How To Deal With A Leadership Transition

One thing in life is guaranteed. Things will change.

We grow older. We move away. We get married. Life changes.

Leadership changes as well. There are times when a leader shifts position or moves away from the organization completely. When this happens, we need to know how to deal with a leadership transition.

Image by Dave Huth

Image by Dave Huth

Our church has experienced quite a bit of leadership transition over the past couple of years. We believed our senior pastor was transitioning to a new role and our assistant pastor was going to step in and fill the lead pastor position. Things changed and this didn’t happen.

Then our youth pastor, whom I’ve served as a youth leader for over 10 years, stepped down. He transitioned into a full-time music minister and head of the Wednesday night services. And now he’s moved into a position of lead pastor at another church.

Now, our senior pastor has created a plan to step down and allow our former children’s pastor to take over his role.

Like I said, there’s a lot of transition going on in our church. Not all of it is easy to digest.

The leadership transitions can be scary. We’re not always sure what is happening and who’s going where. We also have to answer to new leaders while wondering if we’re being disloyal to our previous leaders.

Why Leadership Transition Happens

There’s plenty of reasons that leaders transition to new roles. The leader you’ve followed for so many years has outgrown the role that he was in. He might feel led to leave the organization and move to a new one. There might have been a disagreement and she had to be removed.

Whatever the reason, people change their positions within organizations. We’ve got to realize this happens and not take it personally.

What To Do During A Leadership Transition

These leadership transitions can be tough. I’ve struggled through a few of them.

There’s a wide range of emotions that can be felt during the transition. You may feel happiness, sadness, frustration, betrayal, pain, and more.

The key is to not let your emotions be in charge of what you do during this time. Instead, try doing these things in a transition period:

We need to be aware of our feelings during the transition. Allow yourself to feel the pain. Sometimes there will be hurt feelings. You’ll free frustrated while the new leader transitions into the new role.

But be careful about giving into anger. Voicing our anger with the transition in a negative way can hurt the changes that need to be made.

We need to support the new leadership. Organizations are constantly changing. This includes who’s leading. When new leadership takes over, be supportive of the new leader.

Offer to help in the transition. Let them know you’re there to help. You want the organization and leadership to succeed. Show it and give them your best.

We need to look for new opportunities. Transitions allow us to shift our roles as well. While I didn’t take over as a youth pastor, another youth leader did. He seen the new opportunity and took it.

As leaders move, it opens up positions within the organizations for advancement. Maybe the leadership move is a chance for you to move forward and advance.

We may need to move on. If we can’t support the new direction of the new leadership, you may have to consider moving out of the organization. It’s better to hit the road than to stay in an organization that isn’t aligned with your goals and priorities.

Don’t stick around to gossip and badmouth the new leadership. Be a leader and be willing to move on.

Question: What other tips do you have for dealing with a leadership transition? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Great post, Joe. One thing I hate to see: new leaders bombarded with brown-nosers who try to take advantage of uncertainty. Transition is difficult for teams /and/ their leaders. When a new leader is installed or rises to meet a challenge, we often want to run to her and ask what she’ll do. We feel afraid and uncertain and want to see a clear plan of action. While these are valid feelings and leaders should provide clear direction, the best thing we can do for transitioning leaders is give them some breathing room.

    Thanks for your wisdom on how to face transition.

    • Justin, that can be tough. Especially as people love praise and to have their ideas latched onto.

      • Absolutely, Joe! New leaders are eager to create (or at least feel) buy-in and may not be acquainted with the personalities they’re leading.

  • Joe, when I read your line, “But be careful about giving into anger. Voicing our anger with the transition in a negative way can hurt the changes that need to be made” I really had to stop and think.

    Whenever we desire the change, the grass is always greener on the other side… But when change is thrust upon us, we tend to get angry. Or at least I do sometimes. Just because I didn’t initiate the change doesn’t make it bad. Thanks for reminding me of that!

    • Ellory, it’s easy to get angry during the transition, huh?

      • It is. And I think that the root of that anger/frustration is that the change isn’t exactly as how we would have envisioned it or implemented it. Better to remember: You can’t make a positive change with a negative attitude!

  • DS

    Look for ways to serve, new and old, regardless of the atmosphere. A lot of life is easier when we quit focussing only on ourselves.

    • Amen David. Like Zig Ziglar used to say: If you help enough people get what they want, you will get what you want. It just makes things easier.

      • DS

        I really enjoy the quote, myself. I just prefer not to think about the “you will get what you want.” While it may be true, it can lead to motivation issues as far as are you doing it for the right reasons. Do it because it’s the right thing to do, not necessarily because you’re going to benefit from it.

        • True David. The quote kind of makes it seem selfish but I don’t think it was Zig’s intent at all.

          • DS

            It wasn’t Zig’s intent, however, I’m not Zig Ziglar, and some times I’m selfish. Therefore I try to not think about possible rewards of a servant behavior.

    • Amen! Serving and adding value to the people in authority (and those around us) is so essential.

  • Realizing that change is inevitable is important. Change occurs constantly. Learning to embrace it or altering your outlook and becoming positive will help you accept changes.

    This is not always easy to do, but necessary if you want to thrive!

