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Following a long-term, successful pastorate is one of the hardest callings in ministry.

It should be one of the easiest. After all, if we’re doing pastoral ministry right, we should set up the next pastor for an even greater level of ministry success than we had.

Instead, pastoral transition is one of the most dangerous moments in the life of most churches. And the longer and more successful the pastorate, the harder it tends to be when they leave.

Certainly, losing a beloved pastor is a time for sadness. But it shouldn’t be as devastating as it so often is. Instead, every pastor should do everything we can to make it as easy as possible for the next pastor and the church to do great ministry after we leave.

Here are five points pastors can work on to help that happen.

1. Think Long-Term – No, Longer

For too many pastors, long-term thinking means next month. For some, it means a five- or ten-year plan.

But in certain ways, we need to be thinking even longer than that.

I am currently in my twenty-fifth year as the pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship. And I’m thinking at least that far into the future. I want to do everything I can, with God’s help, to set the church up for successful, kingdom-building ministry for generations of long-term pastorates after I’m gone to be with Jesus.

That means everything I touch, from the building, to programs, to discipling believers, to finances must take long-term consequences into account.

No, I can’t anticipate everything, and I wouldn’t want to. But the church was here long before me, and it will be here long after me. I want to be sure that the legacy I leave will be a blessing to generations who will never have any reason to know my name.

2. Make Sure People Are Following Jesus, Not You

My church is too dependent on me. Most churches in the western world are too dependent on their pastors.

We can whine about it, we can tell others they need to change, or we can help the church we pastor move towards less dependence on us.

How? By making sure everything in the church carries the obvious stamp of Jesus. Not the pastor, the denomination, the new fads, the old traditions, or anything else.

That includes, but is not limited to...

  • Preaching and teaching scriptural principles, not our personal or political biases
  • Training people to read and teach the Bible for themselves
  • Prioritizing hands-on ministry over sit-and-listen attendance
  • Helping people recognize and follow God’s vision for their lives and their church, not just the pastor’s vision
  • Living more like Jesus, not just knowing more about Jesus

3. Be A Leader, Not The Leader

While the role of pastor may be over-elevated in our current church climate, that doesn’t mean that human leadership doesn’t matter. It does.

But the pastor should be a leader in the church, not the leader.

One of the primary reasons pastoral transition is so dangerous is because it often leaves a total leadership vacuum when the current pastor departs.

Great leaders don’t make followers. Great leaders make more leaders.

4. Equip The Saints

The prime pastoral mandate is not to do ministry for the church members, but to equip them to do ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12).

An equipped church is healthy enough to weather the challenges that come with a pastoral transition.

This is one of the reasons it’s so frustrating and wrong that longer pastorates make for harder transitions.

If the pastor has been fulfilling their calling of equipping the saints, the longer they’re pastoring the church, the more equipped they should be to carry on with effective ministry whether the pastor is there or not.

5. Start Now

Whether you’re in your 25th year or your first year of pastoring, it’s never too early or too late to start preparing the church for when you’re gone. After all, none of us really knows how soon that could be.

The real measure of a pastor’s success is not the great things that get done during their tenure, it’s how much of a foundational legacy they leave for others to build on.

We all need to have the humility to remember that it’s not our church. No matter what position we hold, or how long we’ve held it.

It’s Christ’s church. Let’s put him first, be good stewards, and pass it on to upcoming generations in better shape than we found it.

Karl Vaters is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. He’s been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and has been the lead pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California for over 20 years. He’s also the founder of NewSmallChurch.com, a blog that encourages, connects and equips innovative Small Church pastors.

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