By Jason Yeatts
Succession depends on the interior world of everyone involved. If a person’s interior world is out of order, then failure is inevitable. When fear, pride, or indifference take up residence inside a church or parachurch organization, conflict and confusion emerge and grow. A succession process has little hope of overcoming these roadblocks unless another attitude, humility, prevails.
Paul said, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3, 4). This starts with the senior leader. In humility he must recognize when it is time to leave, write his succession plan, and let go of his authority.
If the interior world of the senior leader is full of pride and fear, then the rest of the church or organization will struggle to navigate well his succession. But if the outgoing leader moves in humility, the entire place can move forward in unity.
Paul’s challenge in 1 Corinthians 11:1 remains relevant and essential: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” If outgoing leaders will saturate their interior world with humility, then the people they lead will follow their example. At The Creek, I have seen this firsthand. Two years ago our senior minister, Gary Johnson, demonstrated humility by acknowledging it was time to begin preparing to leave, writing his succession plan, and starting to let go of his authority as a new generation of leaders emerged.
Since then, he has helped our elders, staff, and congregation examine their interior world. As we have moved deeper into our journey of succession, we have faced several risks. These risks are very real—not just for The Creek but for any church or parachurch organization that has entered the succession process.
The Risk of Not Playing on the Same Team
If elders, staff members, and lay people pursue their individual agendas, promote themselves, and race after their own successes, they’re writing a recipe for disaster. James 3:16 tells us, “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
Humility, however, fosters teamwork. When we seek humility and ask God to help us, we become the kind of people who pursue the good of others. We want the best for every person on our team. We champion each other as we walk together in the journey of succession.
As humility spreads internally, silos collapse, and deep partnerships form between elders, staff, and the congregation. Different departments collaborate. Elders and staff form friendships. Lay leaders of different ministries meet together over dinner. People in the congregation care for each other. At every layer of involvement, the whole place is infused with humble acts of service and generosity.
This isn’t just a dream. It is possible in every church or ministry going through the succession process. I can say from experience that The Creek is experiencing some of the blessings of humility as we journey through succession. This is not to say that our interior world is without pride or fear. But these traits are dissolving as humility grows among our elders, staff, and congregation.
Our elders have formed friendships with many of our staff members. And the elders are invested in shepherding the flock at The Creek. Not only do several of them teach their own Bible classes or lead a small group, they also have publicly taught the entire congregation. In January 2016, for example, our elders preached a sermon together explaining each of The Creek’s five core values. They are modeling what it means to play on the same team.
I have also experienced staff unity during the succession process. I am on an interdepartmental team that is creating a simple plan to help people get connected relationally. We believe transformation happens in relationships. This team includes representatives from student ministry, children’s ministry, global outreach, care ministries, and adult discipleship. We are creating a common language to categorize different levels of connection at The Creek. This will help people know their next step for spiritual and emotional growth.
None of this would be possible without a spirit of humility permeating our interior world.
By playing on the same team, we are preparing the way for the next senior leader at The Creek. We are laying a foundation of collaboration among elders, staff, and lay leaders that will allow Gary Johnson’s successor to move seamlessly into his new seat. He will not be viewed as a threat to our ambitious agendas, but will be humbly welcomed as the new coach for our team.
The Risk of Not Using the Same Playbook
Ego can keep people from using the same playbook. One of two things usually happens. Either there is no playbook and no one cares. Or there is a playbook and no one cares.
When there is no playbook, egotism can creep inside and whisper to a person, “Do your own thing. Build your ministry the way you want to build it. You can succeed alone.”
When there is a playbook, egotism can spread and cause apathy and disorder. “You don’t need that playbook,” it says. “You can create something better. You are smarter than those people.”
As the leader of adult ministry at The Creek, I can testify to the temptation of ego. When I arrived at The Creek nearly three years ago, we were using several adult discipleship strategies. None of them was bad, per se, but they didn’t necessarily align with one another. After a year of trials and errors, I gathered together a team of leaders to build a comprehensive playbook to unite the elements of adult discipleship under one system.
Sometimes I was tempted to go it alone, devise my own strategy, and ignore the advice of others. But with the help of mentors and the Holy Spirit, I was able to work with many people to develop a discipleship system that integrated adult programs and other ministry areas.
We now have a discipleship playbook that is simple enough to run in multiple ministry contexts. We are still working on specific pieces, such as small groups, but we now have a plan that links our staff and congregation together in theory and practice. What makes all the difference, however, is that our elders, staff, and congregation are humbly willing to move forward together.
The Risk of Not Having the Same Goals
When humility permeates a ministry, team members more easily forsake their selfish ambitions and work toward the same goals. Sometimes, however, churches or organizations do not have clear goals. In these cases, it is vital that the leaders take the time to determine their vision, mission, and values. These are essential for the succession journey.
Vision and mission provide people with clear goals. At The Creek our elders, staff, and congregation consistently affirm our dream of becoming a transforming community that engages the lost, makes disciples, and shows compassion. Just like a team practicing the same play over and over, we commit ourselves weekly to these goals. This is the kind of focus we must have to finish the succession journey well.
I remember in 2014 when the executive leadership team decided that The Creek’s vision and mission should be shared from the stage each week during our weekend services. Each team member decided we would rather commit to the same goals—vision and mission—than compete weekly for stage time for our specific ministry areas.
By having the same goals, we are positioning the next senior leader for success. Rather than enter a world of selfish ambition and competition, the new leader can walk into a world of humility and teamwork.
The interior world of succession involves both the person and the place. When humility characterizes both of these, the journey of succession can be successful and God honoring.
Jason Yeatts serves as executive minister of adult ministry with Indian Creek Christian Church (The Creek), Indianapolis, Indiana.