the shape of leadership

The Future-Ready Pastor

Every church will undergo a transition of leadership

Nate Ruch on September 18, 2019

There is a crisis in the Church, and Jesus has made you responsible for what happens next. Crisis? Yes, your church — every church — will undergo a transition of leadership at some point. It matters how you prepare for that moment.

No matter what position you hold, you aren’t there permanently. Every pastor is an interim pastor. Wise leaders embrace this and intentionally prepare themselves and their churches to step confidently into all God has planned.

American churches are facing a tsunami of succession issues in the near future. Over the next decade, an unprecedented number of pastors will reach retirement age. Across all Protestant denominations, just 15 percent of U.S. pastors were age 40 or younger in 2017, according to Barna Group. In 2018, the average age of ministers in the Assemblies of God USA was 55; just one-fifth of AG ministers were under 40.

Why is this a crisis? A significant share of the more than 13,000 AG churches in the nation are unprepared for the most critical factor in the success or failure of individual churches: a new generation of men and women who are ready to lead. Continued success requires successors.

Senior pastors, staff pastors, boards and district leaders all have a responsibility to tackle this crisis now. Yes, this can be an emotionally charged topic, but we can’t afford to put off this conversation. The stakes are too high.

It’s not too late to turn the corner and facilitate a healthy, long-term strategy for equipping competent and called individuals to lead our churches into the future.

Pastoral Responsibility

The people with the highest degree of influence on the outcome of this issue are current senior pastors. Senior pastors carry the shepherding responsibility for the present and the future of churches everywhere. They can prepare key components of church life for a future that includes succession.

Pastors work with their boards on all fiscal aspects of church stability, lead staff who will guide the ministries of the church through every transition, and facilitate the long-term development of staff members who are potential successors. Yet transitions can be vulnerable times for leaders and their congregations.

The best-case scenarios for church succession stories involve long preparation — in relay race terminology, a long exchange zone. The exchange zone is the part of the relay where both racers are running as the baton changes hands. The transition is complete when the first runner fully releases the baton to the successor, who begins the next segment of the race.

Transition failures are costly. A misstep in the exchange from one senior pastor to the next can be disastrous. Churches can spin out of control and experience internal conflict, loss of finances or even closure. When pastors move, retire or die without a successor, congregations flounder. It is imperative that current pastors take the initiative to prepare their church for the transition long before it happens.

In his book Passing the Leadership Baton, Tom Mullins wrote, “Inevitably, a handoff will need to be made! And the more prepared we are for the future, the less of a surprise it will be when it’s time to make a change. Everyone needs to be thinking about this passing of the baton, but the more I talk to men and women in prominent positions of leadership, the more I realize how few have planned for transition.”

Ideally, senior pastors need to address multiple leadership aspects of succession: their personal plans, the board and bylaw processes for transition, the career development skills of staff, and congregational preparedness.

It’s difficult for anyone other than the senior pastor to start a conversation about succession. If board members ask about it, the pastor may feel insecure. The healthiest approach is for the pastor to seek wisdom on the succession process long before he or she is ready to hand off the baton. It’s not too early to begin thinking about succession on your first day — not because you’re planning an exit, but because you have a healthy understanding of your status as an interim, whether you stay three years or 30. You should always desire to prepare the church for the future.

Where do you look for guidance? There are a number of helpful resources on the topic. However, some of the best advice often comes from people who have successfully navigated the transition process. You don’t have to tackle the challenge alone. In fact, it may be foolish to draw your own road map for transition without first seeking the wisdom of those who have walked the path.

Preparing the church for transition also means taking a deep dive into your personal preparation. Jesus is the Head of the Church, and He’s assigned you to serve and shepherd His congregation for as long as He determines. But you also have a responsibility to prepare for a future beyond this assignment. What are you doing to save for retirement? Where might you minister after your current role ends? Such issues paralyze many pastors who feel the Lord prompting their hearts to prepare for succession.

When God is leading toward transition, fear delays action, and pastors may stay beyond their season of fruitfulness. A mentor once told me, “I want to know when it’s time to go before everyone else does.”

Waiting too long diminishes effectiveness, and both the pastor and the church suffer. Preparing for the next season financially, vocationally and relationally frees pastors to lead their churches through succession planning confidently and with emotional security.

Succession Story

My friend Walter Harvey prepared for succession and is successfully leading his church through it. Harvey has served as senior pastor of Parklawn Assembly of God in Milwaukee for several decades, while also investing in the Wisconsin/Northern Michigan Ministries Network of the Assemblies of God, the AG Church Multiplication Network, and the National Black Fellowship of the Assemblies of God. When Harvey sensed God leading him to focus more on the National Black Fellowship, he knew he would need to lead his church through succession.

