6 Pointers for Leaders Getting Ready to Retire

By LeRoy Lawson

While admitting there is no sure-fire formula for success in succession, I have learned a few things from retiring and watching others retire. Here’s my advice.

“I wanted you to do well. I didn’t want you to do this well.”

I had been away from my 20-year ministry with Central Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona, for more than a year when Cal Jernigan, my successor, invited me back to preach one weekend. It was already evident the church was prospering under his guidance. All I had hoped would happen in that first year after my departure had been accomplished—and more. So I made this little joke.

05_Lawson_JNI spoke the truth—but maybe not all the truth. I had been away only a short while, but already things had been changed. Some of my favorite traditions were gone or going. Cal’s very different style was being stamped on the church’s programs and processes. My own influence was disappearing. (Example: I phoned the office after being away a few months. The telephone receptionist didn’t know who I was. “Who did you say is calling?”)

Not everything about retiring is wonderful.

This is one fact I’ve learned through three major retirements (not counting the little ones). The world somehow goes on without my help!

As a result of these several retirements (and moves to new ministries in my younger years), I have been able to look “up close and personal” at the successor/transition issue from several perspectives:

• As a man coming to the end of a long and satisfying ministry

• As a predecessor trying to pave the way for a successful handoff to his successor

• As a successor coping with the legacy of a successful predecessor

• As a former leader needing to get out of the way of a rising and more energetic younger man

• As a person heavily invested in the organization that continues but with changes under new management

• As a retiree wondering what I could have done differently.

I could cut this article very short and just state the single biggest lesson I’ve learned: There is no sure-fire formula for transitioning. The truth is, no two situations are alike. There is no step-by-step template that, if correctly applied, will guarantee a secure and happy future—for either the church/college/agency or the new or former leader.

In addition to my personal experiences, I had earlier gained some insight from years of informally surveying churches to find the best succession plan. It was a discouraging study. I didn’t find many successes. Sometimes the old minister held on too long, or too tightly. Sometimes the successor introduced too much change too soon, thus splitting or badly splintering the church. No matter what plan was implemented, the success or failure depended heavily on character—the character of the outgoing minister and the incoming one and the character of the elected leadership of the church itself.

One conclusion emerged, however. Contrary to what I had been taught in Bible college (“a minister should have absolutely nothing to do with the selection of his successor”), I learned that a wise minister—for that matter, the wise leader of any large organization—helps the church by initiating transition planning early, earlier than feels comfortable. As I recall, I first approached the subject with our Mesa elders when I was in my early 50s, when I was traveling a great deal. “What if I go down in a plane?” I asked. “What will you do then?”

“We’ll do what we did when we called you. We’ll go out and find someone to replace you,” the chairman answered far too breezily for my comfort. So we did nothing. Just a few years later, however, they were ready. By then they had discovered that a large church (or one of any size) can’t just go out and pluck a new minister off a tree somewhere and find a good “fit.” Thus began the steps that led to Cal Jernigan’s call, who 17 years later is still leading the church.

It didn’t work that smoothly at Hope International University. I had planned to effect a smooth transition there, also, but I couldn’t realize my dream of calling Dr. John Derry to be our executive vice president for a few years before I moved out and he moved into the presidency. We simply didn’t have the money to fund a new office, as important as it was. I’ve been thanking God ever since I retired, though, because the search committee of the university concurred that Derry was the ideal man to follow me. He’s still there, 13 years later, and the school is prospering under his guidance.

So what advice can this oft-retired writer pass on to someone who is anticipating a move, either to another ministry or into retirement? After telling you that there is no sure-fire formula, I shall now offer my less-than-sure-fire formula. Apply with care.

1. First, and this above all else: Retire to, not just from. 

Don’t let the calendar dictate (“Well, I’m 65 and it’s time to quit. So I quit”).

Some ministers faithfully carry out their duties while at the same time planning for their retirement day, say at 65. But not beyond. Then when they leave their posts they are at sea, unsure of themselves and nervous about their future. Since most of us ministers tie our self-identity up in our work (to our detriment), we simply don’t know who we are when we walk away from it.

Happy are those who retire to . . . to a new calling, to a new purpose, to fruitful labor elsewhere. In my own case, my wife has insisted with every retirement that I must leave town. She said that for my sake, for the church’s (or college’s) sake, and for my successor’s sake. So each time we began fairly early planning what we called our “next phase.”

