By Gary Johnson
The interior world of the outgoing leader is a key factor to transitions that succeed.
While each of us knows about different kinds of journeys, I’m exploring a journey that is unique. This journey involves Christians in a local church or parachurch organization, and it is called succession. It happens when the senior leader leaves and a new leader arrives in his place.
Just as every person in the plane, on the train, or in the car travel together, this journey involves everyone in the particular church or parachurch organization. Succession involves more than one minister leaving and another arriving.
In years past, a church would announce their minister’s retirement and then begin a search for his successor. It was all about finding the next right person. Today, we need to understand that succession is more about a process than a person. Though finding the next person is important, it is only one part of a larger process.
Jules Verne wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), a novel in which a professor, his nephew, and a guide descend down an Icelandic volcano into the interior of the earth. There they encounter one peril after another until they safely emerge from an Italian volcano. For a church or parachurch ministry to emerge successfully from the succession process months or years from now, the interior world of the outgoing leader must be in good order.
Every person making the journey of succession must examine his or her heart. They must descend into their interior world and evaluate their motivations. Not every church or parachurch organization succeeds at succession, and for a variety of reasons. But one of the most common—and biblical—reasons for a failed succession is the failure to be humble. Humility must characterize the interior world of the outgoing leader.
It is vital that I personally understand this because I am writing to you while on this journey. Indian Creek Christian Church (The Creek), Indianapolis, Indiana, is in the midst of the succession process. Having been in the ministry for 36 years, I urged the elders to push the proverbial play button on our written succession plan that we developed two years ago. We have begun the process of looking for my successor. With the journey well under way, I continue to examine my interior world and ask God to help me walk daily in humility.
Humility is a virtue, one that was modeled by Jesus Christ. In the apostle Paul’s Christological statement in Philippians 2:8, we read that Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” The word humble means “to lower yourself,” and Jesus did just that. He let go of his equality with God and humbly came to a lower place and position. He deliberately decided to do so. Had he been forced to do so, he would have been humiliated. To lower ourselves in position before and among others is an act of humility. As Christian leaders, we must move into humility if we are to effectively move out of our chair of leadership.
As The Creek makes this journey of succession, I must seek God’s help in making humility a defining part of my interior world, realizing there will be risks along the way. The men in Jules Verne’s novel faced dangerous risks as they moved into the interior of the earth. Similarly, as churches and parachurch organizations enter into the succession process, senior leaders are faced with three very real risks, which humility alone can solve.
The Risk of Not Leaving
Like it or not, sometimes we stay too long. Why? Some senior leaders lack retirement income, while others lack an identity away from ministry. We have no idea how we will pay the bills when the paychecks stop, and we have no sense of how we will serve God after a lifetime of ministry. These two issues alone can cause a senior minister or parachurch leader to stay too long.
Think of it this way. Food products are stamped with an expiration date warning consumers of their shelf life. Milk turns sour and bread grows mold. A person, however, can’t be “stamped” with an expiration date, but we can look for signs indicating we are near the end of our leadership shelf life. Some of the signs include: (1) stale vision and dated ideas; (2) waning urgency and depleted energy; (3) little hunger for learning; (4) unable to adapt to change; (5) no desire to retool leadership skills; (6) passé ministry methods; and (7) coasting in neutral as the preferred speed of leading.
Leaders who admit their best years are behind them, while believing the best years for their successors lie ahead, have allowed humility to saturate their interior world. They will not have to be shown the door. They will start the conversation with the elders or board of directors to actively prepare for succession. Two years ago, I initiated succession planning with our elders. Today, we have a written plan in place and the process is well under way because I believe a younger, high-capacity leader will be needed at The Creek in the years ahead.
In Numbers 27:15-17, Moses asked God to raise up a leader to replace him, and God did. In 1 Kings 1:29, 30, King David did the unthinkable. It was customary for a king to die before a new king took the throne, yet David had Solomon anointed king of Israel prior to his own death.
