Pastoral Succession (Part 3): Three Types of Transitions


Discussions about when a pastor should retire, how it should happen, and who should take his or her place -- those are conversations wrought with emotion and awkwardness. In Part 1, we acknowledged this is the elephant in the room. In Part 2, we looked at the 7 signs that you should start talking about succession. Today we look at the types of transitions.

When a pastor is retiring or transitioning, and a successor is being considered--there are typically three common types of transition. Sometimes a church can strategically choose--other times the decision is thrust upon them and pre-determined outside the control of the leaders. But those transitions typically fall into one of these categories:

Gap Transition

This type of transition is when the retiring pastor resigns and leaves. Then, a search committee is formed. There is a period, often a year or more, when the church is led by an interim pastor or existing staff. Then, a new pastor is named.

I recently helped a church through this type of transition in Birmingham, Alabama. The long-time pastor, Dr. Gary Fenton, announced his resignation in April and had his last day in August. The church celebrated his 25+ years as their pastor, and then immediately following his final week, a search committee was formed. I began working with the search committee in September, and we found a pastor who began the following August.  

A gap transition can be a good idea in a few specific situations:

  1. If the previous pastor was such a loved leader or strong teacher that it would be very difficult for the next pastor to “fill their shoes.” Sometimes a gap is needed in order to create some space so as to minimize the comparison factor.

  2. If the church needs to reboot before a new pastor is named. They might want to go through a vision process, or make some important changes, and need some space for this to happen.

Sometimes a gap transition is forced upon you. If your previous pastor dies, or has a moral failure, or is fired suddenly--you don’t really have a will have a gap.

A gap transition is not a good idea if the church doesn’t have strong enough staff members to lead in the interim, or if they will struggle finding (or funding) speakers for the weekend services during the transition. Most times founding pastors will not choose the Gap model, as they want to make sure their “baby” experiences a successful hand-off.

Overlap Transition

An Overlap transition happens when the retiring pastor stays for a period of time after the new Senior Pastor is hired. There is an extended hand-off that happens during this season, in which the retiring pastor transfers his credibility to the new pastor. Often, the successor pastor begins to preach more, and the retiring pastor decreases his or her regularity in the pulpit.

There are some advantages to an Overlap Transition, but also one very significant drawback to consider.


  • The retiring pastor can use his or her influence to transfer credibility to the new pastor. They can show very tangible support for the new pastor.

  • The new pastor has a sounding board. It’s like they have their own personal in-house counsel who has tons of institutional knowledge, including all the landmines to avoid and influencers to engage.

Main Drawback: It can be tough to attract high-capacity leaders who are wired and ready to lead a church if the overlap period is undefined and/or unpublicized. The pitch of “come in and be a teaching pastor for awhile, and then we’ll transition you into the lead pastor role in a year or two” will not attract the level of leader you likely need. I’ve coached dozens of leaders and churches who have followed this plan, and inevitably the senior pastor changes his mind and decides to wait longer to leave, or the successor pastor gets antsy and can’t wait for “some day” to happen.

If you decide on an Overlap Transition model, be sure the timeline is very specifically defined and communicated to the successor and to the congregation. And be prepared to provide a generous off-ramp compensation package for the successor (who moved their family to be your next lead pastor) in the event your senior pastor changes his or her mind and decides to stay longer.

Baton Transition

In this model, the retiring pastor leads until the new senior pastor arrives. One Sunday the retiring pastor preaches his last sermon, and the next Sunday the new senior pastor begins. Once the baton is handed off, the outgoing leader is no longer in the race. All the focus goes to the person who now has the baton.

If the retiring pastor chooses to stay in the church after a season away (we will discuss this in a future article), the previous and new senior pastor sit down to talk about the future. How can the retired senior pastor be helpful? What will not be helpful?

A baton transition can be a really good choice for churches with a founding pastor. Often the presence of a founding pastor can make it very difficult for a new pastor to lead. Just their presence in any room is imposing. As the founder, they have significant influence (as they should), and even without speaking, their body language can make it difficult for people to buy-in to the vision or direction of the new leader.

There isn’t a right answer. I’ve coached different churches to consider different models. To decide on the best model, you must consider the church history, culture, personality of the senior pastor, profile of the new pastor, strength of the staff, model of ministry, leadership style and more. I would love to hear your experience with a pastoral transition — what worked? And what didn’t?

Next week we will tackle the unique challenges when a long-time (or founding) pastor leaves. Stay tuned.

Tim StevensComment