Is there a way to retire from your pulpit and effectively mentor the incoming pastor? Yes—and two pastors have the model plan.
Is it possible for a church with a large congregation to successfully transition from a pastor of 38 years to a new and younger leader—and experience church growth at the same time? Absolutely, say pastor emeritus Kemp C. Holden and pastor Marty Sloan of Harvest Time church in Fort Smith, Ark.
Ten years ago, during a lengthy stay in the hospital, Holden heard the Lord tell him to position his church for 20 years of growth. As a result, he created a plan to find and train his replacement and prepare his 3,000-member congregation for the change of leadership. Not long afterward, he met Sloan—who was half Kemp’s age—and knew he was to become his successor.
In this article, the pastors each tell how God helped them implement Kemp’s plan, which resulted not just in a successful pastoral transition at Harvest Time, but also in an increase of the church’s conversions, attendance and income.
Kemp C. Holden: During my stay in the hospital, I knew that an effective transition to the next generation was imperative. The Lord gave me two assignments: return to Fort Smith and put together a young staff, and find a successor.
From my Scripture reading, I could see that the most common blueprint for leadership transition found in the Old Testament seemed to be the assassination of an existing king so a new one could take over! Obviously, God had a better model of leadership succession in mind, so my wife, Carol, and I began praying about whom God would want as my successor.
To move the church into the next generation, I knew the incoming pastor had to be young. Three years into the process, I was introduced to 30-year-old Marty Sloan. We shared a meal together, and I began to talk with Marty about coming to Harvest Time. Even though I had never heard him preach, I invited him to speak, and the young preacher was well-received.
Marty joined the staff at Harvest Time, and he and I entered into a mentoring relationship in which we agreed there would be “no sacred cows” and no subject off-limits. We devoted hours daily with each other in the mentoring process.
I found Marty to be the most coachable person I have ever worked with.
Ninety days after his arrival, I turned over weekly staff meetings to him. At the end of each meeting, I would come in and teach a 20-minute leadership devotion to encourage the staff.
Midway through the transition, Marty requested that I begin a year-long teaching with the staff on how the church developed during my leadership. Because of the youthfulness of the staff, some of them did not have an awareness of the church’s journey.
Some new staff members had not even been born when the church started, and it was important that each person understand and have an appreciation of the church’s history.
During this process, Marty was invited to attend weekly leadership meetings. He was also given 20 percent of the pulpit time.
“I do not want you in any way to try to duplicate me,” I told Marty. “The congregation does not need another me. They need your style, your personality. If the change is something that looks the same, why do it?”
The following year, Marty’s preaching time increased to 30 percent. This gave me a chance to critique his preaching and gave Marty exposure to the congregation.
A successor must have pulpit time to feed the sheep. This must be done in order for the successor to develop his own following when it comes time for the transition.
Two-and-a-half years into our transition, we were sharing equal pulpit time, including television programs and radio broadcasts. Marty has said that he learned a lot about the DNA of preaching from me.
In 2008, I began to steer the church toward the final transition. The worst event that can happen in a pastoral transition is for the baton to be passed and for the pastor to not let go of it. You can’t have two runners run a race holding on to the same baton.
This process was a major shift for Harvest Time, as the leadership transitioned from a 60-year-old “grandfather” to a 30-year-old “dad.” I prepared the congregation for the change and helped the members to understand spiritual authority.
And I told Marty: “The day you become pastor, I will be under your authority.”
I made a commitment to Marty and the church leaders that Carol and I would never become involved in the business of the church. I expected nothing from the church except that I be allowed to be a member there.
Marty Sloan: Pastor Holden still plays an important role in my life since the transition. He makes observations, gives me counsel and makes suggestions behind the scenes.
He has never done anything publicly or in conversation that has led anyone to believe that he is less than 100 percent pleased with the church and the transition. When he stepped out, he stepped out. Everything he is now doing at Harvest Time is at my request.
I wanted Pastor Holden to serve as our pastor emeritus, and he agreed. I believe it is smart for a successor to include the predecessor in the church. It is good for the church to see the ongoing rapport we have. Pastor Holden is a gifted man of God, and it would be foolish not to utilize his wisdom.
My desire is that Pastor Holden and I stay in close proximity. With our transition, the two families—the Holdens and the Sloans—became a merged family.
Pastor Holden has said: “I have never met anyone who practices the principal of honor for me and Carol more than Marty Sloan.” Naturally, that honors me.
Since the transition, I have endeavored to be accountable to Pastor Holden, consulting with him regularly. His voice is the one I listen to most in the church. He is the father of this church, and I trust him. He would not say or do anything to hinder me or Harvest Time.
My biggest challenges, then, are the things I cannot replace. Pastor Holden is extremely paternal, seasoned and has a long-term relationship with the congregation.
How to make it work for you
According to Holden, a successful transition has several key elements:
- It must be done at God’s direction.
- It requires being willing from the start to turn the church loose.
- It means finding the right successor.
- There must be a willingness to accept differences in style and methods.
- The congregation must be effectively prepared for the transition.
From Sloan’s point of view, as well, there are several key elements in a successful transition:
- You must be called to be a succeeding pastor. It needs to be a specific assignment from God.
- The first priority in succession should be a healthy, positive pastoral transition, with a focus not on where the church will be in 10 years, but where the church is at the moment the baton is passed.
- Develop a culture of honor. Succession is not about replacing someone but about continuing an effective ministry.
- Build on the health of the church, what is right with the church and not what is wrong.
- After taking the baton, move forward. The heritage of the past is the seed for the future harvest.
During a pastoral change, most churches experience a typical trend of a 25 percent decline in attendance, which closes the doors of some churches. One week after the transition at Harvest Time, visitors had no idea the church had just made a pastoral change. The church grew in conversions, baptisms, attendance and income. The baton had been passed, and Harvest Time defied the trend.
Kemp C. Holden served 38 years as pastor of Harvest Time church in Fort Smith, Ark., and is now pastor emeritus of the church. Marty Sloan is senior pastor today at Harvest Time. He and his wife, Becky, have been married for 17 years and have two sons.
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