These two leaders had greater concern for the kingdom of God than for themselves. Can we say the same? The church or parachurch ministry we lead belongs to the Lord, not us. Are we showing signs of declining effectiveness as leaders? When we move into humility, we will have less difficulty in leaving our leadership chair.
The Risk of Not Planning
An old saying still rings true: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Churches and organizations that do not prepare a succession plan will suffer the consequences that can last for years to come. All too often, succession places emphasis on one issue: finding a new leader. Yet, this is only one of many tasks that need to be accomplished if a God-honoring succession is to occur.
Planning is biblical. Joseph had a plan to harvest record crops for seven years so that he could keep untold millions of people alive by feeding them during seven years of record famine. Joshua had a plan for taking possession of the promised land and for parceling it out among the tribes. Nehemiah had a plan for rebuilding the walls and gates of Jerusalem in a record 52 days. Jesus had a plan for making disciples of all nations, and the apostles had a plan for feeding the Greek-speaking widows in Jerusalem.
Do we have a written succession plan? If not, why not? Could it be that fear, pride, or indifference has overtaken our interior world?
An essential part of the succession process involves extensive work with vision, mission, values, and strategic planning. When a church or parachurch ministry is looking for a new leader, it must do some self-assessment. This requires a clear understanding of the vision (i.e., the dream it wants to come true), the mission (i.e., how the dream comes true), and core values (i.e., values driving the ministry). Once the church or ministry identifies or reaffirms who it is, it must then determine where it is going. Accomplishing this involves developing a written strategic plan.
In coaching churches, I encourage them to develop a three-year plan based on the model of Jesus. In three years, he was able to accomplish what his father sent him to do. How can we invite a new senior leader to join our staff team if we don’t know who we are or where we are going?
At The Creek, we know these are essential parts of the succession journey. For this reason, our elders and executive leadership team worked diligently to develop our comprehensive succession plan. Humility compelled us to plan, and humility has allowed me to submit to this plan as we make the journey. Those who have been given a trust must prove faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2).
The Risk of Not Letting Go
Like the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, the leadership pipeline is running dangerously low. Oil once flowed plentifully through the line from the North Slope, and similarly, there was a time when many young people filled our churches and colleges. That is no longer the case.
We need many high-capacity, young leaders to recruit, equip, and empower to serve in our place. Could it be that we risk not letting go of our authority because we have not humbled ourselves in response to this reality?
Paul recruited Timothy as his protégé in ministry. Paul became well acquainted with him, and even spoke of his love for Timothy (1 Corinthians 4:17). Paul affirmed that Timothy was helpful to him in ministry (Philippians 2:19-24). Timothy was known, valued, and loved by Paul. So it should not surprise us that Timothy followed Paul as the pastor of the church in Ephesus. Paul passed leadership responsibility to Timothy.
In a similar way, God directed Moses to give some of his authority to young Joshua (Numbers 27:20). David abdicated his rule to Solomon. John the Baptist became less, while Jesus became more. Let’s face it. We will let go of our authority only to the degree that we have allowed humility to saturate our interior world.
Psalm 127:3-5 has a war motif. This psalm speaks of weapons and enemies. It reads that sons (i.e., the next generation) are like “arrows in the hands of the warrior,” and “blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” Arrows go where the warrior cannot. Likewise, as we continue to fight the kingdom of darkness, we must want the next generation to advance the kingdom of God in ways we could not. We want them to go where we cannot. For that to happen, we must let go of our authority and highly value the next generation of leaders, and that will happen only when our interior world is formed in the humility of Christ.
These issues, and many more like them, are explored in my book Leader><Shift: One Becomes Less While Another Becomes More (available at www.e2elders.org or Amazon.com). A God-honoring succession (i.e., shift in leadership) will happen only if we have a shift in our thinking, which will happen only on the day we move into humility.
Enjoy the journey.
Gary Johnson serves as lead servant at The Creek, Indianapolis, Indiana. Gary coaches leadership teams that are going through succession planning. His book, Leader><Shift: One Becomes Less While Another Becomes More, is available at www.e2elders.org or Amazon.com.