The subject of transitioning in ministry is one which many leaders in the church and other Christian organisations seldom talk about, let alone plan for. Whilst leaders know from life and biblical experience that change in leadership is inevitable, and that transitioning may have to take place some day in the future, there is no planning that is embarked on to prepare for this.
The failure of continuity in most churches is often due to lack of a deliberate plan to develop leadership while the incumbent leader is in office.
The reality that every pastor, minister or leader is in their role for a season is supported by the fact that no one and nothing is permanent under the sun. We are in the service of the master but one day we must pass on what we do to someone else. The best-case scenario for some leadership positions such as pastoral ministry would be for leaders to stay in their roles indefinitely. There are benefits to longevity in one station of ministry. However, the realities of life demand that even in this case, an intentional plan for transition and passing the leadership baton is very essential for the future health of any ministry.
It should concern us that very few leaders actually think like that. If we
know that leadership will change at some point in in the future, why not plan for it now? It is said that a starting point for assuming a healthy leadership ministry is the acknowledgment of the fact that sometime in the near future leadership will change hands.
The Scriptures are full of examples where leadership changed hands.
There are different scenarios from the Old Testament through to the New
Testament. Although the circumstances differ from one example to another, the reality of the matter is that leadership changed hands. We have the case of Moses to Joshua; Samuel to Saul; David to Solomon; Elijah to Elisha; Paul to Timothy and Jesus to his apostles. The latter spent three years investing his life into the disciples to ensure a smooth transition of his ministry to the apostles.
Biblical leadership transition–Moses and Joshua The Bible provides us with many examples of leadership transition. Moses’ transfer of leadership to Joshua is one such case. The leadership transfer from Moses to Joshua provides noteworthy instructions from which I want us to draw some principles on biblical leadership transfer. Moses was called to lead the
people of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land. This was according to the promise God gave to Abraham. Moses was a faithful and successful leader for 40 years. However, he disobeyed God’s command and disqualified himself from leading the people into the promised land. (Deut. 32:48–52). It is from here that we see the example of a transition and a handing over the baton of leadership to Joshua. The death of Moses did not in any way change the plan and promise of God to get his people to the promised land because God had prepared another leader in Joshua. How did this happen?
The transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua presents one of the best examples of developing leadership and handing over leadership to those we develop. A careful look at Moses and Joshua’s relationship will show why this change of leadership was effective and provides a good model for the church of Jesus Christ today.
Moses preparing Joshua for leadership
Joshua’s development and preparation for leadership to succeed Moses started way before the death of Moses. For forty years before Moses’ death, God had started to prepare Joshua for the task of leading the people into the Promised Land. A day before his death, Moses asked God to provide a successor to lead the people after his departure (Num. 27:15–23). God directed him to Joshua,
whom he had already been preparing for many years. This was not by chance. There is both divine providence and human responsibility here.
Notice here that we first meet Joshua in the book of Numbers where he
was chosen by Moses to be one of the 12 spies sent to spy out the land (Num. 13:8). Out of the 12, only Joshua and Caleb came back with a good report (Num. 16 14:6–9). It should not be a surprise, therefore, that of the 12 men who went to spy the land—and of the entire generation—only Caleb and Joshua were allowed to enter the Promised Land (Num. 14:38). The Lord honoured their faith in Yahweh.
Consider again the first leadership responsibility given to Joshua by Moses in Exodus 17:8–16. This is where Joshua is selected by Moses to lead the Israelite army into battle against the Amalekites. Moses had already recognised leadership qualities in Joshua. God was developing and preparing Joshua through Moses by training him as a warrior in warfare skills that will later be needed to successfully lead the people into the Promised Land. Any successful leadership transition begins with this discernment of potential qualities of leadership in the successor-to-be.
Joshua is mentioned again in Exodus 24:12–14, where he accompanies
Moses up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. Notice that Joshua is now referred to as Moses’ assistant. It is worth noting that Moses had assumed the role of a mentor to Joshua. This intentional relationship paved way to a successive passing on of the leadership baton. We see the ministry of Moses closely knitted to Joshua. Joshua is now in the inner circle of leadership development close to Moses, learning the ropes of leadership (as the saying goes). Even when Moses smashed the two tablets (Ex. 32:15–20), Joshua was next to him. He is learning hands-on ministry and leadership skills from Moses’ relationship with God and his people.
When Moses went in the tent to meet God face to face, Joshua guarded
the tent of meeting and never departed from it (Ex. 33:7–11). It is recorded that Joshua would often remain at that holy place called “the tent of meeting” even after Moses returned to the camp. Joshua was exposed to God’s direct dealings with Moses, which enhanced his spiritual life and his leadership savvy.
