Session Retreat: Leadership Transition

By Ward Shope

At the Session (elder) Retreat this last weekend, our facilitators referred to the leadership transition that occurred from Moses to Joshua. Imagine traveling for 40 years under a leader who regularly works miracles, resolves conflict, leads through difficulties, makes hard decisions and is patient beyond belief. And then, just as you are on the brink of entering the Promised Land, all his leadership disappears and another leader takes over. It’s not fantasy to assume there were bumps in the transition.

Leadership transition is challenging. Ron has pastored New Life for close to 30 years, and has been part of New Life’s larger history for over 40 years. There’s a lot of historical and organizational knowledge that Ron carries as second nature. He’s patiently encouraged a culture of being and doing church based on the grace of the gospel by “keeping the main thing the main thing”. His leadership style has shaped the leadership of the Session and the staff.

When the transition happens, the nuts and bolts of getting the tasks done will not be hard. There are things Ron will need to download to other leadership. The Session and staff may need to take on other roles to fill in the gap while another leader gets his footing.

More difficult is the task of passing on relationships. Some will feel the vacuum of his shepherding in their own lives, or the loss of regular friendship, or the style of preaching. It will “feel” different, and the new leader will not immediately have the depth of trust or understanding that are automatic with Ron. We’ll have to explain ourselves all over again, build a new relationship, re-orient our roles.

And we will grieve differently within the congregation. Many of the Session members have been around for 15 to more than 20 years. But many in the congregation have been at New Life less than 10 years and a number less than five. Some will be immediately ready to move on. Others will be unsure.

In Joshua, chapter 4, the Israelites pass through the Jordan River in much the same way they passed through the Red Sea out of Egypt. Verse 14 reads, “On that day the LORD exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life.” We expect that God will work through our new lead pastor similarly – giving him the gifts and graces to lead effectively, just as Ron has.