Harvey prayed, sought the advice of pastors who have successfully transitioned their churches, and planned for the future. He spent years preparing his personal finances and building strong, transparent and trusting relationships with his board members. He told them there would eventually be a succession story at Parklawn. Without making it an imminent or urgent issue, he asked them to pray about the type of leader the congregation would need and to consider the idea of a leader coming from within the church.

In time, Harvey sensed a prompting to pray for a specific candidate. This person was not part of the paid staff, but a member of the board. I was concluding my doctoral dissertation on succession when Harvey sought my advice on what to do next. I offered safe counsel outside the church as he navigated the many stages of succession. In fall 2018, Harvey was elected to serve as president of the National Black Fellowship, and it became more apparent why God was leading him toward succession.

Early in 2019, Harvey asked me to join his church board meeting and discuss the topic of succession. During the meeting, he announced his desire for a successor, fielded questions, and led prayer. A few weeks later, after the board affirmed his choice of a successor, Harvey announced the news to the congregation on a Sunday morning. He explained that his successor would join the staff and transition to the leading role within the next year. Only a secure leader, who has led his lay board and staff well, can walk that road so confidently.

The senior pastor has the responsibility to provide the vision, context and permission for all aspects of the church to advance through succession successfully. When senior pastors bravely confront the topic and normalize the conversation in their spheres of influence, it empowers people who hold both present and future roles to step forward and embrace the challenge without insecurity.

Avoiding the elephant in the room creates an atmosphere of mistrust. Tackling that elephant is the best way for leaders to move their churches forward — as future-ready pastors.

Six Keys

Here are six things every pastor should be doing today to prepare for a better tomorrow:

1. Follow Jesus’ example and partner with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s relationship to Jesus and His successors was central to Luke’s theology and has profound ramifications for understanding the process of transferring authority.

Every experience and conversation in which the disciples observed Jesus in the Gospel of Luke was a succession preparatory experience. When Jesus taught about praying, He said the Father would give them the Holy Spirit if they asked (Luke 11:13). He wasn’t just teaching about prayer; Jesus was teaching His disciples to pray and receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus fully intended for His successors to access the same power He relied on for ministry.

Jesus made numerous promises regarding the Holy Spirit. These promises came into focus in the Book of Acts as the Spirit-filled Church began the work of making new disciples.

For instance, Jesus told His disciples they would face persecution, saying, “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (Luke 12:11-12).

No matter what position you hold, you aren’t there permanently. Every pastor is an interim pastor.

In many ways, Jesus functioned as a coach for His disciples, preparing the team through training during practice so they could succeed in the game. Jesus invested three years in them, integrating public ministry and private discussion, including opportunities to process difficult questions. He nudged His protégés toward environments that challenged their thinking. When interpersonal disagreement and conflict arose, Jesus offered guidance and gently restored those who made mistakes.

Jesus’ example provided a template the disciples could follow to multiply their own succession efforts after Pentecost. His personal reliance on the Holy Spirit conditioned their thinking toward a Spirit-guided approach to discipleship.

Today’s pastors should likewise rely on the Spirit’s guidance for succession issues and train others to do the same.

2. Normalize succession everywhere. When pastors, boards and churches grow accustomed to regular and healthy transitions, change is no longer threatening. Pastors can train their churches for both multiplication and release in every area — from full-time ministry positions to volunteer roles. Momentum slows when people hold their roles too tightly. Ministry grows best in an environment where every leader has a vision for training others.

When I stepped into my role as senior pastor of Emmanuel Christian Center (AG) in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, many people in the 50-year-old church had faithfully filled the same roles for decades. For example, several ushers had stood at the same doors for over 20 years. Yet they didn’t have a vision for raising up others to serve at their doors. In fact, some saw new people as a threat to their place in the church.

Unaware of this dynamic, I led a campaign to get more people involved with volunteering. When new volunteers showed up for their assignments on Sunday morning, the regulars told them, “We don’t need you.”

What a devasting and dangerous dynamic to have in a church that needs to become future ready! We’ve since worked toward helping people understand and embrace a life-giving multiplication mentality.

When all levels of church leadership function with a positive, biblical, multiplying philosophy, the church as a whole is more conducive to understanding and embracing the inevitable transition of the senior pastor. Instead of feeling threatened and overwhelmed, the church has a context to understand that Jesus is leading everyone into the future He has planned.

3. Develop a succession plan before it’s needed. In sports, a playbook enables each team member to know and understand what is happening, who carries responsibility for various parts of the plan, and what the shared goals look like. Similarly, every congregation needs a succession playbook — a strategy that guides the many parts of a church through the sensitive journey of transitioning senior leadership.

