Ministry Succession – The “Gaps & Overlaps” Exercise

passing the baton

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

My first exposure to smooth and successful transitions  was at Bath University Christian Union. This student-led organisation achieved good leadership transitions because those 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.

However in church life where – hopefully – leadership transitions are less frequent, those skills are not usually quite so fresh and familiar. Certainly where a pastor has concluded a lengthy tenure some external assistance may be needed to help ready the congregation and eldership for all the adaptations that a new pastor with a new personality and a new set of gifts is bound to require of them.

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Students and Animals from Bath University Christian Union in 1984

The “Gaps & Overlaps” Exercise is a whiteboard exercise that I developed back in 2012 in Intentional Interim ministry for using with elders and boards to help them think through what the season of mutual adjustment will invite of them following a new appointment.

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

pastoral shapes 1.jpg

Pastor Phil was a hands-on kind of leader – as you can see! His personal input delivered more than half the teaching across all the church campuses, about two thirds of 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 single-handedly, 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 Phil’s 13 years in situ the local church had adjusted to his style and so mutual expectations had learned to meet as to what would be the mix of local/lay and senior-pastoral initiative.

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

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

Here is another pastor – Pastor Liz’s – pastoral shape.

pastoral shapes3.jpg

Again unique – though perhaps less unusual than Pastor Phil’s profile. When Pastor Liz moves on from her current pastorate what would be the chances of her successor’s style and gifting fitting exactly with shape 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. 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.


By the time gaps and overlaps are reported to elders,

at least two layers of unpeeling 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 trusts my abilities or really respects my ministry here 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! What an ego!

6) I don’t think he’s really interested.

7) She’s a micro-manager. She doesn’t give me any space to just 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 really don’t think he realizes how important this area is!


It is important to nip these processes of “interpretation” in the bud – before the picture gets too muddled. Elders can be equipped to unpeel and decode the language of conflict and disappointment to recognize the sequence of gaps and overlaps that the process of mutual adjustment begins with.

(By the way, 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)

Running through this kind of exercise does more than prime the elders for the coming conversations with their new pastor. It also provides a handy framework for telling the truth of the previous tenure – the good, the bad and the indifferent of it – tangentially, in a light and non-judgmental way.

A Gaps and Overlaps Exercise

  • Builds the Congregation’s Awareness of the process of adaptation for which any new appointment calls
  • Prepares the Eldership to look and listen for gaps and overlaps and be ready in the moment to unpeel any feedback in those terms.
  • Creates an expectation to agree with the new pastor to feed back (maybe once a quarter or every second month) for the first year any identified gaps or overlaps, being careful to use that language rather than value language when identifying gaps and overlaps.


It is important to do this work to prepare elders / council members for the process of adjusting before the new pastor is in place. Without it the relationship will begin in reaction all those interpretations and value judgments. This then frames the unavoidable process of adjusting in a negative way. People then interpret the natural and healthy adjustment process as being one of “problem-solving” – or even “compensating” for the deficiencies of the new pastor, instead of taking it as a normal, healthy and positive process of accommodating one another.

Neither is it work a new pastor can do for him or herself  – both for the reasons I’ve listed above, and for all the reasons referenced in the next post – “Naming Problems and Consensus Decision-Making”


When framed by a Gaps & Overlaps consultation the process of mutual adaptation can be experienced as a positive, motivating and even fun part of the journey! And in communities where I have used this tool I have seen it work that way. It builds the self-knowledge of the church, heightens the emotional intelligence of people’s engagement with the new pastor and, perhaps most importantly, it lays a sound foundation for the shared journey ahead.


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