Ministry Succession #2 – The Mismatch Exercise

passing the baton

Before entering a pastoral search I always recommend that churches, elderships or boards take some time with a consultant or transitional minister to help prepare and plan for a happy and smooth succession to the new incumbent.

In the previous post on this page – “A Tale of Two Leaders” – I shared the case study of a smooth and happy succession. Bath University Christian Union achieved good leadership transitions because the transitions were frequent and expected – and so the community built up a good set of skills within the group and always enjoyed the benefit of an external consultant  from the national body (UCCF) to assist.


A band of Students and Animals from Bath University Christian Union in 1984

But where a pastor has been in place for a lengthy term help may be needed to ready a local church for the adaptations that a new pastor with a new personality and a new set of gifts is bound to require of them.

The Mismatch Exercise is a tool that I use with elders and boards to help them think through what the season of mutual adjustment will be inviting of them.

Below is a chart of a church that I served in the UK back in the early 90s.

Pastor Phil's Church.jpg

Pastor Phil was a hands-on kind of leader. His personal input provided or oversighted all the teaching, almost all the small group activity, a significant proportion of the worship leading and music (he was a keen organist), all the set-up and decor needs (he was a keen flower-arranger) except for a couple of times a year when the congregation members were invited to help change the set up for Christmas and Easter. He ran the finance and business sides of the church, convening the board just three times a year outside of the AGM to inform the board of all the decisions taken since they last met.

Phil’s church ran smoothly because after 13 years in the saddle the local church had adjusted to his style and so expectations had learned to meet as to what would be the mi of local/lay and senior-pastoral initiative.

Below is a rough map of Phil’s pastoral shape across those areas.

Pastor Phil.jpg

What would be the chances of Phil’s successor having the same pastoral shape? Zero!

Here is Pastor Liz’s pastoral shape.

Pastor Liz.jpg

More usual. But still, of course unique. When Pastor Liz moves on from her current pastorate what would be the chances of her successor’s shape fitting exactly with pattern of local/lay initiative that had settled around Liz? Zero!

Instead of a repeat match what Liz’s church is going to find with the new pastor will be a series of gaps or overlaps.

Gaps and Overlaps.jpg

Any area where Liz’s successor is less active will produce a gap. Any area where Liz’s successor is more gifted, motivated or engaged will produce an overlap.

After a while people will begin to notice this. However when they report the gaps and overlaps they are very unlikely to use that language. The probability is that they will have experienced a gap or an overlap, layered an interpretation on top of that and a value-judgement on top of that.

Angry face.jpg

By the time gaps and overlaps are reported to elders,

at least two layers of un-peeling are likely to be necessary. 

Here are some examples of feedback to be un-peeled. Think about which ones are reporting gaps and which ones are reporting overlaps:

  • 1) She’s much more controlling than our old pastor.
  • 2) He’s not very enthusiastic is he?!
  • 3) I don’t think she respects my ministry at all.
  • 4) He came once all guns blazing and never came again.
  • 5) He is not at all collaborative. I don’t think he understands how much of a family we are at St Edith’s. He thinks it’s all about his ministry!
  • 6) I don’t think he’s really interested.
  • 7) She doesn’t give me any space to get on with it.
  • 8) He’s obviously not very experienced.
  • 9) I don’t think she’s got much time for me!
  • 10) I don’t think he realizes how important this area is!

relationship story

Elders can be equipped to un-peel and decode the language of conflict and disappointment to recognize the sequence of gaps and overlaps that the process of mutual adjustment begins with.

For my money, with the feedback above I would read: 1) Overlap, 2) Gap, 3) Overlap, 4) Overlap (followed by withdrawal) 5) Overlap, 6) Gap, 7) Overlap, 8) Overlap+ withdrawal or Gap, 9) Overlap or Gap, 10) Gap

Here are some tips to avoid a relationship that begins with such prejudging:

  • Build the congregation’s awareness of the process of adaptation for which any new appointment calls
  • Prepare the elders to look and listen for gaps and overlaps and be ready in the moment to un-peel any feedback in those terms.
  • Agree with the new pastor to feed back once a quarter or every second month for the first year any identified gaps or overlaps and to be careful to use that language rather than value language when bringing gaps and overlaps to the table.


It is important to do this work to prepare people for the process of adjusting before the new pastor is in place. Without it the relationship will begin with all those interpretations and value judgments. The process of adjusting then takes on a negative value, being interpreted as problem-solving or even “compensating” for deficiencies of the new pastor, rather than what it is – a normal, healthy and positive process of accommodating one another.

It is not work a new pastor can do for him or herself  – for all the reasons referenced in the previous post (“Naming Problems and Consensus Decision-Making”)


When pre-prepared and approached this way the necessary process of mutual adaptation can actually be experienced as a positive, motivating and even fun part of the journey! And in cases where I have used this tool I have seen it work that way.

A happy adaptation process is well worth investing in an preparing for. It builds the self-knowledge of the church, heightens the emotional intelligence of people’s engagement with the new pastor and lays a sound foundation for the shared journey ahead.