Home Pastors Articles for Pastors Replacing a Long-Term Leader: What to Do When You’re the New Guy

Replacing a Long-Term Leader: What to Do When You’re the New Guy

Replacing a Long-Term Leader: What to Do When You're the New Guy

Replacing a long-term leader is rarely easy.  Especially, if you’re the new guy replacing the person everyone is used to.

However, living by the following principles will help you to navigate through the transition of replacing a long-term leader.  The fact of the matter is, you’re not the other person.  This is the problem.  The problem is not that you’re you.  And the problem is not that the leader was who they were.  The problem is that you are not that person. Consequently, if you’re the new guy, you’ll be compared to the previous leader.  It’s natural.  And, it’s ok. Everything from your leadership style, personality, to the way you communicate will be stacked up against the previous leader.  While this may not seem fair, it is completely normal. We are all creatures of habit.  Most people adjust, adapt and get comfortable over time with leadership.  It’s not necessarily that what you’re doing as the new guy is bad, it’s just different.  Different isn’t always easy.  Different means uncomfortable.

A year ago, I was the one replacing a long-term leader.  I’ve learned some things through this transition.

Before I share the tips, I want to share a story to help set the stage. During the first couple of weeks of me replacing a beloved pastor, the gym that I go to was also undergoing new leadership.  The guy who owned the gym sold it to a new group of owners. Without any prompting, I began thinking about possibly going to a new gym down the street. The guy I knew and liked was no longer there. That week in the locker room another member came in and was ticked off because his credit card had been hacked. Coincidentally, he had also used his credit that week to pay his bill at the gym. He, without any proof, linked his card being hacked to using it to pay his bill with the new gym owners.  In disgust the guy said, “If that’s how it’s going to be around here, I’ll take my membership elsewhere.”

Almost instantly, I could sense God speaking to me.  “If you feel this way about your gym and this guy is upset because of his gym how do you think those people feel about their church?”

That question has shaped ministry for me this past year.

By the way, I love what the owners have done with the gym.  Their style is different.  Their personality is different.  Actually, I love the direction they have taken the gym.  In addition, I expressed to one of them how much I appreciated what they were doing and that I knew that it isn’t always easy to be the one replacing the long-term leader.

Here Are Five Tips For Successfully Replacing A Long-Term Leader As The New Guy:

1. Conversations Are Better Than Rumors.

If you’re the new guy, decide right now that you’re going to talk about things.  Plan on having conversations.  Realize that giving others the opportunity to ask questions and share their feelings about you is better than them sharing them with others.  Plus, engaging in conversations gives you the chance to share your heart.  Getting to know each other is a big deal. If you stay secluded and avoid difficult conversations, people will form their own opinions and share them with others about who you are and why you’re there.  However, having healthy conversations will help ensure that the narrative is healthy and that rumors are avoided. Carl George and Warren Bird discuss the importance of knowing who you’re talking to and building relationships with the right people.  They go so far as describing some of these relationships as “allies”.  You need to understand the people that are there have been there longer than you and have made contributions that you haven’t.  They have been a part of paving the way for where the church currently is.  Therefore, do not see them as enemies but as allies.  Value these people. Conversation is the only way for building a bridge between what they’ve done and where you want to go next.

2. Build Trust Instead Of Walls.

What is trust?  Ultimately, trust is confidence.  People may trust that you’re not a bad person, or that you have good morals but they’re also asking, “Can I follow you as a leader?”  “Will you let me down if I put my confidence in you to lead?” I’ve heard it described this way: trust equals consistency over time.  Therefore, you need to be patient and understanding that building trust is a process.  If you’re insecure as the new leader, you’ll demand trust immediately and become frustrated when people don’t convey trust.  In addition, both sides will begin building walls that you can’t see but that you can feel.  You know the walls are there.  It will become a you vs. them scenario.  Avoid this! Instead, do everything you can to build trust.  I outlined five ways to build trust within your team in this POST. If trust equals consistency over time, you must do what you say you’re going to do, repeatedly.  Building trust also goes back to having conversations with people.  Conversations not about people, but with people. The quicker trust is established the faster progress can be made and everything can continue moving in the right direction.  In conclusion, do everything you can to build trust and tear down walls.  When you’re replacing a long-term leader, you need trust.

