By Steve Reeves
For the two weeks leading up to this year’s Super Bowl, the most asked question where I live was, “Will this be
Peyton Manning’s last rodeo?” (Will he retire after the Super Bowl?)
Truth is, that kind of question is being asked someplace almost every week, whether it concerns the long-tenured coach, college professor, or corporate executive. It’s also a relevant issue for well-known musicians and politicians: “Will this be their last concert, election, or board meeting?”
I suspect the primary reason retirement and succession has become a hot topic in church leadership circles can be boiled down to one word: megachurches.
Thousands of people and millions of dollars are at stake when a long-tenured lead pastor transitions out and a new person steps in.
This topic is relevant for me as I will begin my 31st year at the same church this summer. I recently attended a leadership conference on pastoral succession and have come to believe EVERY pastor should be thinking about succession planning.
Why? Thinking about the transition ahead of time really could make the difference in every pastor and church’s legacy. And besides, unless Jesus returns, a pastoral transition is inevitable.
Still not convinced you need to think about succession? I’ve heard of far too many corporate executives, athletes, coaches, and pastors who failed to seriously discuss this, let alone write out a plan. When that happens, the company or team or church inevitably pays a high price. Sometimes it doesn’t even survive.
And it’s all because, as Clifton Davis put it back in 1971, the key person “Never Can Say Goodbye.”
So, even though my succession plan is not expected to be enacted until years from now, we now have one in place.
There are three components to our plan: emergency succession, the transition, and three years after the transition.
Emergency Succession Plan
Regardless of the age of the pastor, church leaders owe it to the congregation to write an emergency plan. That’s because, in addition to an unexpected death, there are many potential emergency scenarios: moral failure, church splits, a pastor’s theological shift, financial scandal, and other “messy” situations.
The Vanderbloemen Search Group, a church staffing company, says one in every four churches that comes to them for pastoral succession assistance is dealing with an unexpected end to their pastor’s ministry. So developing an emergency succession plan is Job One.
An emergency succession plan (or ESP) should include the name of the new interim day-to-day leader and clearly stated areas of responsibility. To whom will this leader be accountable? What decisions is the interim leader prohibited from making without approval of the governing board? (For example: firing and hiring staff, changes to financial practices).
The governing board, or elders, should also state the term of the new day-to-day leader, given the specific circumstances at the time. The board should establish the process and timing of the naming of the new lead pastor, according to the church’s existing governing documents, and announce this process no later than 90 days after the appointment of the new day-to-day leader.
In the case of serious illness, the current lead pastor and the governing board should mutually decide when the lead pastor will reassume his role.
The ESP should be signed by the current lead pastor and the chair of the governing board.
Caution: In my opinion, this information should be known only by the chair and one other person, and filed in a confidential place, known only by those two church members. (Public dialogue surrounding this plan opens up all kinds of potentially divisive issues.)
In our case, I have also recommended interim weekend speakers, who would NOT be candidates for the new lead pastor role. This ensures that the day-to-day leader can focus on daily operations, while a seasoned, gifted Bible teacher can provide “fresh bread” for the congregation on the weekends. This is especially important in a transition time when the truth and comfort of God’s Word can unite and strengthen the body.
Two books have been very helpful and cover virtually every part of the transition that needs to be considered: Next: Pastoral Succession that Works (see p. 25) by Warren Bird and William Vanderbloemen, and Passing the Leadership Baton: A Winning Transition Plan for Your Ministry by Tom Mullins.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” succession plan. Every outgoing pastor, new lead pastor, and congregation is unique. Every situation is different. We all are “spiritual snowflakes.”
However, I think the key to developing a successful succession plan is to ask the right questions and truthfully answer them, based on your current reality.
Here are some key questions:
• What will the lead pastor do after the transition? Should the pastor still be a part of the church family, depart for a mutually agreed upon time, or leave the church family permanently? If the former pastor stays or returns to the church family, what boundaries need to be clarified regarding his role?
• What goals would the current lead pastor like to accomplish between now and the transition?
• What boundaries need to be clarified regarding the role of the former lead pastor’s wife, if they stay or return to be a part of the congregation?
• Who should be included in developing and carrying out the succession plan?
• What is the anticipated date of retirement?
• What can the church do to help ensure the lead pastor’s financial needs are adequately provided for after he leaves?
• Who will be on the new pastor search team?
• How long should the new pastoral candidate work with the current lead pastor, if that is a part of the succession plan?
• What two primary strengths should the next lead pastor have?
• When the lead pastor retires, who (meaning the elders, staff, congregation) needs to know what and when?
• What is the ideal size of the group to be involved in the details of a transition plan? Should there be more than one group (one to review candidates, one to plan communications and outreach to the congregation, etc.)?
• Is a template available for identifying and estimating transition costs that would be helpful to the church?
Three Years After the Transition
Our succession plan team also found it helpful to anticipate what a successful succession plan would look like, three years after it takes place.
This included the outgoing lead pastor and spouse, the incoming lead pastor and spouse, the congregation, the church staff, the senior leadership/board/elders, and the surrounding community.
In our case, the vision of a successful succession, plus three years, is a congregation that is still thriving and united. The makeup of the congregation will reflect the socioeconomic and racial makeup of the region.
The former lead pastor and spouse are in a good place financially, relationally, and spiritually. The incoming pastor and spouse have been warmly embraced by the leadership, staff, and the congregation. More and better disciples are being transformed. The congregation is healthy financially, and continues to be generous with our community and global partners.
The congregation has fond memories of the former lead pastor and wife, and continues to have an ongoing healthy relationship with them. The congregation loves the new lead pastor and spouse, and continues connecting thousands to Christ and other Christians.
The congregation is focused on the immediate, short-term, and long-term vision that has been cast by the lead pastor and Connection Pointe leadership.
Reality and Responsibility
This plan sounds so painless, healthy, and visionary. Yet, this article would not be authentic if we failed to face reality. Even in the healthiest church leaders and churches, there will be grief. Relationships will change. Not every member of the congregation, nor even every leader, will embrace the transition.
But that does not change the responsibility of the pastor and leadership of the church to transition when it is time. Together they must navigate the waters of succession in a spirit of grace, truth, and unity, so that the church can continue her mission from the Lord Jesus to “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19, 20, New Living Translation).
Steve Reeves serves as lead pastor with Connection Pointe Christian Church, Brownsburg, Indiana.