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How to take the baton from a seasoned leader (so you can later hand if off to someone else) (with Clay Smith)

podcast Jun 23, 2022

Clay Smith took over Johnson Ferry Baptist Church just before the pandemic hit. He was 40 at the time, following a leader who planted the church and had been there since he was 2.

Now 43, Clay looks back and shares some of the lessons he’s learned about following a legacy leader.

“First, you are an interim,” he says, “We are all coming and going.”

That is, you might be at your church for 3 months, for 3 years, or for 30 like Clay’s predecessor… but your job is temporary.

That said, Clay highlights five lessons he’s learned— and is still learning.

“We’re all learning,” he reminds us.


#1 = Know thyself

Self-awareness is important. God called you to that church, to follow that person…

… and you’ve got to be secure in that.

Clay mentions that the weekend he preached “in view of a call” (as Baptists do), he told everyone, “I’m not here to fill Bryant’s shoes. I can’t. I’m here to fill mine.”

Now, this wasn’t said from a position of arrogance. It came from a place of humility. We can appreciate— and SHOULD value— the impact others have made. But, we can’t be them. We can be us, bringing the strengths God has given us.

“When we do this,” Clay adds, “it helps us shift our perspective from wondering how we can impress these people to looking for ways we can help serve them.”

#2 = Fight for clarity

Unmet expectations and unsaid assumptions can abound when we don’t purse clarity. On the other hand, if we know where things truly stand, we can walk through virtually anything.

Bryant and Clay worked together to create a 3-month hand-off.

“Bryant led meetings until a specific date,” Clay recalls, “and then I began leading.”

He adds that, “When someone died, Bryant sent them a letter and handled that contact, because it was assumed that he had been involved in their life. But, when a new baby was born, I covered that because it was assumed that I would be involved for their life.”

Clay suggests that we can all create the plan for where we are— and this works even when you’re NOT following a legacy leader. This works in many areas of life.


#3 = Help your successor finish strong

This can be hard to do when you want to distinguish yourself FROM the former…

“But,” Clay offers, “the more you honor them, the more you gain credibilty with people who were following them…”

And, of course, honor is always the right response.

#4 = Don’t rush the change

What got you to where you are won’t get you to where you want to go…

… but you must honor what got you here.

“The truth,” Clay says, “is that people don’t dislike change. Rather, they fear loss. So, you need to walk slowly enough to make sure people know they’re not losing.”

He points to the fact that people change all the time. They change cars, they replace sofas, they try new restaurants…

“Again, people know how to change. They’re used to it. They just fear losing something important.

When you go slowly, a few things happen.

* You build trust. You wouldn’t trust a doctor who gives you advice without looking at you closely… the same is true with leadership.

* You gain buy-in. It takes time for people to actually become aware of what’s happening. You need to find them and invite the right people into the conversation. As you do, you’ll find yourself surprised by how many join you and contribute to the vision.

* You give people the same experience you had. Leaders process things for weeks and months for trying to implement change. But then we expect people to to instantly make that change. When we offer them the time to process it, we gift them the same time it took us.

#5 = Listen to the right people

“Finally,” Clay adds, “you must listen to the right people.”

He points to a Bell Curve.

“10% of the people are on one extreme,” he says. “They love everything you do and will cheer loudly about it.”

“On the other extreme,” he offers, “are another 10%. They’re not only hesitant— they speak out against every decision you make.”

He cautions us NOT to lean only into either group.

“Most of the people— the 80% in the middle— like you,” he contends. “So don’t focus on the extremes. You can certainly learn from them, but you’ll go off course if you only listen to your cheerleaders or pay attention only to the critics.”



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