Mandy Smith on Leading Differently


In light of Pastor Appreciation Month, which takes place annually during the month of October, Barna thanks the clergy and ministry leaders serving the global and local Church. A focus in our recent research has been equipping elder leaders to think about their legacy and young leaders to step into more senior roles—particularly as pastors increasingly represent an aging demographic. Below is a Q&A excerpt from the Leadership Transitions report, which highlights new data surrounding pastoral change within the Church.

Originally from Australia, Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church, a campus and neighborhood congregation in Cincinnati, OH. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today and Missio Alliance and is the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry. She is also the director of Missio Alliance’s SheLeads summit and creator of The Collect, a citywide trash-to-art project. Mandy and her husband, Jamie, a New Testament professor at Cincinnati Christian University, live with their family in a little house where the teapot is always warm.

Barna: Tell us about your pastoral transition. What kind of church did you take, and what kind of leader did you succeed?

Mandy: By the time I transitioned into the senior pastor role in our congregation, I’d been associate pastor for four years, and had co-led for 18 months. It had become apparent that the lead pastor (who’d led the church for 16 years) was feeling called to justice work. He is an apostolic, courageous, justice-hearted, generous, visionary, creative, collaborative leader. He needed the space to pursue that calling.

Barna: What about the process was a challenge?

Mandy: In general the transition was quite gentle. But the change came after the pressure of “dueling callings” had been building a bit. Some of the ways the senior pastor had felt called to do justice work (such as writing and speaking at national events) had been making some people feel like he was less in touch with their local needs. That’s understandable—but it’s a conflict around a good issue: gospel calling. If I’m honest, at first I was resentful of how his other work was affecting the church and me. But at the same time I loved the work he was doing and was really proud of him. I felt torn.

Barna: How did you respond?

Mandy: I wrestled for months. What was the healthiest way to broach this conversation? I wanted to encourage him to pursue the things God was calling him to. He had been responsible for our congregation for so long, it hadn’t crossed his mind that it was okay for him to feel called to something else. As I encouraged him toward that, we decided the best path forward would be for him to transition to a part-time role, and for us to co-lead together. We had thought it would be a long-term situation, but after 18 months he stepped down, and I became lead pastor.

I had no idea as I encouraged him to pursue the things God was laying on his heart, that it would not only help him step into his calling but help me step into mine. While it was difficult at times, it was quite beautiful how God walked us both through that transition and we are still great friends. I still call him for insight on leadership here.

Barna: Looking back, what factors led to a successful transition?

Mandy: Our friendship helped us navigate the transition well. Sure, we had hard conversations, but we were able to hope for the best in each other’s motives and actions. Believing the best about the other person does wonders! I don’t think I’d change anything. It was a surprisingly smooth transition, considering he’d been lead pastor for 19 years by the time he stepped down.

pastoral leadership transitions

Barna: What have you learned about taking over a church when your personality or demographic differs from the previous pastor?

Mandy: A gradual transition and overlap time is ideal! It was helpful that I’d already worked as associate pastor for 4 years, then co-led for 18 months before becoming the lead pastor. We went through a process (which we are just wrapping up, six years later) of gradual changes. We didn’t change the general vision (I’d been on staff before because I already valued the vision). Just changes to the specifics of how that vision is resourced and lived out.

But there could have been tremendous danger to the transition from our personal differences. I’m an introverted Australian woman who’s an artist. He is an extroverted American male who is a mathematics whiz. It helped that he is an active champion for women in ministry (not just theoretical but purposeful and proactive).

Before I came on staff, he had already walked the church through the process of welcoming women to the eldership and they’d had female pastors (campus minister, children’s pastor) preach on occasion. It was the first time they’d had a female lead pastor but he walked the congregation through those conversations. When it came to personality differences, it helped that people already knew and trusted me and so knew I wasn’t going to lead in the same way.

If I could go back in time and tell myself anything at the beginning of the process, it would be, “In every way you feel you’re different from the previous pastor, don’t be concerned that people will see it as negative.” Those differences can be strengths.

Barna: Any advice for leaders undergoing their own transition?

Mandy: The emotional and spiritual health of the pastors involved will be key as they have to lead the congregation through this transition even as they’re navigating their own transition. It was very helpful for me to have spiritual direction once I became lead pastor. I felt my differences and needed encouragement to be myself. A role like that has a way of shaping you, and not always in positive ways. I had to learn to be myself in order to bring my personal pastoral strengths and gifting into play.

Feature image by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

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