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The Ascent of a Leader —
Transitioning From Staff Pastor to Senior Pastor

By Rod Loy

In 1987, my senior year in Bible college, I listed my goals for the next 15 years of my life and ministry. In a time of prayer and reflection, I wrote 10 goals. In 2001, 14 years later, I was on track. I had achieved the first nine goals, and only had one remaining. The final goal on my list was to be a senior pastor by age 35. But I sensed the need to adjust my goals. It was not time to make that transition.

I enjoyed my executive pastor role at First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, Arkansas, serving my senior pastor, Alton Garrison. I felt I was making a difference for the Kingdom, regardless of my position or title. So, in January 2001, I met with Pastor Garrison to share my thoughts. I still remember my words: “I want to submit my goals and dreams to your goals and dreams. I look forward to serving you as long as you feel I am adding value to your ministry and the ministry of First Assembly.” It was a heartfelt pledge, one I took seriously. I would continue serving my leader and leave the future to God. I did not write a new set of goals. I believed I was right where God wanted me, in the center of His plan for my life.

Four months later at the Arkansas District Council, my pastor was elected superintendent. I sat in the business session with a knot in my stomach as the vote changed not only his life, but also mine. Whether I liked it or not, my ministry was about to be in transition. A week later, I was presented to the congregation of First Assembly as the candidate for senior pastor.

I had never been voted on and was not looking forward to it. My future, my family, and my ministry seemed to hinge on this one moment. I know God directs events, but when you are the one being voted on this is easy to forget. So many times, voting brings out the worst in a church.

I decided to take a vote in my own family to see how I would do. I wanted to get a win under my belt. The first vote was a tie — two for, and two against. My sons, Parker and Tyler, both voted against their own dad. I called for another ballot. Tyler changed his vote, but Parker stood firm. I finally asked, “Parker, why would you not want me to be pastor?”

His response: “Dad, you know I love you, and I love Pastor Garrison, too. But if I must have one of you as my pastor, I would rather have him.”

I explained to him, “Son, that is not an option. Pastor has already accepted another job.”

I never did win the vote of my younger son, Parker.

I must admit I was not filled with confidence. An entire congregation was to vote on me, and I could not even win a vote in my own family. I was glad Parker was not old enough to vote in the church election. The next few weeks were tense.

I will never forget that Sunday morning, sitting with my family in the media room, watching the monitors as the congregation voted on me. My boys did not seem to sense the gravity of the moment, but enjoyed chocolate chip cookies and a Coke® as we watched the meeting. That morning, I knew one way or another my life was changing. I would either be moving or assuming a new role. When the vote was announced, I had been elected senior pastor. My emotions were mixed between excitement, relief, and fear.

Now, 5 years later, I realize I should have been both more excited and more afraid. Many times Pastor Garrison had told me, “It is a lot more than 20 steps from your desk to mine.” He was right. My 15 years as a staff member did not prepare me for the different world of the senior pastorate. The transition was challenging and exhausting.

I have learned some valuable lessons about the transition from staff member to senior pastor. I was working at the same church with the same people, but the challenges were entirely new. Over the last 5 years, through much trial and error, I have discovered the response to each challenge.

Challenge: Who Is Responsible For My Growth?

As a staff member, the senior pastor challenged me to grow and improve. My weaknesses were addressed and my strengths were developed. At times it hurt, but I learned to appreciate the built-in accountability.

When I became senior pastor, I discovered how valuable accountability was. Now, no one challenged or confronted me. No one ensured I was growing. I was on my own. I was surprised how much I missed this aspect of my relationship with my senior pastor.

Response: Lead Yourself

As pastor, I learned I must initiate moments of accountability. I must call a friend or mentor and confess to weakness, struggles, or a bad attitude. Self-leadership has become much more important to me. I am responsible for my growth.

Challenge: Where Are My Friends?

As a staff member, the other staff members were my closest friends. We faced the same frustrations and fears. As senior pastor, the same staff members are still my closest friends. However, we no longer face the same frustrations and fears. The challenges of the senior pastorate are different. I was surrounded by people, but struggling with loneliness.

Response: Build New Relationships With Leaders

As a pastor, I find relationships with other pastors and leaders have become more important to me. As a staff member, I did not understand the importance of attending district or sectional events. Now, I value opportunities to connect with other leaders who understand my hurts, fears, and frustrations. No one can understand the pain of someone leaving your church like another pastor who has been there. I need other leaders who are at the same point of the journey to encourage, challenge, and warn me.

Challenge: What Will I Say?

As a staff member, I thought Sundays were important. As senior pastor, I think Sundays are everything. One of my mentors reminds me often, “You are only as good as your next sermon.” I have discovered a unique challenge: There is a Sunday every week. The 6 days between Sundays seem to fly by. I think every senior pastor can identify with this desperate feeling: “What will I say next Sunday morning?” The pressure of preparation and communication is enormous. As a staff member, there were times I would wing it in my area. As pastor, I believe the risk and the responsibility are too great to wing it.

