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4 Types of Succession Plans

In an earlier post, I explored a bare-bones chronological overview for thinking about leadership succession as it related to senior or lead pastors.

In this post, let’s consider 4 basic types of leadership transitions.

I’ve observed that churches typically follow one of four types of transitions. Of course there are hybrids, but they generally fall into these four patterns:

  1. An Internal Candidate with a multi-year transition. The current lead pastor is not needing to quickly transition out, but the leadership is wanting the smoothest transition possible. Typically, this means the successor is given more teaching time, responsibility, and visibility.

  2. An Internal Candidate with a rapid transition (less than six months or immediate). This is often a well-known successor. If the church is large, this is usually a teaching pastor or associate that is very accessible and visible in the church.

  3. Outside Candidate with a multi-year transition. This person may be brought on as an associate or teaching pastor and is aware they are being developed for the role. There are clear benchmarks for success and an established timeline.

  4. An Outside Candidate with a rapid transition (less than six months or immediate). This is often the case in mainline churches where a “discernment team” or “succession committee” (typically made up of elders or board members) may spend up to two years finding a candidate and are served by an interim pastor during the search. In large or mega churches, they may work with a headhunting organization.

Successions can be mapped out on this graph: the horizontal axis is a continuum from a “Disruptive Transition” to “Healthy Transition” while the vertical axis goes from “Culturally Discordant” to “Culturally Assimilated.” Cultural assimilation of the new leader is critical for ongoing vision and values…or equally critical if he or she needs to establish a new vision where there was none or perhaps even challenge the current status quo culture.

If a church is relatively healthy, the obvious quadrant to aim for is B. It means the candidate clearly relates to the culture not just theologically, value-wise, in praxis, and emotionally, but with all the unique ingredients that nuance church cultures.

I have a good friend from England who told me in many ways it was more difficult adapting to the American church culture than his extended missionary work in Nicaragua, primarily because he assumed the obvious similarities and roots would make it easier to adapt. Not necessarily so.

Culture is very difficult to describe, often because we may use the same verbiage, for instance, “evangelism”, “leadership ethos”, “community”, “relational accessibility”, “vulnerability”, “mission”, “Biblical authority”—but they can be experienced and expressed differently to each party. To be candid, that is what we thought we understood but missed in a transition I was personally part of.

For instance, just think how differently something as vital and critical as worship can mean in a church community? We might all use the same word, agree on its importance, and even adjectivize it as “culturally-relevant worship”, but the expression of that can be radically different.

Of the four primary patterns above, there is no right or wrong approach, but the obvious crucial element is the familiarity factor of the candidate. And even with the best testing and HR systems, time will always be the best indicator of a person’s intrinsic cultural views.

Dave Workman | Elemental Churches

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