Stonebridge Church (EFCA)
Randy Scheil is pastor of Stonebridge Church (EFCA) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He and his wife, Cindy, have four children and three grandchildren.
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.
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:
A healthy succession plan is obviously a complex task.
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.
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.
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:
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.
The following were valuable in my study of pastoral succession plans:
- Transition Plan: 7 secrets every leader needs to know,* by Bob Russell and Bryan Bucher
- The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the unspoken about pastoral transitions, by Carolyn Weese and J. Russell Crabtree
- Church Unique: How missional leaders cast vision, capture culture, and create movement, by Will Mancini
- Sharpening the Focus of the Church* and Elders and Leaders: God’s plan for leading the church, both by Gene Getz
- Next: Pastoral succession that works, by William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird
- “Essential Learnings on Healthy Church Leadership Transitions”—video conference sessions from the Leadership Network
*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 email@example.com.
Visit efcatoday.org for more articles on the topic of pastoral transitions.