Succession planning

Succession Planning

Are you thinking ahead? What will happen to the church you lead when you move on? Who will take over? Every pastor should be thinking about these questions because succession planning is a gospel issue.

Every pastor is an interim pastor. Once you come to terms with that truth you may be ready to face the topic addressed in Next: Pastoral Succession that Works1. But it is still painful. Well, I think it is.

The book looks at the thorny issue of finishing your term as a pastor and passing it on to someone else. The authors especially look at the way your formal pastoral ministry comes to an end as pastors prepare for retirement. In other words: what is your succession plan?

Rick Warren describes it like this:

“Succession planning isn’t something people want to talk about, but it’s a looming crisis.”

Similarly John Ortberg says:

“Wisdom around pastoral succession is one of the great needs of the church today.”

So this resource may get you to start thinking about it.

It is written from an American context and the facts and figures aren’t easily translatable. But there is tons of wisdom. Sadly some of it comes from watching what happens when the best of leaders in the strongest of churches get it completely wrong.

There are no easy formulas for ‘success’, except to say that long-term gospel impact does depend on a good succession plan. Planning for that can’t start too early. It’s the main lesson that is underscored by the book.

Applying the Principles

So I’ve started to think about succession planning at Grace. I moved to Bedford in 1979, had four children here, and they all have come back after uni, training, and so on. Meanwhile the kids have had kids (seven grandchild at the moment) and we are very attached to them. We have now lived in the same house for 35 years. It is growing old with my wife Jenny and me.

I am also very attached to the church I love. I became a pastor in 1982 and have led this one church ever since. So handing it over is a hugely significant and critical thing.

Critical for me as I have seen brothers in ministry who retire, seem to relax in their first six months, and then find they miss it terribly.

So how do you ‘wean off’ your role while still loving the church you belong to? Some move away to give themselves a fresh start elsewhere and so avoid the temptation to interfere with ‘the next man’. Some denominations even insist on it. Many report their struggles. Is that my future? Could it be yours too?

I recall a very wise saying from Pablo Martinez, the Christian psychiatrist from Barcelona. He argued that any worker coming up to retirement needs to start replacing the significance received from paid employment, with other interests that give a sense of personal well-being. And that mustn’t just be a personal hobby or sport! There is a place for that (I have plans for a model railway, for the grandchildren of course, up my loft). Mainly, it has to be something where you benefit others in some kind of volunteer role.

And you need to begin moving towards that replacement habit FIVE years out. So, by the time you formally retire, you have swapped your attention, if not affection to something else that is significant to you.

Common Pitfalls

So I am wondering about all of this. So is the leadership team at Grace. So are the members. I think it’s better to be up front about it and honestly work on it. That’s the authors’ sage advice in Next too.

Timing is tricky. And for various reasons. One is that a leader’s ability to preach can continue far longer than an ability to keep on top of energetically leading the church with all that has to happen for it to keep forging ahead with new gospel initiatives.

The book tells some sad stories where the difference between preaching well and leading well weren’t understood, and men went on doing the one and thinking they were doing the other for far too long, to the detriment of the church.

Some are the exception to the rule that most preachers ‘attract’ people aged 10 years either side of them to the church, and then the church ages with them. Are you sure you aren’t doing that?

Some Practical Pointers

Money is also a big issue. How can you afford to employ two men to have a good cross-over period? And how long is long enough? Six months seems woefully inadequate. Three to five years may be a better stab from what I have seen. To make it a success a church needs to seriously plan for this and members need to realise how critical it is for them to be involved in this practical way.

Now, many churches in Britain characteristically opt for an ‘interregnum policy’. The old pastor leaves, the committee tries to get some younger men to come to ‘preach with a view’. It may be the best you can do given your resources.

But larger churches, who usually have had long-term ministries, will need to think about alternatives to this model for succession. They will have leadership teams with people serving in various capacities. Is one person standing out as a natural successor? Maybe. But many have found that leading when the buck stops with you is a different pressure from when you are advising someone else. Mentoring, without controlling, by the out-going senior may prove critical to the successor. That is why a decent crossover is key. It is money well-spent.

Perception is a difficult thing too; from everyone’s point of view. Some will be very nervous of anything new while others can’t wait. The old will see the young as inexperienced; the young will see the old as defensive. And that may just among the leaders!

The wisdom from Next? Let the outgoing pastor keep cheering on the vision for the future under the new leader, and the younger man celebrate the achievements of the past. Mutual affirmation then enables the whole church to do the same with the past and the future.

So we have tried to talk honestly about the structures of leadership we use, how we are going to pass that on, to whom, and when. You may want to read my article on Pat Lencioni’s book, The Advantage, in which I describe one way of beginning that awkward discussion.

Perhaps the most important lesson? It is the old one the Master taught us all. Without denying the gifts and opportunities that God has given you, and the experiences he has shaped you by, nevertheless every interim pastor has to, “lose his life for my sake” (Matt 10:39) as he comes towards the end of pastoral church ministry so that he may truly “find it”, and the gospel succeed for another generation.

1. William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird, Next: Pastoral succession that works (Baker, 2014).

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