Transition Plan: A Conversation with Bob Russell

Trevin Wax, Pastor, Author

I recently had the privilege of talking with Bob Russell, who was senior minister of Southeast Christian Church (Louisville, KY) for forty years until he retired in 2006. Southeast is the sixth largest church in America, and the church's leadership transition has been exemplary.

I believe we can learn a lot from Bob Russell, one of the most humble and genuine men I have met in ministry. I'm grateful he would take the time to stop by and discuss his new book, Transition Plan: 7 Secrets Every Leader Needs to Know, and why pastors and churches should take responsibility for training the next generation of leaders.

Trevin Wax: It seems like many evangelical megachurches are built around powerful personalities and charismatic leaders. You write about how an inordinate focus on the leader of the church can be dangerous. You write:

"Is this church built on the pastor, or is it really built on Jesus Christ? When Bob Russell is gone, will the church continue to grow and mature; or is this a personality cult that will fade away?"

How did these kinds of questions shape your plans for transitioning Southeast Christian Church?

Bob Russell: Those questions motivated me to expedite the transition plan.  If we were building a personality cult, we needed to be honest and make necessary adjustments ASAP.

Those questions also helped me to stand firm when some "friends" would suggest I shouldn't be gone from the pulpit so often.  The church needed to continue to function regardless of who was preaching.

Asking those questions also motivated me to be very open and transparent with the congregation long in advance of my actual retirement. Some would advise against that because it could result in a, "lame duck" leader.  But I think it served as a reminder to the congregation that Christ is the head of the church.  It also gave them a sense of security that we had planned for the future and the church was built on a solid foundation.

Trevin Wax: You mention your admiration of W.A. Criswell's ministry at First Baptist in Dallas, and yet you also sought to learn from the problems that came up after he retired. What are some of the lessons you learned from Criswell's mistakes?

Bob Russsell: I had an opportunity early in my ministry to meet Dr. Criswell when we both spoke at the same conference.  I found him to be a captivating personality and a dynamic Christian leader.

When I read Joel Gregory's book, Too Great a Temptation: The Seductive Power of America's Super Church, I realized I realized I was just getting one side of the story. However, I was impressed with how difficult it is for a long-term pastor to release the leadership role.  That's understandable because so much of his heart and soul has been poured into that ministry.

But the difficulty they had at First Baptist stemmed in part from the fact that Dr. Criswell never set an exact date for his departure.  It kept being delayed. That illustrated the need to set a timetable and stick with it.  That's only fair to the successor and it makes the transition easier for the one leaving.

It also seemed that there was poor communication between Gregory and Criswell.  The successor needs constant "insider information".  It was also evident from reading Gregory's book that it's important that the departing minister's wife and family endorse the program. There should not be any animosity or resentment.

I was also reminded of the importance of the departing minister to leave and get out of the way of his successor.

Trevin Wax: About your wife being on board with the transition… You say that one of the things you would've done differently would have been to spend more time unpacking this decision with your wife. How does this kind of transition affect the pastor's family?

Bob Russell: Any retirement is going to impact the spouse, but the wife of a pastor is going to be impacted to a much greater degree than others because she is so closely involved in the ministry.  That's where she attends church and that's where she serves the Lord.  In most cases the pastor's wife receives a good portion of her identity and self worth from her relationships and contribution at church.  She is respected as the preacher's wife.

The prospect of the pastor transitioning out naturally creates uncertainty and some insecurity in the spouse.  The pastor's wife is not only concerned about the possibility of having her husband "under her feet" all day; she is concerned about the dramatic changes that will take place in her routine and her sense of significance:

  • Where will she go to church?
  • What will she do with her time?
  • Will she be separated from her friends?

There are a number of unanswered questions that can create uneasiness on the part of the pastor's wife. That's why it's wise for the pastor to involve his wife in the transition plan from the very beginning.

Trevin Wax: In your book, you write about retirement this way:

"Our retirement from any occupation should not be regarded as a time of indulgence but a time of service."

/blockquote>

This view of retirement is counter-cultural and distinctly Christian. How have your post-retirement years opened up other avenues of service to the kingdom?

Bob Russell: This last chapter of my life has been one of the most gratifying.  There have been many opportunities for service without nearly as much pressure as I had in a located ministry.

Because of the experience at Southeast and my years of service many younger preachers have sought my counsel and I have enjoyed that role.  In addition to traveling and speaking at churches and leadership retreats, I've conducted over thirty "mentoring retreats" for pastors, produced Bible Study DVDs for small groups, written a weekly column for The Lookout magazine and taken two overseas mission trips.

It's been good to spend time doing what I love to do in ministry and seldom attending meetings, doing administrative work, writing letters, dealing with staff issues and other necessities of being a mega church minister that I didn't enjoy much.

Trevin Wax: I'm thankful for the way that you and your church have exemplified a humble and Christ-like transition of leadership. In conclusion, why do you recommend that pastors and church leaders develop a transition plan? And what do you hope this book will accomplish?

Bob Russell: I hope this book will motivate senior ministers and church leaders to take the initiative to develop a wise transition plan that fits their particular situation.  It's doubtful that our experience will serve as a cookie-cutter model for any congregation because each circumstance is difference.  It was our intent in writing the book that our experience will stimulate thought, discussion and action on the part of our readers so that the Lord's will can continue to be accomplished as the baton of leadership is passed smoothly from one generation to the next.

A transition plan is healthy for the entire church.

  • It gives the congregation a sense of security and reminds them that the focus is on Christ and not the minister.
  • It's healthy for the senior pastor - it humbles him by reminding him that he is mortal and that while Christ's Church will continue on his ministry is temporary.
  • It's healthy for gifted associate ministers because they experience more responsible roles and become better trained leaders.
  • It's healthy for the church's elders, deacons and lay leaders because it forces them to think long-term rather than just focusing on the immediate crises.
  • It's a positive testimony to the community because they see wise leadership principles applied.

A local judge who is not a member of our church told me two years after I retired, "I admired your ministry from afar, but what I've admired most is the way you left."  The unchurched watch carefully to see if the church is an ego trip or if it really seeks to glorify God.

 Trevin Wax is a pastor, author and avid blogger at "Kingdom People." His recent book published by Crossway is entitled: Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals. Read our excerpt here. Visit his site for further information about his writing and ministry.

© Copyright by Trevin Wax

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