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From One Pastor to Another: The Test & Testimony of a Pastoral Transition
By Robert J. Morgan and Tommy Swindol
Pastoral transitions are difficult on churches, especially when the senior pastor has been at the helm for decades—and decides to remain in the congregation and serve alongside his successor. Can that work? ONE Magazine sat down with Robert J. Morgan and Tommy Swindol to discuss the recent leadership transition at The Donelson Fellowship, a Free Will Baptist church in Nashville.
Robert: Katrina and I moved to the Donelson Fellowship in 1980, and we’ve loved serving here. But after about 35 years, I began realizing I couldn’t forever sustain the responsibilities I bore, which now included caregiving. I also had a heavy traveling schedule and writing ministry. I began praying about this every day, jotting notes and charts in my journal. Along the way, I had a few preliminary conversations with people I trusted. I asked the Lord to show me the right time to begin formalizing a transition that would allow me to focus on areas I felt were my strongest. With this in mind, we hired Tommy Swindol as our young adult pastor and as someone we could mentor for a lead pastoral position, either at TDF or somewhere else.
Tommy: I was at Kirby Church in Michigan, but Rob had been one of my mentors since college and had approached me several times about joining his staff. I felt God was calling me to be a senior pastor one day; and when TDF called and asked me to become young adult pastor with a view toward assuming an eventual senior pastor position, I agreed. I felt I needed more training and more mentoring before assuming a lead pastor role. After moving to Nashville and taking the role of young adult pastor, I had weekly one-on-one meetings with Rob, but they didn’t involve supervision as much as mentoring. I brought questions to him, and he answered them. We had no formal plan for me to become senior pastor at TDF, just to be mentored toward an eventual senior pastor position somewhere.
Robert: The deacons understood all this, so we were planting the seeds of an eventual transition while leaving the options open. Primarily, we wanted Tommy to excel in young adult ministry, which he did, bringing leadership, experience, theological training, and enthusiasm. When our director of adult ministries left, Tommy assumed that role and became director of small groups. All the while, I continued to ask God to show me the best time to move toward the next phase of transition. I was starting to feel debilitated by my pressures, and I knew I couldn’t go on indefinitely. Finally, after several years of praying and thinking about it, I knew the time had come. I knew it in my heart, intuitively. I approached the deacons and told them it was time to pull the trigger on a transition process.
Photo: Tommy Swindol, left; Robert J. Morgan, right.
Tommy: Rob and I stayed close throughout this progression, as we still do. It was tough for me at times, because I knew Rob was mulling things over, praying them through, and sometimes going back and forth. Some weeks, I thought he wanted out of his responsibilities right then; other times, he sounded as though he wanted to remain senior pastor forever. But we kept each other in the loop and supported each other. I attribute a lot of our success to Rob’s confidence in the Lord, and not in himself. He’s comfortable in his skin. He was transparent with me, and that set the tone for us being able to discuss things. I never wanted him to feel I was pushing him.
Robert: This was a long process. I tracked it in prayer for about five years before approaching the deacons and finally telling them that, under my circumstances, I didn’t feel it was fair to TDF for me to continue in a role I loved but could not execute as well as I wanted. Yet, I told them, I didn’t want to leave the church unless that would be best. I wasn’t finished preaching and teaching, and I didn’t want to retire. The deacons took this seriously and spent several months carving out a transition formula. We knew few churches with tenured pastors that had achieved successful transitions. We studied case examples, both good and bad. We read books. A subcommittee of deacons devised an organizational chart with position titles and a strategy moving Tommy to senior pastor and me to teaching pastor. I really have to give our deacons a great deal of credit.
They didn’t necessarily agree with my ideas about what the transition would look like; but their ideas were more objective and better than mine, and I trusted them. They devised a plan agreeable to all. When the day came to announce this to the church, it was a little tough. But I didn’t want it to interfere with my sermon, so I put it at the beginning of my message. I said a few words about it; our deacon chairman, Dean Jones did the same, and then I went right into my text and got into my comfort zone as a preacher, as if nothing had happened. Of course, something had happened, and everyone knew it. It took a few weeks for people to digest the changes, but, truthfully, many had seen it coming. We had question and answer sessions and did our best to explain things from every angle. At the ensuing church business meeting, not a single question was asked, and the church voted unanimously to approve the plan. It felt like the book of Acts when everyone knew the mind of the Holy Spirit and were of one heart and of one mind.