    • That’s right on Lorraine. We’ve got to embrace it and let our positiveness shine. How do you do this when change comes at you?

      • Learning is essential. Not always fun, though!

        However, it depends on what is being changed…
        If it is technology, then you have to learn the “new” stuff.
        If it involves people, then getting to know the newcomers is important. This can be done in many ways: a pot luck dinner, a meeting, a casual chat, a barbeque, etc.

        For me, learning comes easy, although I will admit that when it involves technology, it’s tough!

    • Great points Lorranie! Change happens whether we like it or not. Knowing that can help us deal with change when it does happen.

  • Just like with any change, it can be hard but if we that to heart the points you made and realize this too shall pass, we can get through it 🙂

    • Thanks Kimanzi! I know you’re one who’s seen a lot of change lately. Can you vouch for these techniques?

  • Great points about our emotions during a transition. Being aware while controlling our emotions is so important. We can’t become an emotional train wreck when a transition happens, it has the potential to do more harm than good.

    I know how you are feeling about this transition, like we had discussed over the phone, I’ve been through a similar situation and it’s hard. Thanks for sharing this post.

    • Dan, thanks for the encouragement. Your words helped as we were going through the transition.

      • Your welcome:) It’s amazing how many people have similar stories as we do and can help us through those times. Glad we could talk about it.

  • Awesome post Joseph. This is a very tough subject. I know I’ve been in a few situations where the change in leadership absolutely necessitated my moving on. But before it gets to that point, I think it’s important to go heavy on grace and patience. The new leader is probably (if they’re a good leader) as anxious about the change as you are, so be patient, be understanding. Don’t expect them to be the exact same as the leader that is leaving.
    But there certainly are times that the only thing to do is move on. It’s a sad point to get to, but certainly an option.
    Thanks for the content Joseph!

    • Mark, thanks for your input and sharing a bit about what you’ve been through. It’s never an easy thing to deal with but we have to know transitions in leadership will come.

      • You’re absolutely right. It’s going to happen, whether we want it to or not. I think, going along with that, we need to think about how we’re going to react before it happens. When you do that, its easier to react without giving into your emotions and getting angry or frustrated–because you thought it through before hand.

  • Kevin Cabe

    Joseph, great post! I think communication to the congregation is key. The congregation or “sheep” need to be led and it is the job of the staff to lead well during transition. Every staff member must be on board and stay positive! I’ve witnessed a near split and feel that if it was communicated well where the church was going it could have been much better.

    • Kevin, communication is a major part in helping transitions go smoothly. People get fearful, very fearful, during transitions and they want/need to know what’s happening. When they don’t, there’s the sense of betrayal that is felt.

  • I’m glad you have ‘move on’ in there. If I can’t buy into the new leader I’ve found it’s best I move on.
    I’m learning that sometimes people get so involved with the organization they forget the purpose it was created for in the first place. I’ve recently had to step back from some people in an organization that have placed the purpose second and the organization first. They have lost their focus.

    • Sutton, it’s sad when organizations transition and lose their focus, huh? I hope they get back on track and you may be able to step back in.

  • Naming our fears is an important part of maintaining balance when we’re going through leadership change. It is almost natural to start wondering “What am I going to lose here?” or “How will this change make life difficult for me?” These emotions are all deeply rooted in fear of loss. And, being emotions, they just happen.

    But emotions can be dealt with constructively when we notice them and name them. That gives us a handle by which we can examine our fears and carry them into the light where God can deal with them.

    I suppose this business of naming them is akin to being honest with ourselves about ourselves.

    Good post, Joe. Thanks for bringing it to us!

    • Bud, I love the idea of naming our fears. It allows us to see what’s ahead and whether or not our expectations are really realistic.

  • Love the idea that change is inevitable and to plan for it! It provides opportunities for new people to step in and take leadership roles and not only step in but step up! Thanks Joe good luck in the transition and hope there is greater health on the back end

    • Thanks David. While we can’t always plan for the changes that are coming our way, we’re able to plan for those eventualities. What are you going to do to plan for change today?

      • man—curl up in a ball and hide? 🙂 trying to figure it out and just when my shirt has been ironed I spill ketchup or sit in a car for too long and the shirt gets wrinkled —- Just when it seems I’ve planned for change —things change again. Neverending but striving to continue to grow and develop flexibility and adaptability 🙂

        • I won’t lie David, some days the curl up in a ball and hide sounds like a killer plan (-;

  • I totally agree with your point transaction are ought to happen in life and we have to deal with them with full commitment in order to overcome the situation and accept the new changes that are about to come will full dedication.

    • That we do. How do you deal with the transitions that happen in your life?

  • For me, I may be a significant part of leadership transition in my own department. I need to be a positive voice through this transition. And I need to keep preparing myself for this transition as I may be moving up to help fill the shoes/spots of those moving on.

    • Being prepared. That’s what I like to see Jon!

  • Gwendolyn Washington

    Should you start looking for new employment if the new leadership leaves you out of the loop.

    • Sorry for the late reply Gwendolyn. The comment just appeared!

      This can be tricky and doesn’t always have the same answer. It depends on the situation and if there are more changes coming. It also depends on where you want to go in the organization.

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