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The Success in Succession

Are You Future-Thinking?

There’s been a lot written about senior pastors’ transition and succession, particularly as Boomers are in the throes of figuring out what’s next. I’ve been on both sides of successful transitions, following a catalytic lead pastor/churchplanter as well as turning over my senior pastor leadership to a next gen leader. The reality is: it’s rarely easy because all of us carbon-based bipeds are complicated and easily blur the lines between “what we do” and “who we are”, no matter how integrated we think our psyches are. What’s more, while boards and lead pastors either avoid or gingerly approach severances and finances, it’s undeniably at the forefront of the outgoing pastor’s concerns, no matter how much he or she may downplay it.

Face it: leadership change—and how we process it—can be complex. But as many of us have said for years: it’s not about me. And as leaders, we should add: it’s about the Kingdom…and this local expression and ongoing effectiveness.

A few years back the Hartford Institute did a study on senior pastors’ tenures. Their findings showed a diminishing “spiritual vitality” in churches as pastors grew older. The corollary was simple: the older the pastor, the more likely that worship has ceased to be creative or open to change and improvement. Or as the report expressed it:

“…the older the senior pastor is and the longer at the church, the greater likelihood that the church will routinize and become less flexible within an ever-changing cultural context.”

Of course there are outliers. But that’s just it: outliers are not the norm for healthy, effective churches. Any senior pastor worth their salt will want the best for the people they lead, no matter how difficult the decision. And the simple truth is that every church will have changes in leadership; it’s unavoidable. But while there is no one-size-fits-all approach, I think it's smart to take a step back first and think about some succession stages:

First things first. As a general rule of thumb, I think it’s wise for pastors in their forties to make sure the church has a clear process on how the next pastor is selected. Is there a need for improvement or clarity in the bylaws or church constitution? What parts do the elders or board play? Is the pastor involved and to what extent? Is there a search team…and how are they selected? Does the congregation or staff have a role? Is there a clear job description and profile? There may be dozens of different methods and approaches, but the point here is to make sure that everyone understands what the process is.

In their fifties, it’s ideal if a pastor has someone potentially identified. At some point during this time, it’s wise to begin the conversation. We worked with one church that had been without a senior pastor for nearly a year after they lost their senior pastor to a sudden retirement. They had a very strong contender in an associate pastor and the elders recognized him as the next senior pastor. Only one problem: they had never shared that with him. The lack of conversation caused the potential leader to assume they were not…and with his pastoral-leadership “clock” ticking, he moved on to another church.

The sixties are generally a good time to release leadership. It doesn’t mean the senior pastor is quitting ministry per se, but rather is recognizing the need to create space for younger, empowered leaders. They see the power of letting go of personal power, of releasing fresh energy into the organizations they love. When succession is done well, the church looks forward to new challenges while honoring the past in a way that doesn't handicap the new leader.

How is your church handling succession? Have these earlier conversations taken place yet?

Dave Workman | Elemental Churches


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