to take place. If the ageing senior pastor is growing “grumpy” and merely being tolerated out of respect—or, worse, out of fear—then it is time to move forward. In fact, long before it gets to this point.

There is so much more that can be said (hence 39 more pages with 18,000 words!). But for now, let this suffice to help us as we move towards the end, and to a glorious beginning.

Finished, but not yet at the end,