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Leading While Leaving: An Interview with Mark Zehnder

Mark and Sharon Zehnder have been longtime champions of PLI. Mentors. Donors. Sharon was on staff for some years. Mark served as senior pastor in Omaha, Nebraska, for many years and upon retirement began coaching pastors and congregations through the complexities of senior pastor transitions. Mark and I sat down a couple of weeks ago to talk about pastoral transitions and the launch of Always Forward Ministries.


Mark, what’s been your biggest surprise in retirement?

Mark: It’s been a sweet time for Sharon and me. We have 3 books that we use for devotions each morning that Sharon found…The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy and Kathy Keller, Wild About You by John and Stasi Eldredge, and Question of the Day for Couples: A Three Year Journal by Dan and Lana Taylor.

The other surprise has been how “light” I felt when I let go of the leadership responsibilities after all of these years. I’m not sure I realized—I’m not sure most folks realize—the burden of responsibility that a pastor feels. I’m surprised how light I feel now.

And, this is a lesser surprise, but you have to figure out how to stay in the “kingdom game” and still contribute. Coaching churches and pastors through leadership transitions is my way of staying in the game.

Let’s talk more about this shortly. But, most folks reading this blog are one or two or three decades away from retirement and ministry life can be difficult! What can you say to them?

Mark: I think back to days when I’d drive into the church parking lot on a Monday morning and I didn’t want to put my car in park and walk into the building. I was hurt. Broken. Discouraged… there’s just going to be those times for any of us!

I had to have people around me that I could talk to. Wonderful wife. Good counselors. Too often leaders think there’s no one to talk to. I’ve been on the receiving end of those phone calls. We talk to the Lord but sometimes the Lord seems silent, like He’s hiding Himself for a while.

I say: reach out. Don’t do it on your own. You’ll make it. God has a next mountain to climb. 

For me, during some of those dark days I’d be running along the trail late in the afternoon and I’d see the guy bounding along, mowing the shoulders of the trail with his noise-canceling headphones on and I’d say, “That would be the job for me.”

Mark: I guess I have thought about being on the Seniors Golf Tour once in a while.

I’ve heard you share at PLI about the seasons when the church was in crisis.

Mark: I love Jehosphat’s prayer in Kings! All the armies are coming against us. He prays. “Lord, we don’t know what to do… Are you not…? Did you not…? Will you not…answer?” He declares a fast and prayer and worship, and the enemies defeat themselves.

We were in crisis. It was public. It was difficult. I didn’t know what to do. For 6 weeks on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 7 pm we said, “Come and pray.” I didn’t know what else to do. And we poured our hearts out to God. 

What counsel would you give to the churches facing the challenges right now?

Mark: I’d encourage them to challenge every assumption that they have. The old saying: Insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results.

There are some great pioneers in the church today. We need pastors to pioneer new things.

Disciple people. I’d do a better job of mentoring leaders. Multiplying leaders. 

Multipli’s Genesis Leader is helping churches launch members in doing what they don’t have the time or the know-how to get started. Now, tell me about the transition coaching that you’re doing.

Mark: I’ll be doing a workshop at Best Practices next month on “Leading While Leaving.” 

I help the pastor who knows he’s going to retire and needs help in how to do it and do it well. It doesn’t go well most of the time because there’s no plan. I can help churches and pastors avoid mistakes. There’s just a lot of times we don’t know what to do.

I can be an advocate for that retiring pastor. His cheerleader and champion. Still speak truth. If a pastor wants to stay in their church after they retire, it doesn’t just happen. Some pastors need to retire and move somewhere. They can’t accept someone else leading…or wanting them to succeed. 

Other times the pastor has the humility of Jesus. No fragile ego. It’s a win/win when he and his wife can stay. And they set up the next pastor for success. 

Mark, summarize what you do in Always Forward Ministries.

Mark: It’s usually a 1 year engagement.

I spend 3 days on site. I meet with the retiring pastor, the board, anyone who will have anything to do with decisions about the transition. It’s all information gathering. It helps me help them.

I write up a coaching consultation with suggested next steps.

I coach via zoom and email over the next 6 months.

There’s a 2nd follow-up visit. We repeat the whole thing. I’m telling them what they told me. They basically come up with the plan. I just help them articulate. I care a lot about the players on the team. I’m with them.

By having Mark Zehnder guide our staff and ministry through scheduled and emergency transition plans, the ministry will have the tools it needs to move forward in ministry with momentum and confidence.
If you fail to make transition plans with the ministry you serve, you increase the odds that the transition will be difficult and damaging to the ministry

Craig Michaelson

Faith Lutheran Church, Las Vegas, Nevada

Who is this for?

It’s for pastors and their churches of any size. I’m probably most useful with larger, more complex ministries. People can reach out to me by email.

Last word?

Vanderblomin and Bird have written a book, Next: Pastoral Succession that Works. They start the book: “Every pastor is an interim pastor.” No one will be in that spot forever. Be thinking about life after you.

What would Sharon say about the transition?

You should ask her! I think she’d say it was quite smooth. I skipped stage 2, the disorientation that the Ted Talk you shared references. During the first year we may have overbooked ourselves in every way. Including fun, grandkids, etc. 

Mark, thanks for being a friend. Thanks for finishing well, and thanks for leading while leaving.


And thanks to you readers for following along on this series of interviews focused on leading while planning for retirement. (If you missed the other interviews you can read them here: Some Wisdom on Retirement for Leaders Who Aren’t Ready to Retire and Building a Foundation that Will Live On.) I know many of you are years or decades away from retirement, so I hope these interviews have given you something to think about as you build your foundation and legacy.

One Response

  1. Robert Kasper says:

    Thanks Mark! Good stuff! Give Sharon a hug.

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