Tuesday, January 29, 2013

“Green Jell-O Salad”

My pastoral transition will take place in my 65th year.  I have been learning a lot about myself in this new season.  As Jan and I prepare to hand the leadership of our church over to Ryan and Kate Rhoden, Ryan and I have been having wonderful conversations about how to do this transition well.

Many of the leadership structures in the American church resemble a totem pole where the leader on top must fall off or die before change can happen.  When we first arrived in Medford the Lord told me to start giving the ministry away. In order to do this the Lord asked me to lay down our totem pole structure of leadership and begin leading horizontally.

Vertical leadership structures are challenging to work with. Most of these function on the principle of addition – you add to the bottom of the totem pole and it continues to grow upward pushing the primary leader higher and higher making any future dismount difficult. A horizontal structure is different – it is laid down on its side to give the pastoral team the ability to move more freely in many directions and multiply itself instead of only adding. While we are trying to do this, I still need to function from a Senior Pastor role in areas of responsibility like document signing and denominational representation. These functions don’t give life, they simply honor our process.

In this leadership transition, I have learned more about my own personal fears and insecurities.  Sometimes letting go is more challenging than taking hold. These personal discoveries can be opportunities for personal growth or they can become toxic responses that mess up a good thing. How we handle what we discover about ourselves will determine the direction and health of our future ministry transition.

I have come to see how important it is to allow younger leaders the freedom to create a way to do ministry that is uniquely theirs. Our transition will be two years from now, though Ryan and I have been talking privately about this change for several years.

The assignment I gave Ryan for the next two years was to begin to create a model of ministry that will fit him.  I don’t want Ryan to try to wear Saul’s armor or my style of ministry.  God is calling Ryan, not another Garris. For me, this means allowing a young man the freedom to make his own decisions even before the change in leadership becomes a visible reality.  The closer leaders get to a transition the more important it becomes to grant the incoming leader permission to begin reworking the ministry and its structure to fit their unique gifts and calling.

Some of this release took place when I told Ryan he did not have to ask me for anything – it is already his.  Healthy transitions have a sense of inheritance. This concept will change how we relate to each other. Even our theology is radically affected for the positive when we know we already possess all that Christ gained on our behalf.  Don’t make young leaders ask for anything. Give before they ask. It’s how God relates to sons.

Ryan is doing all of this with me with great honor.  In fact, he once said to me, “I don’t want to do this if you are not going to be here.” Jan and I will continue to make Living Waters our home church after the change in leadership takes place.  We are looking forward to what is coming. Healthy transitions always bring a new release of creativity for everyone involved. After the transition how we relate to Ryan’s leadership will be important for the health of the church and for the visible testimony of our leadership in our community.

There is a large group of pastors my age – the Baby Boomer generation– who are entering their transitional years.  Many of us have bought homes in the cities we currently pastor and have developed life-long relationships. We are not thinking about moving after we give the leadership of our churches over to the young men and women who will follow us. 

The Church-world is strewn with debris from failed transitions and we don’t want to add to the garbage pile.  For those of us who stay and live in the place of our final pastoral transition our attitude and heart condition becomes so important in the making of a healthy change. Who wants an old grumpy previous pastor poisoning the ministry well with unresolved insecurities?  I sure don’t, emerging leaders don’t and neither does the church.

In one of our recent Monday morning conversations Ryan shared something with me that brings such clarity to all of this.  He said transitions are like the history surrounding family Thanksgiving dinners. Ryan shared that as a mother and father prepares the Thanksgiving meal they have everyone over to their house.  As time goes on this arrangement works just fine, but over the years, as the parents age, things begin to change.  Their kids grow up and have children of their own.  They begin hosting the Thanksgiving meal at their house and invite mom and dad over for dinner.  A transition takes place. The task involving all the preparation for the meal is no longer mom and dad’s job – it has shifted to the kids to plan and host the meal. 

Thanksgiving meals develop their own history. Some things do change over the years.  The way the turkey is done and how the table is set will change, but it would not be Thanksgiving dinner if mom did not bring her green Jell-O salad. The green Jell-O salad has always been on the table in our history as a family.  Our taste buds have been programmed for the flavor that mom and dad uniquely bring to our family meal.

As older leaders approach a time of transition, we need to understand our roles will have to change before, during and after our transition.  The closer we get to this time the more we need to define our “green Jell-O salad.” There is a flavor in each of our lives that is unique to us and needs to be brought to the table for the dinner to be complete.  Bringing our green Jell-O salad to the transitioning ministry table means our unique contribution will add flavor to the future of the ministry, not dominant the table setting.


  1. Garris,
    This is an excellent article as is the example you and Jan are to the Body at Living Waters!

  2. Well said Garris! I have seen this type of transition in churches before with great success. I know you will all handle this with grace and the church will be blessed.

  3. I am so glad you shared this! I thought I was seeing a sort of change starting, but was not sure. This helps a lot in how I should be praying for the church body and leadership at Living waters. Before, I would just rely on the Holy Spirit's guidance, and that was enough. But now that I know that there is a transitional change taking place, the growing of the next generation, I know a bit more, and can seek the Holy Spirit's guidance for even more clarity as it is needed. Thank you Pastor Garris for sharing this!

  4. Thank you so much Garris for sharing your thoughts....so wise and sensitive. I'm sure these transitions will not be without challenges, but we so appreciate your insight and perspective! We seem to be experiencing a lot of transitions this past year, and "Thanksgiving Dinner" happened at Christmas this year when all the kids were home. The beginning of the kids taking care of the parents, subtle, but nice! May the Lord richly bless you and Jan as you continue to give of yourselves
    so unselfishly! Dallas and Linda

  5. Garris, I appreciate your reflections on this matter since my wife and I just handed the senior leadership of our church over to our son and his wife on January 13th. He had been on staff with us for 15 years as our worship leader, so there were many years of mentoring in all aspects of ministry. It was very important to us to have a good handing off of the baton. We learned some very important lessons from the U.S. track relay team in the last summer olympics! We made sure he had a solid grip on the baton before we let go, and we'll keep running alongside to cheer him on.