Joshua was present when the Lord sent his Spirit upon the seventy leaders (Num. 11:17). Notice that Joshua is said to be the assistant of Moses from his youth (Num. 11:28). These narratives concerning Joshua’s relationship with Moses highlight God’s role and man’s (Moses) responsibility in preparing
this future leader. The development of Joshua as a leader and his spiritual character grew through gradual exposure to various leadership positions assigned to him by Moses. This was before he was officially ordained to greater leadership responsibility. All this happened prior to Moses’ death (Num. 27:18-23).
Moses passing the leadership baton to Joshua When Moses was informed that he will not be the one to lead the people into the Promised Land he knew that the people would need a leader (Num. 27:12– 17). So, Moses asked God to provide a leader to whom he will hand over his leadership baton in these words, “Moses spoke to the LORD saying, ‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh set a man over the congregation, who may go before them, who may lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep which have no shepherd’”
(Num. 27:15–17).
God ordered the transition: The process of transition began with a word from the Lord to Moses—“…the LORD said to Moses….” It was not something Moses came up with. It was not initiated by the people. It was initiated by the LORD speaking to the current leader. God began the process
with the current leader instructing him to pass on leadership to Joshua. Moses did what he was told (see Num. 27:22). This is an example of what ministry should look like.
God chose the replacement: “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit….” God told Moses who the next leader was to be. He directed Moses to Joshua for the assignment. It is important to note that Moses did not choose his own successor, nor was he chosen by a congregation or popular vote. The replacement of the leader is the work of God and not man, not even committees or even leaders. The work of the current leaders is to simply “hear and obey.” That is what we see Moses doing in this passage. The current leadership is the means through which God fulfils this. This is important to note.
God directs the process for this transition: “Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence.
Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him” (Num. 27:19–20). Moses publicly set apart Joshua and gave some of his authority to him so that the Israelites may acknowledge and obey him as a leader. The other directive was to “have him stand before Eleazer the priest”.
This was important because Joshua would be working with Eleazar the priest.
However, what was crucial was that the entire community had to witness the transfer and respect the new leadership. Why make this a big deal? Leadership transition should not be a private matter. When Moses died, no one could doubt that Joshua was the man appointed to lead Israel.
Principles on leadership transition—Moses to Joshua
Let me conclude by highlighting some biblical principles that guided the
transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua.

  1. God is in charge of succession: When Moses realised he would need a
    successor, he asked God to provide one. God directed him to Joshua.
    Recognising and developing emerging leaders will continue to be a task of
    current leadership. However, the choice of a successor remains in God’s
    hands alone.
  2. Existing leaders have the responsibility to recognise and develop emerging
    leaders: The leaders should know that their success is judged by their
    successor. There is need to keep in mind that sometime in the future
    leadership will change. Thus, there is need to train and prepare the emerging
    generation of leaders (Deut. 6:6–9; 20–25)
  3. Existing leaders should have a succession plan: To know that one day
    leadership will exchange hands should make the existing leaders have a
    succession plan by developing and personally mentoring potential leaders.
    Moses mentored Joshua for nearly 40 years before the leadership transition
    took place. In our busy world, leaders must have in their agenda a transition
    plan and they must invest time and their lives in it.
  4. Existing leaders should know they are not indispensable: Leaders need to
    acknowledge and recognise their limitation and that they are dispensable.
    We all live in the shadow of our ego and tend to think that a church or
    organisation could not continue without us! But if that were to be true, it
    would be a tragedy. If it is the work of God, it will continue even without us.
    Moses knew that he would die before entering the Promised Land because
    God told him. The wise leader realises that one day he will step down from
    leadership and pass off leadership when it is time.
  5. Existing leadership should have a plan for shared leadership: God told
    Moses to share some of his authority with Joshua so that the people would
    begin to acknowledge and obey Joshua as a leader (Num. 27:20). This will
    call for humility, trust and courage to share authority and allow the people
    to follow another leader outside themselves. The attitude of entrusting and
    trusting must prevail for a successful leadership transfer to happen.
    Passing on the leadership baton is always a challenge. However, when
    leadership transfer is handled according to biblical principles, it often launches
    the church or an organisation into a more fruitful phase of God’s purposes for
    it. One obvious reason for the seamless transition between Moses and Joshua
    was due to the relationship they had with each other. Visionary leaders plan for
    their exit and prepare for the inevitable transition to a new leader. The Scriptures
    are full of such examples—Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus and his
    disciples, and Paul and his mentees. Great spiritual leaders follow in the
    footsteps of great spiritual leaders in the Bible. A successful ministry without a
    successor is ultimately a failure because that success has no lasting future.
    Maxwell, John C. 1995. Developing the Leaders Around You. Nashville:
    Thomas Nelson.
    Mullins, Tom. 2015. The Passing the leadership Baton. Nashville: Thomas