When asked to identify the biggest events in the life of a church, people typically think of its founding, or a major building campaign, or the way it weathered a moral or financial crisis. Yet, there is another key event that has the power to strengthen a church or to weaken it significantly, according to PCA leader Mike Ross.

“The transition of leadership in a church is the most crucial time in the life of the congregation,” said Ross, former senior pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. “And it’s also historically the least shepherded by anyone.” 

Ross, who transitioned out of his post at Christ Covenant last year and handed over the reins to 40-year-old Kevin DeYoung, believes that a good transition is a pastor’s final responsibility to his congregation. “American congregations don’t do transitions well — that’s a fact,” said Ross. “Pastors are wise to start way in advance and have a unified process with the session and congregation.” 

“Older boomer guys need to let go and have confidence that these younger men are ready to lead,” said Ross. “And if younger men are willing to respect the older generation and ask for advice when they need it, we’ll have a good transition in the PCA.”

This is especially important as elder statesmen within the PCA begin to wind down their time in the pulpit and consider handing the baton to a younger generation who may have different views on how to engage culture, though they hold to the same Gospel.

“Older boomer guys need to let go and have confidence that these younger men are ready to lead,” said Ross. “And if younger men are willing to respect the older generation and ask for advice when they need it, we’ll have a good transition in the PCA.”

What’s at Stake

Poorly handled pastoral transitions can hit local congregations hard. When an old pastor hangs on too long, or a new pastor neglects to honor the legacy left before him, it often results in the same outcome: Leaders languish, congregations dwindle, and giving plummets. But the stakes are even higher in large, high-profile congregations that fund many denomination-wide projects. 

“A lot is at stake not only for the church but also the leadership those churches might provide for the PCA,” said Kevin DeYoung, author and current senior pastor of Christ Covenant. “If those churches fall on hard times or splinter or have unhealthy leadership, it can be not only detrimental for the local congregation but have real-world impact on missionaries and schools and seminaries and training programs. It’s really key that these leaders and churches think about how to do it well.”

The process is especially challenging for large churches whose founding pastor in still in the pulpit. It is easy for congregants of large churches, where the pastor is a celebrity, to expect that the next pastor will be a clone of the old one. Ross notes that the average tenure of a pastor who follows a founding pastor is merely 18 months.

“It’s amazing how poorly churches do when there is no transition plan,” said Ross. “And how well churches do when there is a unified, well-executed transition plan.”

Elements of a Good Transition

One of the most important elements of a successful transition of leadership is humility from the top. Though it is easy for an outgoing pastor’s thoughts to gravitate toward his legacy, his focus should be squarely on the future, says Ross. “I told my church that our best days lay not in the past, but in the future. I knew I was not in touch enough with the younger generation to draw them to church and speak into their lives.” 

Kevin DeYoung

In Christ Covenant’s transition process, Ross jokes that they over-communicated, with three years of monthly communications, one year of semimonthly communications, and weekly communications at the end. But that effort resulted in a congregation that was well-informed, highly involved, and ultimately at peace with the outcome. 

“We conducted more than 40 focus groups about the future of the church, including the mayor and members of our community,” said Ross. “Church members felt confident from the start that their voice would be heard and that their wishes would be included in the man we chose.” Remarkably, Christ Covenant has lost no members since DeYoung assumed the pulpit in 2017.

Overcoming Generational Shifts

Church leadership transitions have been occurring since the beginning of the faith, but what makes the current cultural moment unique? In the U.S., a huge generation of baby boomers is aging out of the pulpit and ushering in leaders from Generation X. And these two generations have very different backgrounds.

Ross notes that the two generations view Christianity differently because of the ages in which they came to Christ. He came to Christ in 1976 in an age of Billy Graham evangelism, Charles Colson’s “Born Again,” and President Jimmy Carter talking openly about his faith. “Our view of Christianity is almost revivalistic,” said Ross. “We see it as more political because we saw our role as reclaiming Christianity in the culture and in politics.”

But Gen X matured in a different time. “That vision had collapsed,” said Ross. “They see themselves as born not in a majority Christian culture but the opposite. And they see things as Tim Keller does — more realistically.” 

The difference in worldviews can cause tension between the generations, says Ross, but it doesn’t have to. “If we really listen to each other, if we get to the core of who we are, we find that we are exactly the same — we both love the Reformed faith, are missional people, and want to fulfill the Great Commission and the cultural mandate.”

DeYoung agrees. “If from one pastor to the next you preach the same Word, even in a different way, hopefully what [congregants] loved most about a previous pastor is the same thing they can love most about their next pastor. They’ll say, ‘This is a man I can learn from and respect who will teach me God’s Word.’”