3. Questions Lead To Understanding

I know, I know, you have vision.  You see the areas to improve.  There are changes that you want to make… And believe it or not, people want to hear about them.  But, they want to be heard too. If you’ll be willing to ask questions and listen, people will be willing to listen when it’s your turn to talk. Carey Nieuwhof put it this way, “when you listen first and speak second, people are far more interested in what you have to say.” Questions can be scary though. What are they going to ask? How will they respond? When someone answers a question, they are revealing what they think and how they feel.  As leaders, we want to know these things.  Allowing others to ask questions creates opportunity to reinforce your vision and values. But, if you’re an insecure leader, you will confuse being asked a question with being questioned.  However, valuing questions can help you solve problems and discover the right answers. To understand what people are thinking you have to ask them.  If you’re interested in asking better questions check out the post, How To Ask Questions That Lead To Better Conversations. Asking questions gives you the opportunity to see things from another perspective.  While what you’re saying make sense to you, it may be taken the wrong way by someone else.  Maybe you’re coming across differently than you think.  Very few people will approach you to tell you when you’re doing this.  Therfore, you need to start a habit of asking questions during this transitional time to ensure that both sides are understanding each other.  If you’re replacing a long-term leader just know that people will have questions about you as the new leader.

4. Process Helps Ensure Stability.

A process is a series of steps taken to achieve a desired outcome.  One of the things you and those you are now leading need, is stability. If you’re curious about how to create process check out Four Steps To Create Effective Church Systems. We have a saying at the church where I pastor, Change is our friend.  We try to always remain open to change and to avoid becoming too comfortable with things the way they are.  However, when changes are made questions naturally arise.  Why?  How come?  What’s the reason? Most of the time things seem to be working fine the way they are.  People get comfortable and used to things working a certain way.  Therefore, when change happens it disrupts what has become normal.  Having a process behind the change will help you to provide answers to people’s questions.  Using a process can guide you in decisions, help you to understand why decisions were made, and how the change is going help. Defining a process for how your church or team is going to move forward while replacing a long-term leader provides security and helps people feel safe in unstable times.

5. Don’t Take Preferences Personal.

Out of all the tips, this may be the one that you need to hold onto the closest.  Don’t neglect the other four, but definitely don’t forget this one either. To illustrate what I mean, I need to ask you some questions: What’s your favorite ice cream? What toppings do you like on your pizza? How do you like your steak cooked? Who’s your favorite communicator? My point is, what you like and prefer is probably different than me. Some people like chocolate, some like vanilla.  I like bacon and pineapple on my pizza, my wife likes sausage and banana peppers. Not everyone is going to like you.  Most people will be kind to you.  Some will become your biggest fans.  Others will prefer some things about the other leader or pastor. When you’re replacing the long-term leader, you will probably hear things like: He did things this way… Her personality was like… His preaching has a way of speaking to me… All of this is normal and ok.

Everyone has preferences and so do you.

The differences between you and the other leader are not determining factors of if you and the new congregation can work together.  The determining factor is if you’re willing to get to know each other. Are you willing to try? Will you work to stay positive? Can you stay open to having conversations? Are you willing to see things from someone else’s perspective? Some people are not willing, you need to let them walk.  Love them. Pray for them.  Be there for them if they come back, but understand some people are not willing or wanting to work together. If you take other people’s preferences as a personal insult, you’ll begin to harbor unhealthy thoughts about yourself and them.  This will halt progress.  You’ll feel paralyzed.  And, carry a chip on your shoulder. You’ll feel tempted to put the previous leader down to make yourself look better.  Always choose to honor the other leader.  Take the high road. The other temptation will be to feel less than because you’re not the other person. Both are wrong and unnecessary.  Both traps can be avoided if you’re intentional to remind yourself that preferences are not personal.

God has uniquely gifted you to lead.

You are where you are for a reason.  You’ll always have room to improve but always trust that God will give you everything you need to lead. Are you the new guy?  Could you use a little encouragement?  Listen to this podcast about transitioning a church. If you’re replacing a long term-leader, hang in there.  Apply these tips and encourage your people that the best days are ahead.

This article originally appeared here.