Replacing The Founding PastorFeb 27, 2023
In the summer of 2018, I was working for a small local church when my family and I were in a car accident. We were on a road trip in Colorado, some 1600 miles away from our home, when a teenage driver ran through a stop sign and T-boned our minivan. The collision turned us head on into another car, a little white sedan driven by an elderly couple, who were stopped at the far side of the intersection.
Don’t panic: everyone was okay! But our car was totaled, and we were left stranded. It took us three days to procure a rental car and start the drive home… which meant that, on top of everything else, I was going to miss work at church the next Sunday. I called my boss to explain and apologize, and he was extraordinarily kind; he even insisted on stocking our house with groceries for us before we got home. But later, I learned that our accident had upset his own plans for that weekend in ways that went beyond an unexpected (and generous!) shopping trip: he had intended to tell me after church that Sunday that he was leaving his position as lead pastor.
A few weeks later when he finally broke the news to me, I found myself feeling a lot like the couple in the white sedan, minding their own business on their way to the store when a wide-eyed man with a bushy beard slammed into them with a Toyota Sienna. It sucks to be the third car in an accident.
To play out the metaphor, my boss was our minivan, and the teenage driver running the stop sign was his own God-given entrepreneurial wiring: he’d planted a church in 2010, led it to stability and health, and stayed for eight years. But for the last two or three of those years, he’d been fighting restlessness, and even depression, because he’d grown up admiring “long haulers” who grew old and gray at the churches of their youth. When he finally realized he was made with a different (and just as valuable) set of gifts, he knew there was only one right thing for him to do. But that collision of purpose and place still sent him headlong into a bystander. And that bystander was me.
After a few months of searching, doubting, and discerning, I was hired as the new lead pastor of our church in the fall of 2018. It’s been a rocky and challenging road for me, too! But as I’ve been traveling it, I’ve found a real passion for trying to share what I’m learning from the journey with other pastors who have found themselves in similar situations. “Accidents” happen! But there are a few key things which, if we remember them, can help us embrace our own unique gifts as new leaders in existing churches.
FIND THE BIGGER STORY
The first is to find the bigger story. Every church has one, and like all stories, it’s composed of a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is the narrative of the church’s origin, and the danger is assuming that this narrative is synonymous with the story of the planting pastor. It’s true that planting pastors are key figures here: in most cases, they were the ones who cast an initial vision, did a huge amount of fundraising, and found the people and the place that made the church a real home. But if you ask them, they’ll tell you that their job wasn’t creation, it was always stewardship. If you find yourself coming in as a “number two” like I did, the first thing you have to do is help the church remember that truth by rediscovering the “why”. Why did the planting pastor want to do all this in the first place? Why did those first people stick around? Why did everyone settle in this particular place, this specific neighborhood, versus some other one? My experience is that the answers don’t center on the leader, they center on the impact: people came together because they wanted to make a real difference. So, what was it?
And has it changed? This question gets at the “middle” part of a church’s story: what has turned out to be the church’s mission? No matter what a planting pastor intends to build, at some point, he or she discovers that it can’t be done without people, and every one of those people comes to the community with their own set of passions. Those passions can make being a pastor feel a lot like being a professional dog walker: your job is to synchronize people’s curiosity and energy in a direction that is healthy for everyone… even if it means you don’t take the route through the park on which you initially planned. Every church goes on such a journey, and that’s okay! But identifying that journey, along with the various parts the people of the church have played in it, helps everyone discover that a leader’s job isn’t to drag you along, it’s to foster fellowship and growth. Learning this is a critical part of what helps the people of a church “let go” of the myth that the planting pastor is the hero of the church’s story… and embrace the reality that every pastor is a temporary steward of a collective project.
What about the “ending”? You can think of this as the church’s vision: one day when this church is no more, what do we hope people will say about it? How do we hope God might see it? It can seem strange, if you’re coming into this job at a tumultuous time, to encourage people to think about one day closing the church’s doors! But I’ve found it to be a profound way to remind people of our common purpose. It’s a bit like tracking the progress of a plane you’re on during the middle of a flight: even if that last bump of turbulence got your heart racing, it’s helpful to be reminded that you’re actually heading somewhere… and the people in the cockpit haven’t lost their focus. When you help a church remember its story, you rightly place yourself as another caretaker, another steward, on that journey. You don’t need to be the same as the person who came before you, and you don’t need to be the savior, either! You’re coming alongside them to help this community flourish for the current season.
The next lesson I’ve learned is just as important: you have to embody consistency. This is more important than writing all-star sermons or starting new initiatives. It’s more important than redesigning the website or fixing the leak in the roof. Your absolute top priority has to be making sure that everyone knows you can be trusted to do what you say you are going to do.