She gives wise counsel. We are doing it again as I write this article in anticipation of my next retirement.

2. Continue to give your best until you leave. Then let go. 

While you are the leader, lead. When you leave, leave. Give everything you have to your ministry as long as you are there.

The temptation to coast is sometimes nearly overwhelming. You know you are leaving, so you shift into neutral. (“That’s no longer my problem.”) When you do, the church coasts and tensions arise.

I have known ministers still in their 50s who have decided they want to stay where they are when they retire—and they begin unconsciously to act as if retired. They—and the church—go into decline. Sometimes they don’t last until retirement age; the church grows impatient with having no one at the helm.

3. Make your decision in the church’s best interest, not your own.

This was a particularly difficult call for me. From both the church and the university, I didn’t feel personally ready to go. My roots go down deep and are pulled up hard. I felt I could still be of use, and I didn’t want to leave “my people.”

Yet at both Central Christian Church and Hope International University, I had to admit that the ministry would be better served by a younger leader with a fresh vision and the energy to reach it. At Central, Cal couldn’t initiate any program with me in the way, and I could sense his reluctance to embrace some things that were dear to me. If you’ll permit me to rip a Scripture out of context, the time had come for me to say, “He must increase and I must decrease.”

4. Accept the fact that the ground is shifting beneath you. 

Once you announce your intention of retiring (or moving to a new ministry), you’ll note that the church is not as committed to following you as before. That’s why we talk about the “lame duck.” The duck is lame!

This is one reason that, having once announced your intent to leave, you don’t want to go back on the decision. You can almost never regain your old leadership position. They know you are on the way out.

5. Work closely with the church’s elected leadership. Be helpful but not controlling.

You may have strong opinions about who or what your successor should be or do, but it is a mistake to try to put your candidate into place. It is no longer “your” church. Still, you can help them find candidates through your connections and resources. In other words, it’s always in order for you to suggest, but never to demand or manipulate.

In addition, you can help them understand the job from a minister’s point of view. You know the job as no one else does.

6. You can prepare your people for change and for a different kind of leader.

You can do this from the pulpit and in your leadership groups. In the final leaders’ retreat I led before leaving Mesa, the theme was “Reinventing Central.” I wanted them to know that even if I weren’t leaving, some fundamental changes needed to be made if the church was going to be effective in its next phase.

They had called a man nearly 20 years younger to be their next minister. He had his own vision. I wanted to help them accept his leadership.

7. Finally, do not allow anyone or anything to create a breach between you and your successor. 

They’ll try, of course. Make it clear to everyone that you have moved on and that the church must do the same. You had your turn. It’s his turn now.

LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and retires this May as professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He has served as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of the Publishing Committee.



A Word to Search Committees

That word is early, as in “start preparing for succession before you think you need to.” Don’t wait until your current minister resigns or is encouraged to seek a ministry elsewhere. The larger your church is, the more important it is to have an ongoing, regularly updated succession plan. The best time to develop and initiate that plan is when you don’t need it. To do so requires a review of your church’s mission (“What exactly are we trying to accomplish here?”) and identifying the kind of leader needed for the church’s next phase.

05_CS-MayCover-hands2_JNAssessing the role of the new minister is as important as reviewing the church’s mission. What do we expect our minister to do for us? Teach? Preach? Administer? Balance the budget? Call on the sick? Evangelize? Equip the saints for their ministries? No one person is equally gifted in all the areas in which today’s pastor is expected to shine. Since that is so (and it is), what does our church require most?

As I write this, the church I’m currently serving as interim pastor is in the interviewing stage. We have reminded ourselves that we are calling our new leader, not just a new employee! Any serious candidate will be interviewing as much as being interviewed. 

I know of one church that spent three years in a futile search for a new minister. The committee was turned down again and again. The reason? They went into the search thinking that any candidate would feel honored to be called to such a prestigious pulpit. As a result, their interrogations of the candidates were one-way, expecting the candidate to measure up to the church’s expectations without realizing that the candidates had some expectations also, a primary one being that they would not be treated as hired help and that they would in fact be encouraged to lead.

The search for a new pastor requires wisdom, humility, and a clear understanding of the church’s purpose and ministry. It begins with and continues in prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, here [in this church] as it is in Heaven.”

—L. L.

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