It’s about the Lord’s work, not me. It’s about the future of the church, not my future.”
– Glen Currie
The air hung thick in the newly-renovated Maranatha Baptist Church auditorium. Glen Currie, pastor for 29 years, had just announced that he would be stepping down as head pastor to become the assistant pastor, and promised more details to come in the evening service – a service that was one of the best attended in the history of the church.
After a rocky beginning, Maranatha Baptist Church of Clarkston, Michigan, had thrived under Glen’s humble ministry for 29 years. The elder members of the assembly could remember vividly those unnerving days in the early 1980s when they almost decided to shutter the building. Intense disagreement in the wake of a disastrous pastoral transition threatened the church’s very existence in the Clarkston community. But a frantic search led them to the right man for the job.
Glen Currie had been an assistant pastor at Inter-City Baptist Church under Dr. William Rice for 11 years. A member of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary’s (DBTS) first class of students in 1976, Glen had thrived under Dr. Rice’s direction and was ready for a challenge. And a challenge it was. “Jumping into a new ministry was baptism by fire,” Glen recalls. But his plodding faithfulness was just what that struggling church needed.
Reflecting back over the past 29 years Glen is remarkably reticent to herald any great achievements like member growth. When asked to describe the mission and vision of his church, he replies that they are simply trying to make and mature disciples in the community like Jesus asked the church to do in the Great Commission. He reflects that, at times, he feels like he is successful and other times he wonders whether he’s being effective.What’s striking though, as he recounts his years of leading the church is how humble his telling is. He doesn’t play up the effectiveness of his church. He doesn’t claim to have some radical mission to change the world. He’s just a humble guy doing what the Bible says church leaders should do.
I’ve always thought it was important to let these guys, as they show ability and earn our trust, to let them preach, teach, be involved – that’s part of the learning process.” – Glen Currie
As Glen pastored, he grew to appreciate the investment Dr. Rice had made in his life as well as the immense value of his seminary education. He determined to make the same impact on his pastoral assistants. For him, that meant giving assistants every opportunity to lead and make mistakes. His assistants led parts of church business meetings, preached on Sunday nights, handled counseling opportunities, and operated as pastoral teammates.
Joey McNally, who served as an assistant under Glen, likens his experience to that of a football player following the quarterback’s lead. “We always work with a team mentality…. It’s almost like when you’ve got rookies on a football team and they’re thrust into action. They might not succeed that year or even the next year, but that third year they’ve got two years’ worth of experience where they’ve been involved in all kinds of plays.”
While Glen felt like some of the best ministry training was just getting out there and making mistakes, he also believed strongly that seminary training was essential for pastoral success. So early on, he added a budget line item for each assistant that read Seminary Training. David Watson, who has served as youth pastor for 3 years recalls that he really wasn’t all that interested in going to seminary, but when he started work he realized that seminary was just going to be a part of his job.
After a couple years, David, a current student at DBTS, has changed his mind about the value of seminary. “Even though my original reason for going to seminary wasn’t all that great, I can tell you that over the last two years I have seen its value and so has my wife…. Everything I’m learning is impacting me on personal level.”
Joey, a 2011 DBTS grad, had to balance the demands of seminary with his growing leadership role at Maranatha and found the combination challenging, but rewarding. “What seminary in general, and DBTS in particular prepares you for is the ability to grind and to produce something of worth and quality even in the busyness of ministry.” Though Glen has his assistants attend seminary for their spiritual and ministry growth, he also appreciates the residual effects on his own life. “As they mature in their understanding, they bring so much more to the table. I feel like I’m still being trained secondarily through their training.”
The church has never wondered whether Pastor Currie loves and cares for them.” – David Watson
If there’s one theme that’s been consistent throughout Glen’s ministry it’s been that he always strives to put the church first. David describes Glen’s approach to pastoring, “He has a no member left behind policy.” His shepherd’s heart guides all his decisions – he’s always asking how his decisions will impact the people in his body.
