Starting Now

I'm not leaving yet, but I want my church to be ready.

I recently turned 60, and as a pastor, I’ve naturally been wondering, Should I be thinking about what comes next? I have already participated in two transitions as an incoming pastor. The first did not go well, probably due in part to my own pride and emotional immaturity. But in my current church, I was the recipient of an amazing, grace-filled transition with the outgoing pastor.

As I considered my future, I chose to use a summer sabbatical to research succession planning. I assured my elder board that I am not ready to retire yet, but that I probably will within the next 10 years. My hope is to help my church—Stonebridge Church (EFCA) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—prepare for that transition in a healthy environment of discipleship.

During my sabbatical, I found many helpful resources (see “Succession Resources” below) and interviewed six pastors from four churches who had recently transitioned or are currently in the midst of succession planning. And I learned several important (and sometimes surprising) things.

Transition planning is a lot of work.

Next to relocating, a senior pastor’s succession is the most disruptive change for a church—and even more challenging when a pastor has had a long tenure. During my sabbatical, I reviewed a D.Min. project by Chris Freeland (Dallas Theological Seminary) titled “The First Five Years: Critical factors to the successful intentional transition from a long-tenured senior pastor,” which used two churches in the Dallas area as case studies.

Freeland begins his dissertation with a hypothesis that an effective transition process must be preceded by three critical factors:

  1. Clarity in board governance so that pastoral expectations and responsibilities are defined.
  2. Articulation of the ministry philosophy and culture of the church, so everyone agrees on what may change (form) and what must not change (function).
  3. An unwavering public respect between departing pastor and successor.

A healthy succession plan is obviously a complex task.

Transition planning can be painful.

It is tempting to believe that logical steps, mixed with Christian maturity, will make transition successful. Yet we are dealing with people! Emotional land mines can sabotage the most well-planned process. Change is certainly difficult for members, but it is especially painful for the outgoing pastor. In transition, a pastor must release the roles to which he has committed the best years of his life: preacher, leader, counselor, visionary and more. Even with a strong sense of identity in Christ, a pastor may procrastinate in seeking Christ’s direction for a new calling in his new season of life.

Transition planning needs to start now.

As I examined literature, videos and my pastoral interviews, I was convinced that the day to begin thinking about succession is the day we are called to pastor the church. From the very start, senior leaders must be equipping leaders for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13; 2 Timothy 2:2). They must also talk realistically and frequently with their elder board about finances, so that retirement is not a financial surprise and burden. And their succession plan should probably not look further than 12 to 18 months into the future, because so much may change. A five-year plan is too long.

I need to start my own planning!

God has blessed me with good health and vitality, and I hope to serve Stonebridge Church through the next decade. However, there are things I’d like to do now to prepare:

  • work with our board to create a succession “development” plan, so that we give more attention to developing emerging leaders.
  • equip our elders and leaders to understand and implement the board governance model of leadership. One pastor I interviewed had quipped, “Being a pastor for many years, I’ve picked up roles and jobs that are not even in my job description. I can’t imagine how this might set up a future pastor for failure!”
  • host a workshop for the pastors in our district on this topic, many of whom are entering this same season of life.

Scripture is filled with God-centered transitions. Christ Himself modeled it—passing the baton to His disciples. I believe we can trust Him with this next logical step in our church’s discipleship process, smoothing the way for each new shepherd who will follow.

Succession Resources

The following were valuable in my study of pastoral succession plans:

*Unfortunately, copies can be quite expensive, as these books are now out of print. So check into borrowing them from a colleague’s library.

To learn about the succession-planning workshop being coordinated in the EFCA Central District, contact the author at randys@stonebridgesite.com.

Visit efcatoday.org for more articles on the topic of pastoral transitions.

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