Big Shoes


Gene Bartow—John Wooden, Jay Leno—Johnny Carson, Tim Floyd—Phil Jackson, Harry S. Truman—Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Most likely, you have arrived at the significance of these pairs of names; they are legends in their respective worlds preceded by the people that followed them, the ones who were asked to “fill the shoes” of a legend.

Filling “big shoes” can be an incredibly daunting task. When Truman assumed the presidency after the death of FDR, he is said to have told a group of reporters, “Boys, if you pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

To be sure, Truman’s circumstances are vastly different from a transition in our ministry. Nevertheless, president or principal, if you’re the individual taking over for the “legend,” chances are you have wondered, “How can I fill these shoes?” and, perhaps, even felt like a load of hay was falling on you.

As a person who has experienced this challenge through various roles over my years in Lutheran high schools, I offer some simple thoughts to anyone who shares this path:

It is vitally important to constantly remind yourself that it is all about the Mission--GOD’S MISSION, not yours! 

There is no better time for that reminder than when you assume the leadership role, especially when you have “big shoes to fill.” The focus should always be on God and His purpose. During my first year as principal, in fact the first few months, I was asked by an NHS student from my former school if I would speak at their Fall Induction. “I must be in high demand as a speaker now that I’m a principal,” I thought.  As I talked to the student on the phone, I paused, as if to check my busy speaking schedule. Finally, I answered yes, I was pretty sure that I could arrange my schedule to fit in a presentation at their ceremony. The student answered innocently enough and as only a bluntly honest teenager could: “Oh thank you sooo much, because you’re like the fifth person we’ve asked!” Her response took me down a peg or two and was a great reminder that it’s not about me! 

It’s also important to come to terms with the fact that your gifts may be vastly different from those of the person whose place you are taking.

God can and will use your strengths in different ways and that service can shine through your unique gifts. It can be tempting to simply roll forward, never taking the time to clarify the personal strengths that will be used to accomplish His mission. It’s important to consider that there are most likely very good reasons that you have been placed in the position you are assuming. You can move into your new role with confidence that God has a plan to use your set of gifts in moving HIS mission forward.

As a new leader, change is critical; so is recognizing, appreciating and maintaining the momentum created by those “big shoes” you are filling.

With all the waves of administrative challenges now breaking toward you, don’t forget that you are now overseeing a successful landscape attributable in many ways to your predecessor.  Change, of course, is critical as the new leader. But the successful ministry you now find yourself leading is due to great decisions and tireless efforts of the person whose place you are taking. It’s okay, in fact it’s wise to take advantage of the solid and thriving foundation already established by the “legendary leader.” It’s a wise new leader who can identify aspects that need change and how to apply their unique gifts to help facilitate that change. A wise leader also recognizes aspects that should not change.

Ultimately, the “legend” and the new leader share a common joy in the ministry: To know the joy of playing a part in God’s plan for our youth.

I John 1:4 says, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”


Paul Looker

is the new Superintendent of the Lutheran High School Association of Greater Detroit. He can be reached at