As Steve Jobs has stepped aside at Apple due to health issues, a number of folks have weighed in on the topic of succession planning for CEOs, especially those who are the entrepreneurs who founded their companies or have been the driving force to take their organizations to new levels. The truth is that most leaders don’t want to think about this. For some it may be the feeling that they are indispensable. Sometimes their shareholders embrace this idea as well. For others, to consider stepping down would a concession to their own mortality. They just don’t want to let go.
Churches rarely do a good job in succession planning. When long-time pastors leave, they are usually followed by a person (although competent) who doesn’t last long. He or she is, in reality, the interim before another long-term pastor comes on board. This happens in medium or large size churches and does not even consider the challenge that a Willow Creek or Saddleback will face when their founding pastors—Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, respectively--step down (if they do). Robert Schuller couldn’t do it nor could W. A. Criswell. They stepped back, but their influence was still front and center.
In large to medium-sized churches, long-serving pastors rarely have the opportunity to help in this process. Although they may be respected by many in the congregation, lay leaders would rather that they move out of the way and let someone else make that decision. When veteran pastors are given the chance to help, their experience can be invaluable as they can work with the church in this process. The decision does not belong to the outgoing pastor, but his or her experience can ease the transition.
In this process, the church can identify a likely candidate internally or externally and begin grooming the person for that position. If they are nor currently on church staff, the new pastor can be brought on board in an “associate” or “teaching pastor” role and be given time to adjust to the congregation and vice versa. Even so, there must be a clearly defined “endgame” and a specific date that the former pastor will step aside and relinquish his or her role. I know of two examples of churches that identified a gifted staff member with pastoral leadership potential and moved that person into the pastoral role when the long-term pastor retired. They are still there after several years and the churches are thriving.
This is not easy and demands transparency, trust, and commitment on the part of the church, the outgoing pastor, and the pastor-elect. When this works, the church benefits since it does not lose ministry momentum, members, or financial support and avoids a period of uncertainty about the future (they will find enough causes for uncertainty elsewhere!).
There are good examples of this process in church life. We need to identify those churches and denominational entities that have implemented smooth leadership succession plans and learn from them.