Everybody Leaves Sooner or Later

An Interview with Warren Bird, coauthor of Next: Pastoral Succession that Works

By Kent Fillinger

What are the key points from Next?

The first is the sobering reminder that we’re all interims. A reality of life is that whatever our role is, someone is going to come after us unless Jesus comes back before then. We try to unfold that in the book. And there’s a theology behind that. Jesus had a succession plan, so shouldn’t you? Moses had a succession plan. And look at how, from Moses to Joshua, it worked so well. But Joshua didn’t have a successor, and the Scriptures include that ominous line in the book of Judges that people didn’t know God, and they did what was right in their own eyes. So there’s a whole lot of biblical precedent for intentional succession planning.

05_Fillinger_INT_JNThen we deal with why don’t we let go. And we talk about the issue of finances. For many pastors, that’s what keeps them at their present location. They can’t afford to go search something out or they can’t find another position that pays as well. Or they don’t let go because they don’t have a clear vision or calling of what they’re going to do next. They’ve awakened every morning, and after saying, “Good morning God,” and praying for their family, they immediately start praying for their church—and sometimes that might even trump the other two. It’s so close to their passion and being, so how can they imagine waking up the next morning and being just as passionate about something else?

The third reason people don’t let go is the idea they don’t know what success for the church looks like. So they keep holding on and saying, “We need to fix this or we need to address that, and then I can let go.” That’s a real misperception.

How do you solve that? You develop leaders at every level. Succession planning is simply the ultimate step of healthy leadership development. If you’ve built a culture in the church where everyone is always training multiple apprentices and potential successors, then it’s a very natural piece to conclude the senior pastor should be doing likewise.

For all of these issues, we don’t just raise the question, we walk people through how to do it.

Warren Bird
Warren Bird

What have you learned since writing Next?

William Vanderbloemen and I discussed the issues that have surprised us or come up the most that we wish we had developed further. One we mention in the book, in passing, is the senior pastor’s spouse. We’ve come to realize that’s often a make or break for succession success.

We’ve talked to too many guys who’ve said, “My wife’s all set. My wife’s on board. We’re ready.” And then we ask, “Can we talk to your wife?” And she talks about how [these changes have] huge family implications, how she’s not ready for it, how her social network is going to be totally changed, and how her husband will have something new to plant into and she won’t. We’ve learned that generally husbands do a lousy job and overestimate how well they’ve done in helping their wives go through the transition. So we wish we had developed that piece more.

Another topic we wish we had developed more is the family handoff. Most commonly, it’s father to son. We’ve found because the son grew up in the pastor’s home, there’s not much intentionality on how do we help Junior build a team that’s going to work for him. The father needs to realize Junior often has different gifts, so he really needs some training in certain areas.

Likewise, the father needs to understand he’s been exposed to certain things over the years that Junior hasn’t seen. I’m just amazed at how little intentionality is given to training. And the congregation can’t push back and say, “Hey senior pastor, we love your son too, but he just isn’t ready in certain areas. You’re his dad and you think the world of him, so you can’t see that. Can we speak into your lives and help you come up with a training plan for him?”

Those are two big areas we say, “Wish we had done more and learned more.”

How can lead ministers better prepare their spouses for an upcoming transition?

Read a book like Next together with your spouse. Let your spouse process the decision making with you starting as early as possible. Also, help your spouse in the three big areas. Talk about the financial implications. Ask your spouse, “What are some of the ways you’d like to spend your final 30 or 60 days with the church? Are there special gatherings you’d like to have?”

Oftentimes it’s just asking the spouse, “What will help you transition?” Then talking it through goes a long way. It’s everything from the finances to dreaming a new dream to the third area of letting go.

What are some of the biggest mistakes churches or church leaders make in anticipating or implementing a succession/transition?

The first one is not starting soon enough. I can’t tell you how many people we talk to after a succession who have said, “I wish I had started mapping out a plan long before my transition.”

To help with a transition, you can develop a teaching team. There’s also the development of leaders who have done one of everything in the church. For example, it’s time for the annual vision-planning thing where you go away and listen to the Lord for the next six months’ worth of sermons. Are you taking someone along with you so they can learn what happens?

