Lead pastor changes can be stressful for a church, with drawn-out candidate searches and difficulty maintaining continuity of leadership and vision. But Graceland Church, New Albany, Indiana, handled things a bit differently.
Over the last eight months Pastor Larry Riley has prepared to step into a new role as executive pastor of care and mission, while Nathan Millican, pastor of church plant partnerships, planned to step into the lead pastor position.
The change took effect Jan. 1 as Millican began his new role as the lead pastor.
“It’s unusual in many regards, especially the fact that he’s staying on in another role,” Millican said. “I want to really thank Pastor Larry and the elders for thinking ahead to the next driver of ministry at Graceland Church.”
Church elder Reuben NesSmith said that a big benefit of handling the transition this way is continuity of leadership. “It has kept the church body from experiencing ‘leadership whiplash’ when someone new comes in and wants to alter course, as can be the case,” he said. “There might be some alterations, but those tend to be less dramatic with this model.”
“It’s about continuity, familiarity,” Millican said. “They know me. They’ve observed my life, and they know my family. There are no surprises.”
Millican originally joined the staff of the 70-year-old New Albany church Jan. 1, 2019, in a part-time capacity as the pastor of church plant partnerships while still serving full-time with the North American Mission Board overseeing church planting for Indiana. While informal conversations about him becoming lead pastor were had shortly after, he was not hired with that intent.
Navigating leadership ‘landmines’
Official conversations started in the summer of 2020, and that fall the church hired Will Heath as a succession consultant. “He helped us navigate leadership and succession landmines,” Millican said. The transition officially started in May 2021 after a 99% vote of affirmation by the Graceland congregation.
Riley noted, “Through the whole process we have tried to maintain transparent communication and keep the church informed and aware of what was going on. This allowed them to develop trust in leadership and to pray specifically for the process.”
NesSmith credits the smooth process to “the goodness of God to Graceland. This is all His doing. I am thankful for men and women that were obedient to pray through this, be patient and wait on God’s timing.”