Replacing a Long-Term Leader

Evan Doyle

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

If you're the new guy, you'll be compared to the previous leader.  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.

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.

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.

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.  Having healthy conversations will help ensure that the narrative is healthy and that rumors are avoided.

You need to understand the people that are there have been there longer than you and have made contributions that you haven't, 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.

If trust equals consistency over time, you must do what you say you're going to do, repeatedly. The quicker trust is established the faster progress can be made and everything can continue moving in the right direction.

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.

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 honestly answers a question, they are revealing what they think and how they feel. As leaders, we want to know these things.  

Insecure leaders are afraid of these answers and of being asked questions.  They confuse being asked a question with being questioned.

To understand what people are thinking you must ask them.

Asking questions gives you the opportunity to see things from another perspective. While what you're saying makes 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.  Therefore, you need to start a habit of asking questions during this transitional time to ensure that both sides are understanding each other.  

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.

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 to 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

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?
Who's your favorite communicator?

My point is, what you like and prefer is probably different than me.

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 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.

If you're replacing a long term-leader, hang in there.  Apply these tips and encourage your people that the best days are ahead.

Evan Doyle is a campus pastor in Southeast Indiana.  He also blogs at to help other leaders strengthen their ministry, avoid frustration and grow their church.

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