I remember sitting in the third pew on the left side of the sanctuary one Sunday morning when my life changed. The church itself was a daughter church, only a couple of years old. Our pastor and his wife were young, vibrant, loving people. And I loved them. Even as a teenager, I learned so much from them both about loving God, studying the Word, about living for Him.
But that morning, our pastor walked to the pulpit, and announced his resignation. He was taking a position at the district level of our denomination.
I was stunned. I felt betrayed. Never in my wildest imagination did I see that coming. I guess I thought they’d be there forever. I went into a period of mourning. And I’m not proud to say I was pretty resistant toward the next man who filled that pulpit.
Most of us have experienced pastoral changes, or changes in leadership at work. Maybe you’ve been the leader who steps into someone else’s shoes. You stand before your new congregation, or look at the faces looking back at you at your first staff meeting, and what comes out of your mouth first might be the difference between acceptance, and rejection, between success, and failure.
Moses had died. Moses, who was loved and respected, known to represent God in a mighty way, would lead Israel no longer. He had been a trusted leader. For most of the Jews living at that time, he had been the only leader they’d ever known. And Deuteronomy tells us that when he died, the nation of Israel went into mourning for thirty days.
Then Joshua, in obedience to God, stepped up to the plate. And I think his example should be a blueprint for all of us facing change in leadership.
The first thing Joshua did was spend time with God. We read that God talked to Joshua in the same way He’d talked with Moses. The Lord gave Joshua clear instructions concerning the direction He wanted the Jews to go. Joshua got instruction as well as encouragement from spending time with God.
The next thing Joshua did was to go to the officers. These men had served under Moses and were loyal to him. Joshua needed their loyalty as well. He gave the officers a commission, and assured them the plan was still to go across the Jordan and take the land God had promised them, just as Moses had said.
Then Joshua went to the people, and told them the agreement they had with Moses was still in effect. The three and a half tribes would stay to the east of Jordan, but only after they fought with the rest of the Jews to defeat the inhabitants of Canaan. Nothing had changed, he promised them.
And the people pledged their loyalty to Joshua.
I believe all three parts of this transition of authority is important. Some congregations are uncomfortable without a pastor. They don’t take time to mourn the loss, to put a bit of distance between the separation, and moving on. They end up taking the first available candidate, and especially if the former pastor was loved, it’s a recipe for disaster. Not many pastors survive a quick transition.
Another mistake some newly hired pastors make is not reaching out to the established leaders. The elders, the Sunday School teachers, the Youth leaders, and the choir are important workers who can make or break a pastor’s ministry. Joshua went to the established leaders first.
I knew a young preacher, right out of seminary, who was a youth pastor with dreams of being the senior pastor of a church as soon as possible. He and I would talk about spiritual things fairly often and I learned a lot from this young man. But he shared with me what his first sermon would be as a senior pastor. It went something like this: Things are going to change around here. There’s no room for dead weight. So if you aren’t going to run with me, walk somewhere else.
I asked him to pray about that. I said the people he would be offending were the prayer warriors and regular givers. They were the older saints who were the glue that held the church together.
Sadly, he did give that sermon one day. The church he pastored went through a really hard time before they healed, and lost a lot of solid followers of Jesus because of it.
One of the worst things a new pastor can do, I believe, is begin their ministry by pointing out everything that is “wrong” in the church. Wouldn’t finding common ground be a better way of starting out?
Change is good. It’s necessary. And it’s hard for most of us. As a pastor, or a person in some other leadership position, I believe the best advice comes from God’s Word. And I think Joshua is a pretty good example of how to make change successfully.
If your church is facing a change, I hope that you will encourage the congregation to be patient, to wait on God, to pray, to read His Word. Take time to find the pastor that will fit best, and whose ideas for the future aligns with yours.
And if you are a pastor who is making those changes yourself, slow down. Relinquish some control, ease into your position of authority with love and kindness. So often you hear a pastor talk about “his” church. A pastor friend of mine always had the attitude that the church was the congregation’s. He was their servant, not the other way around. He deferred to the elder board on every issue I can recall.
We can learn from Joshua to first and foremost spend time with God before making any change. Seek the council of others. Look for ways to connect instead of alienating. Don’t just write off the established way of doing things, but grab hold of what is working. Change for the sake of change is as bad as holding on to tradition for the sake of tradition.
At least that’s what I think Scripture is telling us.