Easing Pastoral Transitions
An interview with Don Poest upon retiring
Most congregations would agree: change is hard. But when Don Poest retired from his role of Brunswick Reformed Church’s senior pastor in September, his Ohio congregation was prepared. Not because they were eager to lose their pastor of 38 years, but because Poest had spent those years guiding them through many transitions—including his retirement.
Poest “presided over one of the most effective and inspiring succession plans anyone I know has witnessed,” says his mentee and friend Dan Sewell, pastor of New Hope Reformed Church in nearby Fairview Park.
During his time at Brunswick Reformed, Poest navigated the church through significant growth, construction and building repair projects, and shifts in worship style. The church successfully transitioned from a small, rural congregation to a large, fruitful church able to respond to the needs of the city growing around it. And in the past two years, he served in conjunction with Dan Toot, preparing him to take over as lead pastor.
“Don has been able to serve … so effectively because his faith and humility have allowed him to ‘see’ Christ and his will for Don’s life in a very deep and personal way,” says Sewell.
RCA Today asked Poest to share some of the wisdom he has learned about churches in transition.
Why are good transitions important for churches?
Poest: When I accepted the role of pastor of this church I was given a sacred trust, and I must prove to be worthy of that. The church doesn’t belong to me, or to a few leaders, or even to the congregation; it belongs to God. I am but one link in the chain of leaders called to shepherd this particular body of believers. Leadership transitions model this truth, and when done well remind everyone they are a part of God’s work and God’s agenda rather than their own.
How can churches adapt to changing needs in their communities?
Poest: The best way to learn what a community needs is to ask those in the know. One of the best questions I ever asked was of a local elementary school principal: “How could we best serve your school?” She asked for mentors; we initiated a Kids Hope USA partnership, and now as a result several other such partnerships have begun. Rather than telling the community what they needed, we asked and responded.
What advice do you have for churches in transition?
Poest: Study leadership transitions in the Bible and learn from them—Moses to Joshua, Elijah to Elisha, Paul to Timothy, Jesus to the disciples. While mission and core values stay the same, leadership styles and voices often change significantly, almost as a reminder that God, not humans, is in charge. Be open to this. Also ask the question, “What are we doing to raise up replacements from within?”
How can churches do a better job of leadership development?
Poest: Leadership development begins in the church nursery, where infants are intuitively learning whether church—and God—is safe and fun, or a drudgery to be endured, and continues with every age level. Kids have lots of energy; will that energy be directed, or reprimanded? Will teens be told they are the future of the church, or will they be encouraged to be the church right now? … Will young people be allowed, and even encouraged, to actually lead something meaningful? We’ve tried to develop a culture where children and youth are valued and given opportunities to both serve and lead, and that has led many to become emerging leaders.