by Tom Mullins
As I wrote in my book Passing the Leadership Baton, transition will be one of the greatest tests of your leadership, but it will also serve as one of the greatest rewards and testimonies of your legacy. I coached both high school and college football for fifteen years and amassed 128 victories during my coaching career. Then, in 1984, with a group of five families, my wife, Donna, and I started Christ Fellowship Church. What began as a small church plant that met each week in our home is today a multisite congregation impacting more than 25,000.
In 2011, after pastoring Christ Fellowship Church for twenty-five years, I stepped down from my leadership role and passed the baton to my son Todd. It was not a decision made over the course of several weeks or even a few months. For the previous five-years I had been implementing a transitional process that included planning, letting go, and preparation for the new leader. Looking back, it was one of the most gratifying and successful things I’ve been a part of in my years of ministry. Since Todd has taken the leadership role, we have experienced exponential growth and have expanded our impact beyond anything we had experienced in the past.
According to the Leadership Network it is estimated close to 40,000 pastoral transitions occur in ministry every single year. This is why it is so important that we learn how to pass the baton well. You only get one chance to pass the baton successfully, so you don’t want to drop it, and you don’t want to miss the opportunity to do it well.
I hear story after story about some of the awkward, difficult and failed transitions of other churches and ministries. This is why a strong transition is important to an organization’s health and growth and should be a natural and organic process.
For a leader to pass the leadership baton well, there are several key principles and practical steps specific to successful transitional leadership.
The first key principle is the critical importance of preparation. As a leader you must sit down and work through the process of creating a transition plan with your boards and your leadership teams. You must ask them the question, “How are we going to handle my transition?” Referring to my football days as a coach, just as I learned preparation is the key to victory I also learned it is the key to successful transition. As the leader, you must be able to have these tough dialogues because when you do, you create health for your church, for your ministry and for your organization.
The second key principle of successful transitional leadership is the importance of crisis-driven transitions. The truth is few organizations are prepared for a crisis-driven transition. If there happens to be the death of a leader or a moral failure of the leader, what does the organization do? What are the very next steps? Especially in the church world, church leaders must ask themselves and have an answer to this question: “Who is going to step up and preach next Sunday for me, if God forbid, something happens to me?” When crises occur, it is important to identify the varying minefields you will be required to navigate and the best steps for re-establishing trust in the organization when new leadership arrives.
The third key principle to successful transitional leadership is to keep the bigger view in mind for the purpose of the ministry or organization you are leading by helping them prepare for change. I have always tried to look at what is best for our ministry going forward. I am always looking down the road. Most leaders are forward thinkers, always thinking about what’s best for their organization or church in the next twenty years. This type of a mindset is what helps you, the leader, focus on the importance of preparing for succession. I really do believe we need to treat every role we are in as an interim role.
As we all know today, culture is everything in our organizations. One of the leader’s greatest responsibilities is to create a culture receptive to transition and change. I think a lot of that comes with how the leader personally embraces change and the changes a leader makes internally on an everyday basis. Any growing organization has to process change well.
I treat our organization as a football team. We need you to play whatever position is needed at the time to win the game. So we don’t get locked in with our titles and positions as much as having a position as a servant leader that says, “I am here to serve and help where I can and the best way I can.” There have been times in our organization when we had to deliberately change people from different positions just to shake things up a little bit. We needed to get them ready to take on different roles and see things from different perspectives. I think this is very important.
We must also communicate why we are making specific changes and what will and will not change. Clearly communicating the specifics of change must be a priority because change affects everyone. We are just one runner in a relay race; we aren’t the one who is going to carry the baton over the finish line. We have to pass that baton successfully for us to complete the race.
The fourth key principle of successful transitional leadership is that of establishing a transitional mindset. A transitional mindset often forces us to deal with ownership and identity issues. We have to get over these hurdles and feelings of “This is my baby; I built this thing.” So much of our identity is wrapped up in our current roles and title that often it becomes difficult for us to make transitions. You have to get yourself to the place where you are seeing the big picture. As a leader it is not about what’s best for you. It must be about what is best for the organization or ministry you are leading. Once you can shift these mental gears and get your mind and life focused on transitioning successfully, you will begin to realize it is your job to raise up successors, to prepare them and to let them run alongside you.
When we made our transition at Christ Fellowship it was critical for people to know that nothing about the organization was going to change in a major way. Our core values were staying the same, our mission was the same and our focus was the same. While I was no longer in the same role I had been in for twenty-five years, we were moving forward. This gave everybody security and stability.
As leaders we must make it normal in the culture for transitions. When people transfer out of our teams to go to other ministries, we must celebrate their going and what they will be doing next with more enthusiasm than we celebrated their coming. At Christ Fellowship we celebrate the successful transitions internally and those who transition externally. When someone has left us and they are out there doing well in their ministry, we talk about them, we celebrate them, and we are excited by what they are doing. Why? It’s because we have a kingdom mindset—a mindset that creates a culture ready to embrace transition.
The fifth key principle of successful transitional leadership is to understand the right timing for transition because timing is critical. The one thing that occurs too much of the time is leaders stay too long in their current roles. They don’t pass the baton early enough when things are still fresh in their churches or ministries. When they wait until the momentum is gone and they are on the downhill side of their ministry and their growth rate is diminishing, they make it nearly impossible for their successor to succeed.
I believe, as leaders, we must be deliberate in our pass; we must be ready to go when there is a great surge of growth, great stability and great excitement. We must be prepared to make the pass at this point, because it gives the successor the maximum opportunity to succeed. As a leader don’t be afraid to go out when you are at your best, right in the zenith time of your life because then when you take this step you are not stepping away from something, but into something better. You are not walking away from your organization, but you are creating opportunity to pick up the baton for the new leg of the race God has for you to run in another area. I think this is big. There is life beyond transition. Every exit is an entrance into somewhere else.
In my case, I had already positioned myself to write more, speak more, travel more, and be a resource and coach for younger guys. Little did I know that right after I passed the baton to our son Todd, John Maxwell would approach me to pick up the baton and lead his organization, Equip. Equip is training leaders in 190 nations in the world, so for the last couple years I’ve been carrying the leadership baton for Equip. At the same time I am running with Equip I am also looking for the successor to whom I will eventually pass the Equip leadership baton. I am optimistic enough to believe that once I pass that baton, God will have another one for me to pick up.
I think in the end we are going to realize the way we transition will be the greatest test of our leadership. It will also be our legacy if we do it well. When Christian leaders begin to transition well, we will see even greater health in our organizations for the Kingdom of God.
Tom is the author of Passing the Leadership Baton: A Winning Transition Plan for Your Ministry.
Passing the Leadership Baton tells the story of Christ Fellowship Church and the pastoral transition from father to son (Tom to Todd), as Tom Mullins shares insights from their successful leadership transition. As little has been discussed or written on the topic, the lessons from father and son are beneficial for any leader. In this book Tom presents the leadership principles and practices that were implemented to successfully transition Todd into the role of Lead Pastor after he had been the Founding Senior Pastor for twenty-six years. Also included in the book are insights from a number of interviews with pastors who either transitioned out of a senior position in their church, or pastors who took the leadership role as successors.