Trading Places: Learning from a Unique Staff Transition

By Brian Jennings

Dave Dunson and Brian Jennings didn’t exactly exchange places on their church staff. But Dunson gave up the senior ministry to move to another staff ministry position while Jennings moved from youth ministry to become the lead minister. Here’s why and how it happened.

Highland Park Christian Church has been ministering to people in the heart of Tulsa, Oklahoma, for almost 60 years. In 2004, we first began talking about a future staff transition. Everything about our situation felt unique; we weren’t planning on anyone leaving or retiring.

05_Jennings_JNDave Dunson came to the church as senior minister in 1990. He enjoys preaching and teaching, and his greatest passion and gift is shepherding. Dave volunteers as a Tulsa fire and police chaplain, which means he tells people their loved one has died, and then helps them process through the grief.

He’s at his best when others are in crisis. I’ve spent many hours with Dave in hospitals and funeral homes, thinking to myself, That was a great question to ask, Dave. That was a comforting prayer, Dave. That was just what the grieving person needed to hear, Dave. 

Dave’s pastoral gifts are second to none, but the senior minister duties prevented him from always being able to lean into some of those gifts. We wondered, How amazing would it be if Dave could fully engage in his strengths?

I came to Highland Park in 1998 as youth minister. I loved my job and experienced some very sweet seasons of ministry. But I began to realize I was not going to be one of those YM lifers whom I so admire. We began to wonder if I could transition into a role where I could lean into my developing strengths and passions in preaching, evangelism, and leadership.

How We Did It

Our transition plan lasted much longer than the typical timeline, but ours was predicated on bringing on new staff. Part of the timeline was out of our control. We announced our plan and asked for input from the church in the fall of 2005, but hiring a new youth minister took longer than expected—two years. After he came onboard, I mentored him for nine months, with the goal of making a smooth transition for our students.

In the fall of 2008, Dave began mentoring me and handing off some of his responsibilities. In August 2009, I was given the title of lead minister. My title was different from Dave’s title, since my job would be a bit different from Dave’s previous job. (We rarely use our titles, anyway. Instead it’s, “I’m one of the staff members of HP.”) Dave took a three-month sabbatical. He rested some and prayed a lot. He also researched and prepared to lead the Stephen Ministry, something he’d long desired to launch at Highland Park. His time away allowed me to lead for a while without him nearby. By October 2009, Dave was back, and we were all in our new roles.

We don’t recommend taking this long to transition. Even though we communicated like crazy, and even though we had the advantage of never being without a key staff member in place, it was hard to keep the momentum going. Nevertheless, our first commitment was to honor God and each other. We believe we accomplished both goals.

The ministry transition at Highland Park Christian Church was unconventional in a few respects: (1) it took quite a while to execute . . . about four years, and (2) Dave Dunson, right, transitioned from being senior minister to pastoral care minister, while Brian Jennings went from being youth minister to lead minister.
The ministry transition at Highland Park Christian Church was unconventional in a few respects: (1) it took quite a while to execute . . . about four years, and (2) Dave Dunson, right, transitioned from being senior minister to pastoral care minister, while Brian Jennings went from being youth minister to lead minister.

What We Learned

We learned a lot through the process. Few churches have tried what we attempted. Here are several things we learned that are worth passing on to you:

1. You have to fight for unity. 

People have negative baggage, so some will assume the worst any time change is announced. Dave heard people suggest I was attempting a coup. I heard people suggest Dave was dragging his feet. We had ample opportunity to grow paranoid and distrustful. Without a doubt, the most important thing he and I did during this time was to meet every Thursday morning for coffee. Usually we’d pray and plan, because things were sailing smoothly. But sometimes we had to ask the other if the rumor we heard was true.

We agreed to always defend each other publicly, and we allowed each other to privately question anything we heard. I believe these vulnerable, honest discussions saved the process. They allowed our friendship to deepen and the unity of our church to remain intact.

2. Be transparent and strategic. 

Sometimes these two goals pushed against each other. Strategically, we’d been better off not to announce anything until we were very close to implementing the plan. However, we valued transparency slightly above strategy. This made the process difficult. Regardless of your situation, you’ll want to value both.

3. Shoot for three-month windows.

Most of our minitransitions in the process lasted six to nine months. Such a time frame allowed for some great mentoring, but maintaining momentum proved difficult. We’ve gone through a few changes in the past two years, and we’ve learned that three months seems to be about the right time for most staff transitions (which may help if you’re hiring, planning to leave a place, or considering a transition in your current church). Less than two months doesn’t allow for the needed mentoring and equipping. More than three months stresses some of the relationships.

Emotionally, when we know we’re moving to a new role, we all start checking out of our current role at some point. It’s human nature. Since our transition involved multiple steps, we needed much more time, so there’s no one-size-fits-all timeline.

4. Act like a healthy church.

You won’t find three leaders having a secret, backroom gossip session in a healthy church, so don’t ever get caught in such a circumstance. Asking how a healthy church acts will help you be a healthy church. Healthy churches mentor. Healthy churches trust. Healthy churches can be honest with each other.

Some churches hire like cutthroat businesses. They only consider what is best for their little kingdom. We worked hard to keep our church healthy, and it prompted us to commit to fighting for the health of other churches too. We committed to being incredibly generous to any church with an employee we were considering hiring. Keeping this commitment has been a great joy to us, and it’s strengthened the kingdom.

5. Seek wisdom.

We sought out all the wisdom we could find. I’m dismayed to hear of churches attempting intense, slippery maneuvers without attempting to learn from others. Every situation is different, but wise leaders will learn principles and be glad to share them with others.

6. Swallow your pride.

There’s zero room for ego in a transition like this. We both tried to emulate the humility of Christ as we served each other and the church.

7. Follow your gifts.

If you can figure out how to make your job or volunteer role match your spiritual gifting, do it. You’ll prolong your ministry and better the church.

Thankful

Lots of things have changed in our community and church in the past few years, but Dave is still caring for those in crisis, equipping others to do the same (our Stephen Ministry is training its third wave of volunteers), and leading beside me in multiple ways.

I’m still preaching and leading. We both think our best years of ministry are ahead of us. We’re thankful for the results of our transition, we’re thankful for what we learned, and we’ve been thankful to share these things with others.

Brian Jennings serves as lead minister with Highland Park Christian Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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