So a couple years ago, as he started evaluating the church’s current state and how he could best plan for the future, he decided to start talking to Joey, his assistant at that time for 7 years about taking on the senior pastor position. He was in his early 60s and knew that, Lord willing, he could serve the church well for another 10 years. He desperately wanted to see the church grow and succeed, but he thought that maybe he wasn’t best person to lead the church into the future.
Joey felt that the Lord was calling him to look for a senior pastor position soon, but hadn’t been looking around seriously because he didn’t want to undermine the stability of the church during a youth pastor transition. When Glen approached him about being the senior pastor of the church in the near future, he thought the offer was a bit awkward, but agreed to pray about it. “It’s not every day that someone just walks in and offers you his job.”
He and his wife Julie started praying and realized that while he did want to be a senior pastor, he also didn’t want to leave Maranatha or Glen. So he accepted with one condition: Glen had to remain at Maranatha as an assistant. He treasured their working and personal relationship and recalls thinking, “There’s going to come a day when he’s not going to be there anymore and I didn’t want that day to come any time soon.”
So with a sense of the Holy Spirit’s working, they embarked on a 2-year, 4-step transition process with attitude of open-handedness, ready to abort the plan if the Lord showed otherwise.
Their first priority was to talk through all the potential hurtles to making a successful transition. They spent hours methodically working through personality differences and varying doctrinal emphases, not with the goal of becoming exactly the same, but to understand how their differences would manifest themselves in their leadership of the church. Glen wanted to communicate his core values and heart, but also talk through the issues he was flexible about – areas where he would enjoy entertaining a fresh approach. Glen wanted the new pastor to have freedom to make his mark on the church, while at the same time understanding the areas that could cause conflict if Glen were to remain on staff.
Both Glen and Joey describe the meetings as confirming. They each felt the Spirit’s leading and decided that it was the time to invite outside counsel. Individually or together, they sought the counsel of 15 different seminary professors or fellow pastors, including a meeting with the church leadership on the west coast of Michigan that had recently made a similar pastoral shift. Those meetings confirmed that they were making the right decisions and offered invaluable insight into how to make the transition successful.
Glen next shifted his attention to the lay church leadership, meeting with each deacon individually and then as a group to ensure complete buy-in. Again, the meeting was confirming and supportive and after a formal interview process with the deacon board, Glen and Joey arrived at the Sunday morning service where this article began.
The service that night exuded more warmth and love than Glen or Joey could have hoped for. After Glen, Joey, and couple deacons explained their reasons and perspective the room swelled with applause – in appreciation for Glen’s faithful ministry and humble vision for the church’s welfare.
In the ensuing three months, Glen and Joey met with the congregation collectively as well as in smaller, age-specific groups to get their feedback and to gain their trust. One woman in a Q&A voiced what many members were thinking: “Pastor Currie has served us well for years and has always been there for my family. If he says this is the right thing to do, I think we should do it.” As Glen thinks through the supportive response from his congregation he half jokes, half advises, “It’s scary when people trust you that much. Whenever you’re preaching, you want to make sure you are faithful to the Word of God because you never know how much people are following.”
Joey describes the transition as a win-win for the church and feels as prepared as he could be to move into the senior pastor role. “I’m stepping in as head pastor after nine years, but there’s a real sense in which I’ve been doing the same thing for nine years. And that would be a credit to [Glen]. A lot of pastors are possessive about their leadership and the kinds of things they let them do.” From David’s perspective, having both of them on staff is the assurance that everything is getting covered. While Glen has a “no member left behind” policy, Joey has a “no sermon left behind” policy, and the two together serve the church well.
While this type of transition is not possible for every church, Maranatha provides an example of healthy transition that all churches can look to for guidance. Their forward thinking, methodical approach, reliance on the Spirit’s leading and outside counsel, and priority on church buy-in helped them mitigate many of the struggles inherent in church leadership transition. As well, Glen’s example of humility and church-focused decision-making is a model for all senior pastors and church leaders. As David put it: “Pastor Currie has been making decisions for a long time that put the church before himself. A decision like this is just one decision in a long string of a life that’s been dedicated to the church.”