This is a very big deal! For a senior pastor to pour his heart and life into one congregation for 24 years—there are lifetime friends, powerful memories, and a deep love for the congregation he is now leaving. Watching someone else ‘take your place’ is painful, but doing this well is important,” says Pastor Ray Bearden.
In February of 1994, God led Dr. Ray Bearden from years of ministry as a church planter in Louisiana and Northern Virginia to be the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodbridge, VA (FBCW). The church had emerged from a tumultuous exit of the previous pastor, with a resulting decline in morale, attendance, and hope. Through Bearden’s tenure as pastor, FBCW grew to over 1,000 in weekly worship attendance, moved geographically to a central location within the community, and became involved in missions and church planting locally and internationally.
Evaluation and Recommendation
Several years ago, FBCW’s leadership recognized that the church was plateauing. They engaged Unstuck, a congregational advisory/coaching group, to assist in evaluating the church and recommending changes to stimulate growth. Bearden recalls, “At the same time, I had a growing sense of developing a framework for pastoral transition.”
God continued to confirm to Pastor Ray through prayer, private readings, family changes, the Unstuck church evaluation, and his desire to “end well” that it was time—time for him to prepare to pass the mantle to the next leader God had for FBCW.
In January of 2016, First Baptist Church of Woodbridge voted to enlist the help of Vanderbloemen Search Group (VSG) to help them through the transition. “VSG,” Bearden explains, “has a defined process that allowed for a clear determination of the congregation’s needs, a nationwide search, and a process for congregational affirmation and call.”
Through William Vanderbloemen’s book, Next, Bearden was reminded that “everybody is an interim.” With prayer, VSG’s report, and discussions with family and church elders, Bearden decided February 2018 (his 24th anniversary as senior pastor) would be his last month at FBCW. He announced this to the church in October 2016, and the pastor search process began later that year.
The search committee was primarily lay led, with ex-officio members consisting of senior staff and elders. “I participated early as things began,” says Bearden, “and then stepped away until candidates were identified and we moved toward interviews.”
The committee was careful to rely on prayer through every step of the process. After narrowing it down to six candidates by early 2017, “It was a rather easy sense of God’s leading to our primary candidate, Brad Kirby,” Bearden shares. “The interviews, site visits, and connections with key leaders all confirmed in every way that this was God’s person for our congregation.”
Dr. Brad Kirby has served for 23 years in vocational ministry—as senior pastor in churches in Louisiana, Texas and, most recently, at First Baptist Church, Jenson Beach, FL. When the VSG consultant asked Kirby what he thought of Washington, DC, Kirby recalls saying, “I don’t think of Washington, DC.”
The Kirbys were involved in a thriving church in the middle of two of the most unchurched counties (Port Saint Lucy and Martin) in South Florida and were not necessarily looking to move, much less to Metro DC. Nevertheless, “If God was going to call us somewhere,” Kirby reflects, “shame on us if we were going to rule it out just because of a location.” Step by step, they prayed and sought the Lord and gained peace through the process.
Having followed a long-tenured pastor at his previous church, Kirby was a little nervous about doing so again. “Following a faithful, long-tenured pastor is not easy,” he says. “[The former pastor] sets a standard for right and wrong. People are connected to his personality, and it can often take a while for them to transition.” The Kirby family arrived at FBCW in August of 2017, and Pastor Bearden had committed to remain as senior pastor until February 2018. There was, therefore, a period of overlap between the two. Neither pastor had been in this unique circumstance before, and it was unclear how things would go.
“This transition has been highly successful due to Pastor Ray [Bearden],” Kirby shares. “Success in these situations is more dependent on the outgoing pastor than the incoming pastor. I could have done everything I’ve done and done it to the best of my ability. Yet, if the previous pastor is not committed to leaving in a way that honors Christ and doesn’t have the Gospel at heart, he could easily undo everything the new pastor does.”
“For the outgoing senior pastor, there has to be an awareness that he has the incredible and powerful opportunity to sabotage the process,” agrees Pastor Bearden. “He has the opportunity to embody the transition of the congregation from the old to the new.” Bearden saw his primary role as facilitating a “smooth landing” for Pastor Kirby and supporting the congregation through the process.
Bearden wanted to “leave well” and “provide a strong foundation for continued Kingdom growth.” He wanted the congregation to view the timing and the process of his departure positively with readiness for what was next.
One of the ways he set a good foundation was by participating in fewer church meetings over time, which allowed Kirby to be clearly viewed as pastor. Between August and December 2017, FBCW officially installed Brad Kirby as senior pastor and officially celebrated Pastor Ray Bearden’s 24 years of service.