About five years before the announcement, Lead Pastor Bill Schroeder at The Chapel in Sandusky, OH started preparing to pass the baton of leadership. He engaged conversations with trusted business leaders and pastors, read the best-selling books, and started planning with the church’s senior leadership team.
They made the decision to transfer leadership of the church to two current staff members, Eric Lapata and Todd Nielsen, and they invited The Unstuck Group to help them prepare the church strategically and structurally for the coming transition. In their words, things couldn’t have gone better.
We see a lot of messy church leadership situations, and from our perspective, this church has been an excellent model of how God desires pastoral succession to go. We asked the new pastors Todd and Eric to share some of their learnings from this season of change. We hope it will encourage you to be thinking ahead and preparing future leaders now.
1) How has the church responded to this change in leadership?
TODD: Surprisingly well! Bill officially stepped into retirement at the end of January. We had a big celebration and the baton has fully been passed to Eric and I. There is no doubt that Pastor Bill and his wife, Darlene, are greatly missed. But we are grateful for their humility; they never made The Chapel about themselves. Because of that, God has honored and blessed this transition.
In the months since, we have seen numerical growth at both of our campuses, families and young adults engaging in the mission of the church, and we are now preparing to launch our church’s 2020 vision over the next few weeks (thanks to the help of Tony Morgan and team!).
2) How did your team approach communications, both internally and externally, about this change?
ERIC: We started early. Bill preached a message about his impending retirement over two years before he officially stepped down. Over those two years, Bill continued to make it clear from the stage that transition was coming and that he was both excited and supportive of it. This allowed our congregation plenty of time to prepare for his transition.
After Todd and I were named the next pastors, Bill laid out a 12-month transition plan that included how and when we would officially take the lead pastor baton.
3) What are some things you’ve learned through this process that you think other pastors need to know?
TODD: So much of the success I’m sure has to do with God’s gracious hand on this special place and Bill’s humble leadership and open-handed approach to this process. We have a strong and supportive board of elders and staff, as well. Here are a few specifics we’ve learned along the way:
Having a true team-leadership approach to the ministry, including team teaching, definitely made transition easier.
Even though we were losing our leader, there were other known leaders that would still have a voice and continue to be present.
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
To staff, to core volunteers, and to the congregation. And do so in as many ways as possible. Even if you don’t have anything new to communicate, communicate that you don’t have anything new at this point to communicate.
Humility is critical for both the leader transitioning out and the leader/leaders transitioning in.
When both are seeking to honor one another in the process of transition, that leads to a win.
Hiring from within was definitely a win for our church.
Eric and I were both on staff and had been a part of the teaching team, so there was already some trust built when we were announced as the next Lead Pastors.
We’ve felt some of the turbulence of change but continue to navigate through that and learn in the process. At this point our attendance and giving have stayed steady, and we have even seen some growth. We are currently preparing to launch a capital campaign and look forward to some exciting initiatives, including the addition of a third campus!
4) After having been through this transition, how will you approach preparing for the next succession (be that 5 or 25 years from now)?
TODD AND ERIC: We hope it’s at least 25 years from now! But, that’s just it—you never know when succession will happen. Because we are all interim pastors and because of the unknown, we must start thinking about the future now.
One thing Bill taught both of us is that the lead pastor is not a superhero. A lead pastor is only as good as the team. Thus, we continually train and give other pastors and leaders key responsibilities within the church so that when transition happens, others will be ready to take their next step in leadership.