The reason this is so important is because changes in leadership are scary for people! Think back to that plane illustration from a moment ago: no matter how perfect your transition plan might be, losing the planting pastor is like hitting an air pocket, and the plane is going to shake. I promise you that you can’t avoid this–there will be turbulence! But what do people actually need to get their blood pressure back down? Well, they don’t need the pilot to come over the intercom and tell them, “Hang on folks, there’s somethin’ new I’ve been itchin’ to try!” They need reassurance that everything is going to be okay… and nothing kills that faster than peeking into the cockpit and seeing a note where the pilot is supposed to be that says, “back in an hour–something came up!”
You have to be present and consistent. Keep the existing rhythms, particularly in that first year: if it’s the pastor’s job to organize the men’s retreat, you do it. If the PowerPoint tech needs sermon notes by Thursday at five, you do whatever it takes to make sure they get them! It’s an old cliche to say that “your word is your bond,” but that needs to be your mantra: because every time you drop a ball, people don’t think less of you, they worry more about the plane!
I know from experience that this can be overwhelming. But after more than a few sleepless nights, I’m here to tell you that I’ve learned an essential secret: being present doesn’t mean you have to do everything. In fact, that’s really going to get in your way. Instead, what it means is setting consistent and clear boundaries. If you say you’ll be in the office from nine to four, by nine you’re there… and after four, you’re not. It’s not your job to be the pilot, the flight attendant, and the ground crew: it’s your job to model faithful, helpful, and reliable presence, and to do so clearly.
This last part is important, because the reality is that being a pastor can be a hectic and often unpredictable job. But doing this job well includes preparing people for that unpredictability: can you tell people the office is going to be empty for an hour before they leave home and drive all the way there? Do people know that if you miss their phone call, you will call them back the next day during office hours? Overextending yourself–or, even worse, tricking yourself into thinking that being constantly overextended is “just part of the job”–will always lead to missed meetings and broken promises. Almost every pastor I’ve ever met has been admirably quick to apologize… but when the reasons those apologies are consistently necessary aren’t being addressed, people lose trust. The key to keeping that trust is making sure people know what they can (and can’t!) expect from you.
KNOW WHO YOU ARE
This leads us to our third lesson: you have to know who you are. This is the hardest, and the truth is that you will struggle to do it in the first year or two. But you can still get the ball rolling. Here’s the first thing to work through: although you’re replacing a planting pastor, you’re not them. In my case, this realization came pretty quickly. Our planting pastor was an entrepreneur and idea guy. He was always moving, always dreaming, and he could bounce around between plans and projects in ways that led him to cling to them ferociously one minute and then cast them aside the next. That is not my wiring! I was never tempted to try and be like him in every way.
But in my first few years, I made a big mistake: I started to define myself by not being like him. Whatever he would have done, I would do the opposite. Whatever schedule he kept, mine would be different. Our sermons were like night and day. Our community service initiatives were polar opposites. Over time, I realized that a lot of this was coming out of my own injuries from that metaphorical car crash. But just as I once hoped that elderly couple could forgive me, could see past me to the other vehicle that had caused our accident in the first place, I began to realize that I needed to forgive my former boss. The truth was that he was excellent at being exactly who he was. And that by defining myself as his opposite, I was completely missing my chance to be me.
If I could do it all over again, I would have asked these questions a lot sooner: Kenny, what do you think a local church should be? Who are you wired to see and care for your city? What do you love about the people in this church community? What do they need? If I had done that, I would have saved myself a lot of grief, as well as a gnawing sense that I’m not enough. Because that’s ultimately the price you pay for comparing yourself to other people, or to what your church expects of you: you become a pastor impersonator. Im-pastor-nator?
But that’s not what God wants for me, and it’s not what He wants for you, either. No matter how I ended up in this job, the point is, first, that I’m here… and second, that I’m here. So, what is God up to in my life? Who is He convicting me to be? I’m here to contribute one small part to a story that’s bigger than me, and even bigger than my church. The passions God has given me, the ways He has wired me, are valuable.
What is unique about my position (and your position, too!) is that we are privileged to have a bit more of a bird’s eye view of things. Now, a bird’s vantage is less than a plane’s, less than a satellite’s, and far less than God’s! I’m thinking again of that intersection in Colorado…
But in this little window of God’s earthly project we get to see, what is the story God might be telling? How can we be faithful to the people who are here with us? And how can we learn to love our special place within it?
By Dr. Kenny Camacho - Lead Pastor of Revolution Church