Response: Work Ahead

I quickly learned the only way to survive as a senior pastor is to work ahead. If I save Sunday’s sermon preparation for Saturday, I am taking an enormous risk. Emergencies arise, schedules fill, and the phone rings. I discipline myself to always be 3 or 4 weeks ahead in my preparation. Preparing ahead allows me to respond to crisis without feeling the pressure of Sunday. In addition, several times each year, I take a mini-sabbatical and spend 3 straight days in study, solely for sermon preparation.

Challenge: Why Do I Need To Start Over?

I served 9 years at First Assembly before assuming the senior pastorate. I mistakenly assumed the congregation would give me credit for those 9 years. I thought I would assume my new role and continue moving forward. I had a rude awakening. Although I had 9-year relationships, I had to start at the bottom rung of the leadership ladder. I had to prove myself in the new role, one person at a time.

Response: Start Over

For the first year I attended every event. If there was a party, activity, or departmental event, I was there. Many times, I would attend two or three activities in one evening. I paid the relationship price. It was like starting at a new church. When entering a new role, one needs to start over. This does not seem fair, but that does not matter. A new pastor starts over and earns his influence again. I no longer attend every function at First Assembly. But, I understand that in times of church transition, I will need to pay that price again.

Challenge: Why Does Everyone Not Agree With Me?

I assumed when I became senior pastor that everyone would be willing to follow my every directive and plan. After all, I agreed with my leader. Would everyone not do the same for me? As a staff member, if someone did not like me, it was not a big deal. They could like another staff member. They could attend First Assembly even if they did not like me. I was not required to like everyone. It was easy to avoid the people with whom I did not get along.

Response: Love Everyone

As senior pastor, I must pastor everyone, including the people I do not like. I even have the privilege of pastoring the people who voted against me. After 9 years at First Assembly, I received 85 percent of the vote. Fifteen percent of the crowd voted against me, even after knowing me for 9 years. I understand that some people voted against the process, and some people do not like change. This did not matter to me. I had taught their children, counseled with them, attended funerals, and performed wedding ceremonies. How dare they vote against me? I knew who had voted against me. I knew who had called their friends. Now, I was their pastor.

A senior pastor’s job is to love everyone. I choose to love the difficult people, the negative people, even the people who voted against me. Why? Loving the people is my assignment from God. My job is to love God and love people.

Challenge: Where Are The Easy Wins?

I had always planned to follow a pastor who had struggled, one whom everyone was secretly glad he had left. Instead, I followed a heroic leader who had led the church to previously unheard of heights. I had been part of the church. I had helped design ministries, recruit staff, and cast vision.

Now as pastor, easy wins were few and far between. There were no glaring areas of weakness and lack. I could not attack the weaknesses of former leadership because I was part of the former leadership. I struggled to find places to build my influence and leadership.

Response: Resist The Temptation To Compete

Most people want to compete and prove they are better than the last guy. Many leaders are tempted to boost themselves by highlighting the weaknesses of the former pastor. Pastors need to remind themselves that they are not competing against the last pastor; they are on the same team. Satan is the enemy, not the former pastor. Pastors need to decide early on to never speak negatively of the former pastor. When church people make comparisons, I always use it as an opportunity to praise the leadership of the former pastor.

I resist the temptation to compete. First Assembly is not my church. First Assembly is God’s church. He has allowed me to serve as steward for this period of time. Any success belongs to God.

Challenge: How Can I Do Everything?

As a staff member, my job was task intensive. I drew floor plans for our new buildings. I oversaw the construction of those facilities. I designed programs, fixed problems, and implemented my pastor’s plans. I started each day with a list of specific, measurable tasks. I did not spend much time thinking about tomorrow. I did not pray for vision. This was not my job. My job was to accomplish the task today. I received great fulfillment from finishing the job.

When I became senior pastor, I mistakenly thought I could still do everything. My satisfaction and fulfillment had come from doing. Now, instead of doing, I needed to be thinking, praying, and planning — things I formerly did not consider work. Trying to be involved in every detail while, at the same time, finding God’s vision was overwhelming. It seemed there were not enough hours in the day.

Response: Release The Ministry

My job as senior pastor is to release others into ministry and facilitate their success. If I am doing the task myself, I am most likely off track. I have learned a team best accomplishes ministry. Every team has a coach. I have now become the coach. I need to give up doing everything.

How do I fill my time? Thinking, praying, dreaming, studying, casting vision, problem solving, and networking with key leaders. Before, doing those things seemed like an easy cushy job. Now, I understand how much hard work is involved. My focus has shifted. Instead of being task oriented, I must remain vision oriented.

As I near the 5-year mark of my journey, I thank God for godly mentors and a wonderfully patient congregation. I would like to think if I called for a vote in my family, even Parker would vote for me now.

Richard L. Dresselhaus

ROD LOY, senior pastor, First Assembly of God, North Little Rock, Arkansas, and executive presbyter for the General Council of the Assemblies of God, Springfield, Missouri

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