Tommy: We had read horror stories about transitions, and it frightened me a little bit. I also thought I’d be intimidated by Rob and worry about “filling his shoes.” But the Holy Spirit reminded me I don’t have to be Rob Morgan. He can fill his own shoes. I’m called to be me. That realization set me free. Still, I was nervous about how things would go, because we knew it had the possibility of failing. But one of the deacons said something so encouraging: “We just need to write our own story.”
We realized every church is unique, with its own set of circumstances, and we needed God’s unique guidance. On the night of the vote, I recall how one of Rob’s daughters and her family turned around at the end, and they were crying because it was the ending of a chapter. But they gave me the biggest hugs and said, “We so believe in you and in our dad.” I thought it was the sweetest moment. I walked out excited to get to serve with Rob, and that I’m still close to his family and to his wife. We’ve had to work every day to keep things healthy, but it’s been a beautiful reality, very different than the transition stories we’ve heard.
Robert: It’s terribly important for my wife and family and I to support our new pastor. We back him completely, and it’s a joy to work under his leadership. We would never undercut his leadership or oppose his vision. But Tommy also treats me with respect and seeks out my opinions on things. There has not been a moment of stress between us in the 18 months since the transition, which is amazing. I’m grateful for that, more thankful than I can describe. I admit it’s a little frustrating to no longer have a position invested with organizational authority. If I see something that needs to be changed, I can’t issue a directive to correct it. But, on the other side of the ledger, I also don’t have the same set of responsibilities. I’m able to do what I love—preaching, teaching, and writing. I enjoy telling others, “Go see Tommy about that!”
Tommy: Rob and I divide the pulpit responsibilities, and I have responsibility for overseeing the staff and implementing the vision of the church. So far, it’s working, hopefully, as the Lord intended. For pastors or staff members thinking of a transition, I advise you to make sure you don’t worry about the title but about being the person you ought to be. Honor the past. Look to the future. God has been working for a long time before we got here, and He will be working long after we are gone. We need to make sure our identity is in Christ alone, not in our roles.
Robert: Over the years, when I was away from my pulpit, I’d feel guilty about not being at my church on Sunday. Often, I would pray, “Lord, bless them more in my absence than You would in my presence.” Now, I am finding I want to pray, “Lord, bless them more under my successor than You ever did when I was senior pastor.” All pastors, I think, want to leave the church as strong as we can when we’ve finished our term of duty. We want others to build on the foundation we tried to establish. The success of our successor is one of the crowning blessings in life.
Watching God Work: Transition Observations
By Dean Jones, Chairman of Leadership Council
Once Pastor Rob informed the leadership council of his desire to change roles, we looked at the process with three goals
to seek the Lord’s direction;
to clearly communicate how a transition would take place;
to ensure that all parties involved were comfortable with each step to be taken.
The challenge of transitioning
from a legacy pastor of 36+ years to someone new seemed daunting, but the Lord had something else in mind.
A subcommittee was appointed from our entire council, comprised of representatives from each age demographic to ensure we had a clear picture of how the transition would affect and be perceived by all ages. I tasked the committee and the entire council to read Next, a book about pastoral transition, then we committed to prayer seeking the answer to three questions: Who? When? and How?
The answers to each question became clear quickly. The process unfolded faster than even Pastor Rob anticipated, but the issue of timing, calendars, and church life came into play and the timeline made sense.
We took care to talk to both Pastor Rob and Pastor Tommy, as well as their families. We also talked with staff members who would be working with new leadership and to others in vital roles who would be impacted. Once these discussions concluded, we crafted an official statement to present from the platform. We followed this announcement with a series of Q&A sessions where interested members could get answers.
We didn’t dwell on transition in our communication, but rather on a realignment of passions. Both Pastor Rob and Pastor Tommy were moving into new roles better suited for their gifts, skills, and passions. The Lord’s guidance was and continues to be evident.