Acting Head Coach: 5 Succession Mantras for an Uncharted Journey


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If you are a fan of professional basketball, in particular the Golden State Warriors, you would know that Mike Brown has been declared “acting” head coach due to recent health issues concerning the contracted head coach, Steve Kerr. During this election cycle, we have also heard regularly that “so and so” is the “acting” Secretary of “such and such.”

Most of the people I know of who are in roles where they have the title “acting” give 110% to their position.

They give wholehearted focus, energy and effort because they know they are under even more scrutiny. They want to do the best and be the best.

I believe most Senior/Lead pastors desire and work toward the very same outcomes, yet very few of us see ourselves as “acting.” Many might even begin to believe we are permanent. We carry out our God-given calling with this erroneous perspective.

I do not believe most of us consciously embrace or espouse this philosophical framework regarding our position at the outset, yet over time and years, we begin to do the exact opposite of what Paul says in Romans, “we begin to think too highly of ourselves (and our placement/ position)…”

Unfortunately, this outlook leads to many detrimental and unintended consequences.


We hang on to our positions too long and one day we look around to see that our once vibrant church has aged around us. We hold too tightly to decision-making, which means we seldom say, “what do you think, you know best, you decide.” Possibly out of an insecure spirit, we do too much hand holding and not enough “hand-offing.” This stunts our personal growth, our church’s growth and the growth of the next generation of leaders who believe like we did when we were young. Hopefully we still believe that God wants to do “more than we could ask, think, or imagine.”

Since founding The Crossing Church 28 years ago, I confess that too often I ashamedly held to or carried out these less than stellar displays of leadership. More times than not, it was subconscious stupidity on my part (so possibly a sin of ignorant omission). Yet, truthfully, upon reviewing almost 29 years of Senior Pastoral leadership, there were times I displayed conscious acts of arrogant or haughty oversight. The latter was mostly, I think, because I began to see myself as “forever” instead of interim or “acting.”

“I began to see myself as ‘forever’ instead of interim or ‘acting.'”

These days I am regularly in touch with the reality that I must decrease, and others or one “other” must increase. This thought has become an ingrained belief. It has moved from a simple understanding to an executable plan and path of Senior Pastor succession at The Crossing Church.

There are several principles I have sought to follow in this uncharted journey of handing off the leadership baton at The Crossing. They have become my succession slogans or my morning mantras, if you will:


1) I will approach my position with the understanding that I am the “acting” Senior/Lead Pastor of The Crossing.

Jesus is permanent. He is the Head, not me. He is the Cornerstone. I am one of many stones who have come before and have had the privilege of partnering with the Chief Builder. It is His Church, not mine.

Practical suggestions:

  • Believe God wants the best for His church.

    Don’t forget in the day to day that God builds the church.

  • Communicate the temporary reality of your tenure to your board or leadership team early and often in your ministry.

    Skillfully inviting others into this reality communicates confidence and humility.

2) I will operate with a spirit and attitude of faith, not fear.

Everything about succession is emotionally tenuous. If we have not planned well, or we have given significantly to courageous eternal capital investments over the years, then there is financial apprehension. Simple conversations in boardrooms or executive team meetings can cause anxiety just because there are more unknowns than knowns.

Most of us Senior Leader types want to be in control. Most everything about succession can feel like a free fall, or at the very least, climbing a steep mountain precariously with no clips or ropes.

Practical suggestions:

  • Be humble.

    God exults the humble. Read together and lead discussions with your board over books like, Transition Plan by Russell, or Next by Vanderbloemen and Bird, or The Elephant in the Boardroom by Weese and Crabtree. Our board did. The discussions were invigorating and at times scary. But the payoff for me, our board and our church’s future is large because of the dialogue.

  • Seek out others who have tread down the succession path before you.

    I have interviewed outgoing and incoming Senior Leaders from various churches. The findings have been both rich and depressing. Someone told me early in my ministry, “You don’t have all the time to make all the mistakes yourself, so wise is the person who will learn from the experiences of others.” This has served me well over the years, but nowhere is this more true than in the realm of this crucial leadership hand-off.

3) I will communicate a clear path and plan with a concrete time-frame.

Frequently, I have heard from Senior Pastors who have tried and aborted the succession thing because of a “failed” or “flawed” successor. As I listen, often there is no plan, the path is not clear, the communication lacks repetition and the time frame is murky.

Practical suggestions:

  • Put a plan and path in place.

    In so doing, realize it’s not always an exact science; there is an art to a transition of any kind. However, a plan and path helps everyone.

  • Select a definitive time frame.

    Without a conclusive time frame, it is too easy to hold on and not let go.

4) I will demonstrate rigorous commitment to and trust in my successor.

Much of the success of the transition rests in the attitude, belief and commitment conveyed and demonstrated to the incoming Lead Pastor by the outgoing Lead Pastor.

Practical suggestions:

  • Cultivate a culture that is readying for the new person.

    Many liken a succession in the secular or sacred world to an organ transplant. Medical journals are filled with volumes of input and advice on how the recipient of a new organ can ready themselves for the successful adoption of the new body part. I sense the same is true for our churches. We have proactively been preparing at the board level, the staff level and the church level. The preparation process has been filled with much prayer and has led to fresh perspectives. This has resulted in a church that is prepared for the deliberate and delicate action of incorporating a new Senior Leader.

  • Create early wins for the successor.

    Allow the transitioning and incoming Lead Pastor to experience multiple and frequent successes. They need to gain early traction regarding vision-casting, preaching, strategic planning and decision-making.

5) I will invest relationally and experientially in the life of the incoming successor.

We are people who believe deeply in the Word of God. The Bible is packed with examples of men and women who filled the cup of another, not just logistically or tactically, but relationally and experientially. For example, Moses and Joshua, Jonathan and David, Jesus and the disciples, Paul and Barnabas, Paul and Timothy, etc.

Practical suggestion:

  • The outgoing Senior Leader and their spouse must spend significant intentional time with the incoming Senior Leader and their spouse.

    The incoming Leader will soon be in a new position with both the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs, of being in the driver’s seat. They might need a coach to guide them when their plays aren’t going so well. They might need a relational cheerleader when the rigors of being the point-man seem daunting. They might need an active listener when no one else seems to fully understand. This gets developed during the transition process. It’s part of the preparation for success, both now and in the future.


The Crossing has undergone significant transitions at multiple junctures over the 28 years of its existence. The diversity of our community has changed radically. The spiritual climate has waned. Unlimited amounts of unchurched, non-believing people exist around every corner. In the midst of each of these changes and challenges, The Crossing has walked toward each transition with bold and unwavering faith. It is with eager anticipation that we look forward to what God has in store for the soon-coming transition of Senior Leadership of The Crossing.

Many have asked, “What will you do? Aren’t you too young? Don’t you have enough in the tank?” These questions will get answered, but for now, after a break, I plan on continuing to attend The Crossing. Even though I am not waiting until the baton gets handed off to say it, you can count on one thing being said publicly and with certainty: “It is with excitement and gladness I say, you are my Senior Pastor and I fully support your leadership.”




Tim Celek

Tim is the Lead and Founding Pastor of The Crossing Church in Costa Mesa, California. Tim launched The Crossing 29 years ago with a focused desire to help a non-churched, non-Christian person say yes to Jesus. Tim has a passion for seeing local churches make a significant and positive impact in their communities. Tim lives in Costa Mesa with his wife, Sue. They enjoy riding their Harley together, as well as hanging out with their two kids (Emily & Lauren), their two sons-in-law (Taylor & Jeff) and their two grandsons (Lucas & Elijah).

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