How Should a New Leader Handle an Inherited Staff?

When the new senior pastor arrives, there are dozens of decisions to make. And among the top priorities, is how to engage the existing staff.

It’s not an easy process. Before we look at a 5-step process, let’s focus on the context.

First, the staff are nervous. They don’t know the “new guy.” It’s like common questions college students ask on the first day of class: Do you think she’s a “hard” grader? What have you heard? What will he be like, what will he want?

Some denominations require the staff to tender their resignations when the current senior pastor leaves, allowing the new senior pastor to keep or release the staff of their choice.

Second, the new pastor is in many ways flying blind. They don’t know the staff, from the individual staff member’s current disposition concerning alignment with the vision to general attitude or competence.

Third, because of the pending transition, some staff were already considering leaving. Like the college student who says, You know, I wasn’t sure about this class anyway; I think I’m out of here. That’s not to suggest that a staff member would be flippant about a big decision like this, but a senior pastor transition often brings changes among staff.

Fourth, a few people start talking (congregation and staff) and make a quick beeline for the new pastor.

In the best case scenario, they rally for their favorite staff. In the worst case, they lobby against staff they don’t get along with. It’s sad but true. (This is rare in very large churches but more common otherwise.) This is obviously not a good practice, and the new pastor needs to be wise and discerning.

Finally, the new pastor may want to bring a staff person or two with him from a previous assignment. This is tough because they may replace competent, loved staff persons.

I’ve listened to leaders, and board members say, “It’s not personal. It’s just preference.”

It is personal. It may be their preference, and it is their prerogative, but any time it involves people and relationships, it is personal.

Here’s the point, the change a new senior pastor brings to the church and especially the staff is a big deal, and it can be handled well or poorly.


1. Refrain From Any Staffing Decisions for 30–60 Days.

Invest your first burst of prayer and energy into vision and teaching. Let the church get to know you while you get to know them. This doesn’t mean get on the leadership “Slow Boat to Progress,” it means there is an order to the competing priorities you face.

Evaluate where the church is with regard to spiritual vitality, morale, momentum and enthusiasm about reaching people. Ask many questions and pay close attention to what is happening around you.

The only staff evaluation I recommend this early in the process is whether or not you believe the church is over-staffed or under-staffed in general. Don’t yet attach this to any individuals.

2. Place Relationship Over Responsibility for the First 60 Days.

Get to know the staff at a heart level. Trust them; they will do their jobs. They may not do everything to your level of expectation, but let them lead, and you pay attention.

Make sure the job description is clear, answer any questions and remain available. Encourage over inspect.

Get to know their interests, hobbies and what they do for fun. Ask about their spouse and kids. Enjoy getting to know them!

3. Ask the Staff What They Want, and Tell Them What You Expect.

This is your opportunity for a future-oriented conversation. I suggest after the first thirty days, set an appointment for candid talk.

Ask each staff member what they want. Do they like their position? What do they aspire to? What do they love about the church? What would they change? What do they perceive the vision to be? Etc.

In just a couple more months you will have lost the window for this conversation at the level of authenticity you want. (If the staff is very large, you can do this with your direct reports and critical staff.)

This is also the conversation for you to be clear on what you expect. You have already given them the job description, but this is your opportunity to discuss the between-the-lines nuances.

In both cases, for you and the new staff, one of the most potentially unhealthy circumstances is if either of you doesn’t know what you want.

4. Place Development Over Decisions for the First 90 Days.

Your investment in the staff is like an imprint on their hearts. They need to know you are for them. If you help them be better at who they are and get better at what they do, they are much more likely to enjoy their work and produce greater results.

There are several ways you can develop staff, from teaching leadership lessons to personal coaching. It can be as simple as reading through a leadership book together.

Few things you do will be more important than what you pour into your staff. Note: This is not just for the first 90 days. It’s for the entire time you lead the church.

5. Begin to Wrestle Through Any Potentially Tough Decisions After the First 90 Days.

Ninety days isn’t long. You may need more time, but some patterns, habits, behaviors and attitudes begin to be clear for a few staff early on.

You now have a clearer perspective. You have been leading the church for three months. You have a sense of momentum and morale, including some essential things like visitor rate and salvations. This is the context you need before staff decisions are made.

You may have to make a tough call between someone who is very talented but difficult to work with, or perhaps someone who is loved by the congregation but doesn’t want to follow you.

The good news is you have cultivated a genuine relationship, investing in leadership development, and extended trust from day one.

Don’t let anyone rush you, but don’t unnecessarily procrastinate. Pray, have honest conversations, seek wise counsel and make the tough call if you need to.

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Dan Reiland is the executive pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. This article was originally published on Reiland’s blog, Developing Church Leaders.

Dan Reiland
Dan Reiland

Dan Reiland is the executive pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and the author of several books including Confident Leader! Become One, Stay One (Thomas Nelson).