The Hand Off

In my (Joe’s) office hangs a picture with the caption, “THE HAND OFF: NO ROOM FOR ERROR.” 


The split picture depicts two scenes. On the bottom of the picture, the artist drew a moment in the Pony Express when one man, riding on a horse, passes the mail bag from his hand to the hand of the next rider. Knowing the information in the bag is of utmost importance, the men are galloping their horses to ensure the messages get delivered. Above that illustration, there is another drawing that shows an older man, open Bible in hand, discipling a man younger than himself; passing along an even more important message. It is a constant reminder of my life mission: to continually invest spiritually into the lives of people who are desiring to grow in their walk with God. 

For over thirty years, I have been the director of Christian Challenge Collegiate Ministries at Western Colorado University in Gunnison. Throughout this time, I have been a member of Trinity Baptist Church. I have been under the leadership of 3 different senior pastors. All three loved Jesus and wanted to fulfill the Great Commission. The first two, following the call God had for them, moved to other states to shepherd different flocks. Each time, the body of Trinity was left to look for a new pastor. As is common, no one had been raised up within Trinity to come into the pastorship behind them. 

 It was a very challenging time for our church family during those transitions. When it came time to search for the third pastor, we had a vision of where we wanted to go as a church body and a desire to not have to search for another man again anytime soon. We put together a pastor search committee and prayerfully looked for a man to be our next shepherd leader. There were three specific things we wanted the next pastor to do. These were: 1) help us transition to a biblically based, elder-led, church governance 2) help us develop a biblical, relational, discipleship paradigm and 3) raise up his replacement. We as a church were developing a clear vision and didn’t want it to change with each new pastor. We wanted a pastor who would come alongside what we were doing. God led us to Mike McVey. 

Mike came and immediately began to work on the first two tasks. We moved to an elder led church during his first two years. Then the elder team, under Mike’s leadership, began to work on developing a relational discipleship paradigm. We began to receive some training. We were told by those who had gone before us that it would probably take 5-7 years to change our paradigm. They were correct. It took seven. During Mike’s 9th year, he was asked to consider being a Regional Director for the Continental Divide Association. Mike followed God in His leading and decided to take the position.

 However, Mike wanted to fulfill his last task our team had asked of him almost a decade before: to raise up his replacement. That had been on the elder team’s mind for quite a while, but we had not raised anyone yet (or so we thought). 

 Interestingly, I had an office at the church next to Mike’s, so as the years went by Mike and I would talk and grow in our relationship. We talked a lot about life and ministry, challenging and encouraging one another in our leadership roles. In addition, Bob, the other elder, and I had known each other since the fall of 1990. I walked with these men. They both helped me and encouraged me in my ministry to the college campus. I should not have been surprised then when Mike asked if I would consider being the next pastor. Being deeply spiritual, I responded in about two seconds with “Nope!” College ministry was in my heart! I grew up in ministry under Bobby Pruett, Max Barnett and Mike Story. They all taught me I needed to stay where I was for the long haul. Seeds planted in ministry take years to grow. So I wasn’t looking for a new job.

However, God had a different plan. A couple months later God revealed to me that He has been preparing me to be the next pastor for the previous 30 years. He showed me how He sent Mike to be my mentor and friend. He showed me how Bob’s friendship and mentorship would support me as I moved into the role as pastor. The church continued with its vision and mission, and today we pursue biblical, relational discipleship that engages explorers, connects them to the church, helps them grow in their faith, and sends them out to multiply in Gunnison and to the ends of the earth. Today, God allows me to lead Christian Challenge Collegiate Ministries at Western and to enjoy a lead shepherding role at Trinity Baptist Church. In both, I am privileged to obey the Great Commission by making disciples as a disciple-making leader.


At first, upon hearing Joe’s “NOPE,” I (Mike) was disheartened to say the least. I hadn’t planned on leaving to start with, and now here was a relational church family doomed to filling a pulpit “traditionally,” meaning a pulpit search team, sorting through dozens of resumes, moving forward without a shepherd for months, and a new man with a new vision. It has always been in my heart that Scripture leans heavily in the favor of disciple-making leaders. Simply put, succession from one shepherd to the next should be built into the DNA of every local church. Yes I know that’s not the culture of the typical institutional church! But could it be that it is a more biblical plan of pastoral transition? Obviously Joe and I believe it is the best way, not the only way, but the best way (a line taken from a wise sage named Bob Bender). WHY?


I think if you are reading this you will agree that Scripture does not have a chapter with subtitles “Guidelines for Calling a Pastor.” You must also agree that there is no such thing as a “pastoral search team” in New Testament literature. There is however one major biblical principle that should serve as the church’s method for leadership in the local assembly. As Joe alluded to it is called making disciples and is the heart of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. As a matter of fact, it is the imperative in this passage. 

Making disciples clearly implies that there should be a disciple-making leaders pathway as a part of every church’s leadership succession plan. Churches devoted to disciple-making, develop leaders not only for succession but for deployment to plant new churches. This truth is clearly illustrated in Jesus mentoring, equipping and discipling the twelve. Jesus is the example of how to be a disciple-making leader. Not a bad archetype to pattern our plan of succession after!


If each local church has taken the time to discover their vision, then handing off the baton is the logical means of not missing a beat. Promoting from within helps the church stay focused on executing the Great Commission. If the “hand-off” is prayer-filled and Spirit-led and the church is given the responsibility for affirmation then everything moves forward without stalling in mid-air, and vision, mission and strategy–the new lead pastor may use different methods but still embraces the disciple-making vision of the church.

What did the process look like for the Trinity body? After wrestling for four months with God (and determining I didn’t want to walk around with a limp for the rest of my life), God seemed to be saying that Joe was the man for the job. As Joe has already noted he didn’t see things the same way. Joe and I are two different personalities–I am a visionary, processor and foundation layer; Joe is very pragmatic and a practitioner–par excellence. In hindsight it is easy to see why God moved me on and Joe in. The vision was cast, the foundation was laid, the Spirit was leading. Trinity now needed the best man to execute the vision of Trinity. Here is what the journey looked like:

  1. I shared with the church that God was moving me on.
  2. Joe agreed to God’s direction, and the elders unanimously agreed that he was God’s man.
  3. The church body met and had the opportunity to question Joe
  4. The Elders formally recommended Joe to the church
  5. The Church affirmed the decision of the Elders
  6. A men’s retreat was held using the story of Moses, Aaron and Hur from Exodus instructing and coaching the men of the church what their role in this transition looked like.
  7. On transition Sunday I preached the first half of the message, handed the staff off to Joe and he finished the message. Succession complete! (The church then gathered, prayed and laid hands on Joe and his wife).

There you go seven easy steps to pastoral succession ☺. Today, 18 months later, Joe is executing the vision and I have the privilege to remain as a member and elder of Trinity. Unique, God-honoring, and non-traditional. My role: to adopt the attitude of John the Baptist–he Joe, must increase, but I Mike, must decrease. Trinity continues making disciples so that people can be transformed into the image of Jesus!

Mike McVey Regional Director for Continental Divide Association

Joe Ricks, Senior Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, Gunnison



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