For the last century or so there has been a rule of thumb that says that a pastor should not get involved with the process of finding or training his successor. Just hand the keys over to the board or search committee, and they will take over from there. You don’t need to talk about it, worry about it, or plan for it. Just treat it like a death: pretend it won’t happen to you, and then let someone else deal with things when it does.
But what reasons are given for this old rule of thumb?
- Some say you should quietly step aside and let the church decide what it wants in their next pastor. In other words, “no one really likes you, and we can’t wait until you finally leave so we can get someone better.” This is probably true at some churches, but there might be a few churches that actually like their pastor and value his input.
- Some say that pastors shouldn’t pick their successor because they don’t understand what kind of leader the church really needs next. In other words, “You’ll just screw things up, dude.” By the time you get to be retirement age, you are so old and out of touch that you shouldn’t even be allowed to pick out the clothes you wear, let alone who the next pastor will be. I’m sure that there really are some very out of touch and feeble pastors, but that might not be all of you. It’s possible that you’ve gained some wisdom with your age and experience.
- Some say that the pastor shouldn’t be involved in the succession process because that will make them too much like a monarch dictating who should be next in line for the throne. You don’t want people to think you’re a mini-Stalin, do you? There are probably pastors who have an unhealthy need to be controlling and are primarily concerned with their own power. But it is also possible that some of you out there aren’t trying to protect your empire, but build the Kingdom of God.
So then, what should we make of the above reasons for keeping a pastor out of the process of finding or training his successor? Well, if you, as a pastor, are indeed ineffective, disconnected, and arrogant, then perhaps you should not be leading your church through anything anymore. If this is you, then I’m going to go ahead and give you permission to resign right now. Thanks for all your help, but we’ll take over from here. Just leave the keys on your desk when you leave. Your church will be just fine without you. You don’t have to read the rest of this; it’s not really for you.
Okay, now that those pastors are gone, I want to take a minute to talk to the rest of you. You are a pastor who loves your church and is respected. You are a pastor who serves with humility and grace. You are a pastor who leads and casts vision, reminding people of the mission that Jesus gave you. You are a pastor who understands that you are a steward of the church, and you want to leave it better than you found it.
If you are that kind of pastor, then I want to encourage you to not be afraid to lead your church through the inevitable leadership transition that will one day happen. Don’t just drop the mic and walk away. Don’t just set a date and hope a search committee can fill the leadership void that you leave (you’ve already learned that committees are not great leaders). Don’t leave the job of succession planning up to anyone else. It is your job! Whoever keeps saying that it isn’t your job isn’t talking to you, they are talking to those other guys who are not very good pastors anyway and don’t have the ability to lead well. But that doesn’t apply to you!
Blindly following that old rule has led to too many churches to struggle and suffer-even die-after a leadership transition because the process was handled so poorly. The solution isn’t to build a better search committee, but for pastors to understand that their leadership is vitally important at that vulnerable point in the life of a church. There is a need for education and vision casting and equipping and grace and patience to be shown by the outgoing pastor so that the incoming pastor has a chance to succeed.
In recent years, more books and articles are being written that encourage pastors to break that old rule and lead through transition. These include Next, The Leadership Baton, and The Elephant in the Board Room. All of these awesome books begin with the idea that the pastor already knows it is his job to help guide his church through a leadership transition. They all offer some great advice on how to accomplish that goal more successfully.
The problem is that too many pastors don’t think that succession is their responsibility. They are still following that old, outdated, ineffective rule of thumb. My prayer is that by encouraging pastors to no longer be disconnected from the process of succession, their churches will be healthier and stronger. I don’t think that a drop in attendance, giving, and ministry needs to be an inevitable part of a leadership change. A good leader will boost his successor to even greater heights of ministry success.
The best rule of thumb is still the simple instruction that Paul gave to Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” 2 Timothy 2:2
About Andy Flowers
Andy has served as the senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Woodland, California since 2007. He graduated from the Doctor of Ministry program at Western Seminary in 2016. Andy is the author of Leading Through Succession: Why Pastoral Leadership is the Key to a Healthy Transition.