Multiplication Center

Is Your Church Ready if Your Senior Pastor Should Depart?

May 14, 2015

By Warren Bird

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Last month I met with a former senior pastor. Exactly 30 years ago he was leading the largest-attendance church in his region and the congregation had just dedicated a new facility with the largest seating capacity in its state. Yet on the day of my visit, the wrecking ball was leveling the church facility, and previously the bankrupt congregation had been disbursed to other churches.

I asked the now-retired pastor to describe his succession plan. “I was so convinced that Jesus would return any day that I never thought about planning for my succession,” he said. I gently reminded him of the Proverbs commending the ant who gathers food for the upcoming winter, and Luke 14 where Jesus talks about counting the costs before taking on a big project. “Even Jesus had a succession plan,” I added, while affirming that indeed Jesus’s second coming could occur even before we finished our interview.

The pastor responded with great sincerity and passion: “I figured I was the exception. Jesus was coming back. Why worry about succession?”

Perhaps this is an extreme example, but the hard facts are that too many church leaders have not developed a succession plan for the inevitable day when they — or the senior pastor they serve — pass the leadership baton to the next person. This is both for emergency successions (sudden death, moral failure, etc.) and intentional successions (moving to a new calling, retirement, etc.).

Not only are there implications for the ongoing spiritual momentum of the church, but there are financial realities as well. A recent article about succession in the business world began, “Poor planning for changes in leadership costs companies dearly. Getting it right is worth more than you might think.” The article then calculates a hefty financial price tag in the difference between a poorly managed and a well-handled succession. Then it adds, “Those hard financials pale in comparison to the less visible costs. Turmoil and uncertainty at the top filter quickly down through the organization, slamming the brakes on growth initiatives, hindering the closing of vital deals, and causing some valued employees to start looking for new positions elsewhere.” Many of these concepts have parallels in churches.

elephant-in-the-boardroom-weese-and-crabtree1Executive pastors and other staff often wonder, “Pastor hasn’t raised the topic, but we really need to, even if only to be ready in case of an emergency succession.” Ten years ago the leading book on pastoral succession was titled The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken about Pastoral Transitions. It was an apt title, but much has changed, especially as team ministry and leadership development have come more into play. In a recent book William Vanderbloemen and I co-authored, Next: Pastoral Succession that Works, we give lots of examples of how people begin the dialog, whether on their own initiative, or at the prompting of

next1close staff and advisers. We suggest ways to create a safe place and healthy framework for such conversations. We also explore the three dominant reasons why so many longer-term pastors have difficulty in processing the issue: lack of financial planning, lack of clarity on what success could look like after they move on, and lack of a dream or calling for what they might do next.

For those teams that have begun the discussion and want coaching in how best to proceed, Leadership Network has designed a 48-hour highly interactive experience called Succession HUB, slated for November 3-5, 2015, in Mesa, AZ. Limited to larger churches, it brings together several experts, helpful resources, and other teams currently on the same journey. The idea is to help each church define success, develop their plan and determine next steps.

I will be one of the co-leaders, along with Leadership Network CEO Dave Travis. We’d love to serve you there. For details, see www.leadnet.org/succession.

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