Senior leader departures always cause these three suprising things

leadership change

Over my twenty years of non-profit and ministry experience I have never seen such a large number of senior leaders departing from churches. The main cause is often cited as COVID-19. It’s a major contributing factor.

Senior leaders have worked incredibly hard over the last fifteen months to adapt to the biggest change in church ministry in a generation.

It’s also true that many senior leaders entered the pandemic with their tank half empty at best. The leadership philosophy that undergirded many senior pastor has proven to be inadequate to the task of leadership during a seismic cultural shift.

The net result is a large number of retirements and a large number of transitions to other kinds of work.

I’ve spent the last seven plus years studying the way that leadership transitions–both planned and unplanned–happen. The fact is that every pastor is an interim pastor.

I’ve made this study from the perspective of an individual contributor, as a line manager in between the line and the director-level, as a senior leader, and now as Head of Staff.

Over that time I’ve come to recognize that three suprising things always happen when a senior leader announces her departure. Always.

The degree or intensity of these things will vary depending on the underlying health of the organization. But they will always–to one degree or another–be present in an organization undergoing significant leadership change.


Three suprising things that always happen when a senior leader departs:

  1. The sundown period begins.
  2. The organization slows down or panics.
  3. The balance of power shifts.
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how it begins

In most cases a senior leadership departure comes out of the blue. At least it does for the vast majority of stakeholders. In a church setting, the first to know (beyond the senior staff) are typically the members of the Board of Elders or Church Session. If you want some research-driven information about how to tell if an employee is looking for another jobs, read this Harvard Business Review article.

When the news of a senior leadership departute breaks–whether to the board or to the organization at large–it creates anxiety which leads to a sense of urgency. That’s because the system–that is the emotional web of relationships and power within a family, congregation, or other unit–is automatically destabilized.

You may love the departing leader or you may hate him. It doesn’t really matter. There is a degree of security in knowing what to expect. That degree of security or stability play a part in keeping an abused spouse in a marriage that’s toxic, for example. Love him or hate him you know what happens next. At least, you did.

Now you’re realizing that you have no idea what comes next. You’re not sure what to do or what to expect any more.

Framed this way, the most important thing to remember is that much of the work that takes place during periods of transition is both spiritual and emotional. Failing to pay attention to these elements of leading (as a pastor or as an elder) increases the likelihood of burnout.

Steve Cuss puts is this way, “Burnout has less to do with workload nad more to do with internal and external leadership anxiety” (Managing Leadership Anxiety, 6).

In a pastoral transition, for example, many elders find themselves bearing a level of responsibility that they have had little to no preparation for or familiarity with. So it’s imperative that these leaders take care of themselves.

The sundown period

We call it the sundown period or, in politics, the lame duck period. The point is once a senior leader states her intention to leave one natural result is that it become a great deal harder for that leader to make any changes.

That’s because their leadership “credit rating” has been downgraded. Everyone knows one thing: whatever else happens, that leader will not be around or be accountable for the results of the changes he’s making during this period. Some one else will be.

Departing leaders often find themselves thinking “I’m finally free to be totally honest now that I’m leaving.” That’s an illusion. She might feel free to be honest but it’s also true that others in leadership in the congregation will never feel freer to ignore good advice than in the sundown period.

the organization slows down or panics

Slowing down

That’s because a new phrase enters into the lexicon of the congregation, “we need to wait till we get a new pastor.” Most of the time, the folks who say this really believe what they’re saying. They don’t want to bind the will of a future leader.

The problem is that once the congregation begins thinking this way they’re reinforcing the unhealthy message that the congregation exists simply to do the will of the senior leader–an extension of his ego.

Congregations tend to slow down when they don’t have a strong sense of self-identity or a strong sense of mission.

These congregations often send the message to candidates that they want to be led or they want to respond to that pastor’s vision for the church.

Such a sentiment usually collapses once the pastor is installed. It’s then that the church


The other extreme is panic. This often comes in the form of rushing to call a transitional pastor and then offering that transitional pastor the installed position.

It also takes the form of re-appropriating old church profiles or pastor profiles in order to be efficient in securing a new pastor.

The truth is that even if you called a pastor five years ago your church has changed during that period. Perhaps not a lot. But some.

It’s also true that society has changed significantly during that time. And a missional church will need to adjust its sense of purpose to account its new encounter with society.

  • If your church isn’t talking about race then you’re not missional.
  • If your church isn’t talking about sexual identity then you’re not missional.
  • If your church isn’t talking about white Christian nationalism then you’re not missional.

Just this week the church I serve had our marquee defaced. The sign we put up read, “All that matters is grace.” Someone crossed out the “g” to make it read, “All that matters is race.”

Simon & Garfunkel told us, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls.”

If the church doesn’t have good news to offer in the face of the sorts of issues that drive graffitti, it doesn’t have good news.

the balance of power shifts

Transitions create power vacuums. And vacuums don’t hang around for long. They get quickly get filled. Generally with one of three kinds of people or coalitions of people:

  • Those who are loudest
  • Those who’ve been around longest
  • Those who are most likeable

Often the power shifts that take place occur in an effort–often a subconscious one–to perpetuate a comfortable and familiar dysfunction in the church or system.

While no one likes dysfunctional systems, there are always people who accrue a benefit from a dysfunctional system. And if systemic change is implement, they may very well lose a benefit or power. Human nature resists that, treating it as a loss.

This might be:

  • An elder or committee that had undue influence in the governance of the church
  • A staff member who routinely underperforms and has never been corrected
  • A bully who uses intimidation to get his way
  • A coalition of people who resist dealing with issues that they feel aren’t “spiritual”


Each of the three things are united by the fact that they are reactive.

We might even say these are stress responses that are “triggered” by a retirment or resignation. For many people they are barely conscious–pretty much a fight or flight response.

And the people who experience it (as I have done numerous times) very often don’t have the awareness to stop and take 10 seconds to recongize what they’re doing and how they’re responding.

That’s why it’s critical that a transitional pastor join the congregation to navigate the waters of change. Like a pilot comes aboard a merchant ship to aid the captain and master in navigating a port or harbor, the transitional pastor comes aboard to guide the congregation through the unique waters of a leadership change.

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