Author Warren Bird says there are four common emerging models of leadership succession in churches: the family plan, in which a relative or longstanding spiritual son or daughter receives the baton and becomes the leader; the denominational plan, common in denominations where leaders outside the local church appoint the next leader; the process-only plan, in which the outgoing pastor helps create and initiate a succession strategy, letting the church choose the next pastor; and the intentional overlap plan, in which the outgoing pastor and new pastor intentionally overlap.

The most successful approach is the intentional overlap plan, according to Bird. It enables the church culture to match the new leader and allows time for the hand-off of complex senior pastor responsibilities. Visibility to every internal and external stakeholder makes the shift less dramatic and decreases the likelihood of negative reactions.

In Your CEO Succession Playbook: How to Pass the Torch So Everyone Wins, Natalie Michael and Brian Conlin describe four types of candidates an organization may identify: an emergency candidate who steps in temporarily; a ready-now candidate who can take the reins at any time; a ready-future candidate who is in the process of development; and an external candidate who may be on the list of potential candidates but is not in the internal pipeline of the organization.

Emergency candidates typically come from existing executive team members, board members or significant advisors with knowledge of the church. This is the name-in-the-envelope candidate — a person, whose name remains confidential, the board can tap for immediate leadership. In most cases, the board installs and announces the emergency leader within 24 hours as a substitute figurehead to provide point leadership and security to every part of the church, internal and external. Ideally, the board has at least one emergency candidate in mind at all times to speed the process when the need arises.

4. Think long term, and develop your bench. Most pastors who succeed in the senior role have had years of training, testing and development. The most common preparatory place is in associate staff positions.

Just as Jesus’ disciples learned through experience and observation, youth pastors, associates and others can gain valuable skills before stepping into senior roles.

Senior pastors have an opportunity to shape the future through the people God has placed under their authority. They should seek God regarding this responsibility, asking the Spirit to fill them with wisdom to prepare God’s chosen leaders for the future.

Gordon Anderson, one of my mentors and a former president of North Central University, often said, “My job as a senior leader is to facilitate the vision of the next two generations, even if I don’t understand it or like it.”

There will be a price to pay if senior pastors fail to invest in staff members, preparing them to fill positions retiring baby boomers are vacating. The future depends on senior leaders investing time in the people currently serving alongside them. If the Church is to experience significant and great leadership in the years ahead, current senior pastors must have an eye toward the future — beyond their personal administrations.

Leaders at every level should see more than the current title each worker in the church holds. They should see future leaders in development.

5. Know your bylaws, and equip your board. A church’s bylaws usually dictate the formal process of succession. Many bylaws have antiquated expectations and processes that leave a church ill-equipped to make wise decisions. It’s best to study the bylaws and seek an assessment and counsel from the district.

Some modifications may make the succession process easier. For example, our church bylaws were written in 1963 when there were just five families. Most of the expectations regarding succession are incompatible with the church today, which is now a multisite congregation with three campuses. Consequently, our board went through a three-year bylaw review. It included input from experts outside the church who helped craft a proactive process for choosing the next senior pastor. The board presented the results to the church membership, and the proposals passed unanimously.

The board should participate in the succession plan and become familiar with possible candidates internally, engaging in conversation annually with the senior pastor. Board members who are aware of staff development efforts will feel more confident when the time comes for choosing a new senior pastor.

Additionally, church boards should communicate with the rest of the staff and the church as a whole during transition seasons.

6. Provide spaces for conversation without consequence. For senior pastors to hear what is happening in the minds and hearts of potential successors, they must initiate conversation. Open-door policies are simply too passive. Fear of the unknown can keep staff members from approaching the senior pastor about such matters. However, if a senior pastor initiates the conversation and asks questions, it will encourage authentic dialogue.

Pastors who are secure enough to provide time and spaces for teammates to share questions, career aspirations and dreams will gain valuable insight. This makes it easier to develop team members to be more effective, now and in the future. Prioritizing staff development also helps with retention.

I developed a one-day seminar for eight of my staff members who were still developing their long-term career objectives. In other words, they weren’t in their final dream jobs. During the seminar, I personally invited each one to join me for a day of coaching. I asked them to share their personal stories, strengths and weaknesses, dreams and fears. I used several tools to help them identify their God-given design and personal purpose. I then led them through the development of a custom career plan.

My goal was to give staff members permission to dream beyond the confines of their current roles without threatening their jobs. Walking through this exercise with the staff unlocked an amazing level of trust and helped lay the groundwork for vision that reaches beyond today.

I am aware that I am not just the steward of the church I oversee. I am also a steward of God’s calling on my staff. I want to help each pastor prepare to follow where God is leading. I want them to be future-ready pastors!

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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