How far out should a lead minister and a church plan when it comes to a succession?

It’s far better to begin with a small step today than to wait with no action for an uncalendared future date. The tenure of a lead minister and natural pressure points for an appropriate bridge should be considered. For an intentional transition from a generally happy ministry with no declining attendance numbers or no financial pressures, it’s best if you can start five years out to plan for your succession. The larger the church, the longer the time frame.

Succession planning seems to be getting more attention. However, even with more resources and conversations, your recent research showed that 44 percent of church leaders said their succession readiness was poor or fair1. So what’s still needed to get the message out and to get more pastors to understand the importance of succession planning and develop a plan?

It’s having the conversation like what you’re doing in this issue. The momentum is in the right direction. The question is: How do we accelerate that momentum in a way that overcomes obstacles?

I met with a pastor who said his board didn’t understand the reality of his financial picture and how he needed financial help in order to move on as needed. So one way of accelerating the conversation is for the board to call a meeting with the pastor and to talk honestly about how the board can help the pastor’s long-range financial picture. Most boards assume, and few assume accurately.

The more leadership development that can happen is good because then part of the culture of a church makes it easier to talk about the leadership development of a potential pastor. Getting through the stigma of succession planning is important.

The book says, “Nearly everything rides on the back of the outgoing senior pastor.” What are two or three succession-planning essentials you would want every lead pastor to know and do today?

Begin strengthening your culture of leadership development. I don’t know of any church I’ve ever found with such a strong paradigm of leadership development that the senior pastor didn’t leave wishing that culture were more strongly in place.

Start having the tough conversations with your spouse and with your board. The more you begin having those conversations, the more smoothly the whole system can prepare, adapt, and adjust.

In Next, you talk about how churches, like people, lose flexibility with age, underestimate the need for regular stretching, and overestimate their current flexibility. A recent Lifeway study found that 48 percent of ministers who leave a church said it was because the search committee didn’t accurately represent the church2. So what can church search committees do differently to improve how they describe the church to a potential successor? And what are a couple of key indicators a potential successor should investigate to ensure a better “match”?

I’ve seen searches that move quickly; it’s a “preaching parade,” and the candidate talks with the board, and that’s it. I’ve also seen really thorough processes, where the candidate meets with multiple groups within the church over a span of a weekend.

The more exposure at multiple levels the search process can involve, the more likely the pastor and spouse will have an accurate read of not just what the church says is true, but what really is. So often, the descriptive statements churches use are aspirational. Unless the prospective minister has a way of assessing those statements, they’re left having to take the church at its word.

What advice do you give to incoming leaders on how best to receive the leadership baton and to start running with it?

We use the illustration of “pocket change.” What that really refers to is the relational capital or equity you have. You come in with a limited amount. The more you listen, the more likely you are to receive a little more pocket change, and the more likely the change you spend will reap positive dividends.

The more people feel like you understand their felt needs and the context of what the church has done in the past, the more likely they are to embrace your process of dreaming a new chapter for what God wants to do through the church.

What value or positive impact do you see from a church or a lead minister hiring a succession-planning consultant to help guide the process?

They bring many potential positive benefits, all of which accelerate the process and reduce the number of missteps. Even if you have a good internal candidate, having an outside expert to ask good questions can only benefit the smoothness of the transition. The consultant can also help the church determine the communication plan for which groups to tell and when. They can also help to develop an appropriate pay package and bring wisdom to the process.

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1Warren Bird, “Succession Readiness: Surveying the Landscape of Large Church Pastors,” Leadership Network, accessed at www.leadnet.org.

2Lisa Cannon Green, “Former Pastors Report Lack of Support Led to Abandoning Pastorate,” Lifeway Research, January 12, 2016, accessed at www.lifewayresearch.com/2016/01/12/former-pastors-report-lack-of-support-led-to-abandoning-pastorate/.

Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and director of partnerships with CMF International, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Next: Pastoral Succession that Works, by William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird, was published in 2014 by Baker Books.

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