The Value of Legacy Leadership
Building for the future — while honoring those who came before
Last June, my wife and I became the lead pastors of Real Life Church (Assemblies of God) in Sacramento, California. We inherited this position from the original planters and founders of the church, pastors Scott and Karen Hagan. Scott and Karen planted two strong churches in the greater Sacramento area, where their leadership influenced not only the congregations but the entire region.
In the succession and transition over the past 12 months, I’ve discovered the importance of understanding and stewarding what I call legacy leadership. Legacy leadership is a gift from a predecessor that can propel the successor to a momentous future — if he or she stewards it correctly.
One of the biggest mistakes some leaders make in the succession process is forsaking the leadership of the past by abruptly bringing their own visionary ideas to the table, and implementing them immediately, without assessing the legacy they’ve received.
Legacy leadership recognizes that I’m not bringing just my own thing, but I’m going to step into and partner with the thing God has already been building before I arrived. This recognition doesn’t mean there won’t be change, because change will be necessary.
It does mean you may want to hold onto some things instead of discarding everything. This understanding is the difference between taking over and starting over.
Unfortunately, many pastors and leaders choose to start over instead of taking over the gift of legacy. Starting over creates an atmosphere for your predecessor to become a legend — someone to whom others will constantly compare you — instead of a legacy you can honor and cherish while bringing necessary change.
A legend is a non-historical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical. The creation of a legend exaggerates the past, which can frustrate the future of any new leader.
To embrace the call to legacy leadership, consider whether you want to create a legend or build a legacy. Legends want to be someone; legacy leaders want to build someone. You will never live up to a legend, but you can always live out a legacy. No one can replace a legend, but a legacy is always replenishing.
When we are attentive to legacy leadership’s power, our predecessors’ finish line becomes our starting line.
Legacy leaders say: “I don’t want to live up to a legend, but I want to live out the legacy that’s been handed off to me!” Legacy leadership is not absent of comparison, but it is absent of competition with the past legendary leader congregations generally create.
We can avoid starting over if we pay attention to the power of legacy leadership. When we are attentive to legacy leadership’s power, our predecessors’ finish line becomes our starting line. They become a strength to the ministry, not a threat to the future of the ministry.
When we honor our predecessors in every way, their legacy will pave the way for a successful future.
There are three key principles I would like to pass on to those inheriting legacy churches or following legacy leaders.
First, be a careful steward, not a fearful hire. Stewardship is the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care. As a legacy leader, you have to care for the past more than you fear it. The leader you’re following and the legacy you’re receiving is a blessing, not a curse.
I have a healthy relationship with the Hagans. They have cheered us on from a distance and encouraged us by attending church when they are in town.
Second, pick up the promises that preceded you, but don’t make promises you can’t keep. Your church likely has a prophetic history that consists of promising words Spirit-filled people have prayed, prophesied and made public. If we lack the understanding that God’s promises are generational, we may abort His promises in transition.
Pastor and author Andy Stanley says, “The promise you’re pursuing may be fulfilled by the person you are preparing.”
God has prepared you to step into the promises that already exist, and you may be the leader He uses to bring them to pass.
Finally, have a plan, but allow God to prune. As I mentioned earlier, legacy leadership is not without change because every transition comes with a need for organizational transformation. I had a 100-day plan ready as I stepped into my new role as lead pastor. Yet it was important for me to understand God’s timing.
Many leaders know what to do, why they want to do it, and how they are going to bring it about, but they lose sight of God’s timing. I encourage you to allow God’s timeline to override your deadlines. God is the Gardener, and He knows exactly when to prune your staff, uproot sacred cows, and cultivate the garden of legacy.
I just received an encouraging text from Pastor Scott the same week I was writing this article. He said, “I think you’re two years ahead of schedule.”
To be honest, I don’t know if we are or not, but I do know we didn’t have to start over because we made a decision to be responsible for the legacy we received. Therefore, the legacy continues through us.