The Hand Off

Steve Petty
Written by Steve Petty

There is this instant in the relay race where everything hangs in the balance.  Even if every runner does their best job, if they run faster than all the other teams, they can still lose it all in a heartbeat if they fail to make the hand off.  So it is with pastors and churches in pastoral transition, everything you worked for and hoped for can go terribly wrong if you fail to make a good handoff.

For the runners at the track meet, the hand off is not something they practice all year long.  Each runner is an individual track star in his or her own right and runners spend most of their time perfecting individual events.  At some point as the track meet approaches, their coach will pull the four runners together and say something like, “I want the four of you to run the relay. So we will need to spend some time on our hand offs.”  Only then do they start to practice this odd function of the relay handoff.

There are some valuable lessons to be learned from the track team.

  1. The runner with the baton is in control.
  2. The runner giving the baton must look and place the baton in the receiver’s hand.
  3. The runner receiver must not look, but rather wait for the baton to hit their hand.
  4. The runner passer must run hard until the hand off is complete.
  5. The runner receiver must firmly grab the baton and run full speed.

How does this translate to pastors?  It is surprisingly similar.  First, the outgoing pastors won’t know who is coming until a few months before the change.  Pastors don’t practice the transition until having to do it.   Communication between the incoming and outgoing pastors can be critical to making a great transition.  Often you will find yourself in both roles simultaneously, handing off one church while grasping for a new church.  Learn to do all of it well.

  1. The Outgoing Pastor is in control.

This pastor is still leading the church and has to control the transition.  If you are the Outgoing Pastor, you must continue to lead the church you now serve.  If you are also transitioning, you will find this takes an increased amount of energy, but it is necessary.  (See my article on Leaving Well.)

It is important to recognize that you will also control everyone’s attitude about this transition.  So, no matter how you feel about any of it personally, it is important to remain professional.  Be optimistic and encourage everyone else to be as well.  Speak highly of the new pastor to everyone you meet.

Remind the Staff Parish Personnel Committee that the parsonage may need certain items to be made ready.  A reception for the new pastor must be planned.  Perhaps they will need some people to help unload the truck and carry furniture if the family is moving themselves.  Perhaps food can be brought in the first several nights so the new family doesn’t have to cook while pots are still in boxes.

Do everything you can to help the new pastor’s transition go well.

  1. The Outgoing Pastor makes the Hand Off

As the outgoing pastor make every effort to put the baton firmly in the new pastor’s hand.  Don’t wait for the incoming pastor to ask.  Invite the incoming pastor to meet with you at the church.  Walk them around the facility.  Show them the hidden secrets: the circuit breaker panel that most often needs to be reset, the best place to park, the best bathroom to use on Sunday morning, introduce the pastor to the worship chair, the head usher, the communion steward, the Sunday school teacher(s), the church staff, the chair of Trustees and Finance, etc.  Give the new pastor a directory listing only those people, plus any others that are key leaders in your church listing: Role, Name, best Phone number and email.  Also give the new pastor a church directory if you have one.

If time and distance allow, arrange to meet several times before the transition, or connect on Skype or Hangout.  Important things will come to mind and important questions will be asked.  What situations are likely to be unresolved when you leave and might require immediate attention?  Give them your wisdom, but expect them to exercise their own leadership when they take charge.

Ask the incoming pastor if there are things you can do to help them assume leadership.

As you leave, tell the congregation how pleased you are that this new person will be their pastor.  Encourage them to call the new pastor and get to know him/her.  Encourage the congregation to use the new pastor when life hands them emergencies as this is a great way to get to know them well.

Place the mantle of authority firmly on the new pastor’s shoulders, and press the baton into their hand.  When he/she takes the baton from you, stop running:  It is the new pastor’s race now, not yours.

  1. The Incoming Pastor has to act on faith.

The hardest role is the receiver runner, the incoming pastor.  For the runners on track they must start running, hold their hand back while keeping their eyes forward, and wait for the baton to be slapped into their palm.  Just like the runners the new pastor must instantly grasp the baton firmly so as not to drop it and run as fast as they can.

For the incoming pastor this can be really hard.  Some outgoing pastors, when told they are moving, simply drop the baton and walk off the track.  Some pastors are not able to hand off the leadership of the church to another pastor.  Weak egos, hurt feelings, denominational disappointments, previous transitional trauma, all play some part in the reluctance of some pastors to make good transitions.

I know of some pastors whose anger at leaving a church caused them to leave relational, financial and institutional land mines all over the old church.  The new pastors arrived to find the whole place blowing up before their eyes.  Unfortunately, there is no penalty for doing this.  The denomination has done its job when the appointments are made; the Bishop and Cabinet are off on summer vacations; no one is there to do triage or even first aid.  You are on your own.

In my opinion, this is despicable and unprofessional behavior.  As pastors our first duty is to care for our churches.  We take authority to preach the word, administer the sacraments and organize the church.  It is not about us and our needs.  It is always about the body of Christ, the church and its needs.  When the moment comes that you are asked to pass the church into the hands of another pastor, do your best to hand it off well.

So, as the incoming pastor, if you are lucky enough to have an outgoing pastor who is willing to do all the things listed above under #2, take them up on the offer.  Make the effort to learn everything they have to teach.  Some of it is wisdom gained at great expense to them, cherish it.  Some of it is trash, dumped on them, and now they are dumping it on you; see it for what it is and don’t pick it up, but know that it may get picked up by someone else in time.  Learn, enjoy, get excited, get ready.

Act on Faith!  God has called you to serve in this new place.  No matter how wonderful or impossible it may seem, God will guide you and see you through the transition.  Stay faithful.

4 & 5.  The Hand Off

The moment that one lets go and another takes over.

When done well, this is artistry; one pastor hands off the authority and another picks it up.  Both are working hard to make it happen.  Both are going full speed until the moment of transition.  Neither can coast into it.

If the hand off goes well, the church can transition quickly to the leadership of the new pastor, and the church will be well served.  There is no downtime, new leadership brings new energy.

If the hand off goes poorly, if the baton gets dropped, the church will be upset, the new pastor will be unhappy and may feel unwelcome.  There is a distinct drop in speed and an almost complete loss of energy.  Now to make things go forward again, you have to go back and pick up the baton and start from a dead stop .

Take the time. Be professional about it.  Make the hand off perfect!

Copyright 2016 by Steve Petty