Succession Planning Perspectives

One of the growing challenges confronting many growing and thriving churches is what to do when the leader leaves.

A simple, but definite, rule for ministry (and life) is that regardless of how wonderful our ministry and impact, we are ultimately going to have to leave one day.

leadersPart of being an effective and Jesus centered undershepherd (i.e. pastor) is recognizing that one goal in ministry should be to leave the church, or division, better than when you found it. Recently I read of a pastor who, after thirty long years of ministry, retired from his church and encouraged them to go and united with another church because they had grown down to such a small amount and no other leader had been risen up to take his place. The pastor, who is well thought of in some circles, mentioned this in an off-the-cuff illustration in a sermon. Yet it resonated with myself and a few others as to what happens when we don’t follow God’s command to raise up and equip new leaders and what failing to plan really looks like…a planned failure.

For corporoate human resources work it is challenging, or horrifying as one friend in HR put it, when your CEO (or senior leader) finally begins leaving. Just like in churches when the well established senior pastor announces his retirement, a sense of both panic (we call it urgency to smooth it over) and uncertainty can easily creep in to any organization. Imagine how much more magnified this is if it is a Fortune 500 company with revenues in the billions.

Last night I came across an article on Retuers about the impending succession plan that the NASDAQ is going through as their CEO, Bob Greifeld, plans a possible exit, even after signing a new five year extension on his contract. For various reasons, there is a possible shift coming to the exchange whose leader has been in place for ten years (which in the real world would be like running a company for 30 years.) Yet Greifeld has been at the helm of an international stock exchange that has been navigating massive shifts in the markets, its own strategic planning, and increasing diversification in the entire sector.

How does a company go about replacing such a vital person?

How does a church go about replacing a senior pastor who has been there for twenty plus years and seen it through many seasons, generational changes, and even facilities transition? Not to mention the spiritual and emotional attachment rightly given to senior pastor?

For the NASDAQ several leading staff departures have left the remaining candidate pool from within drained to a low number. An outside candidate might be worth exploring, but there are some risks. Perhaps the person wouldn’t understand the complex DNA of the exchange, they are too junior and executive understand the task priorities of a CEO, the sector is loaded with talent but not at the same level as the NASDAQ, and other concerns populate the confounding questions of succession.

Sounds a lot like questions churches have about a new senior pastor.

Over at the Harvard Business Review Blog they’ve provided some tips that might help frame how to go about this process for any organization:

1. Call the process succession development – though this might sound trivial, the idea is pretty solid, it helps educate expectations.By developing your next leader instead of planning for them there is a chance to embed crucial organizational DNA and also allow them to step up into the position. The person, by the time of succession, comes from within and is a known figure.

2. Keep it simple – HBR is right that this shouldn’t be a complex process. Ultimately, it is about one person giving another their seat. HR and org charts convolute the structures. Make this a baton pass between teammates, not a bait-and-switch.

3. Stay Realistic – nobody expects the next person in for a senior leader to walk on water the same way the other person has done for years. There will be transitions and adjustments. One of the benefits that churches have over other organizations is the ability to seek unity through prayer, fellowship, and the outpouring the Holy Spirit. Seek out these means and remember that every leader still puts their pants on the same way.

An article over at Forbes adds an additional point:

4. Realize what got us here won’t get us there – with a new senior leader comes an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective and rejuvenate any organization. Any decently degreed candidate can look at the strategic plans, programs, and operations of a new organization and imitate success for several years and have success. However, what most organizations need is someone who will take them to a new place. Because the new leader isn’t the old leader allows for the opportunity to change and cross over to a new way.

For any organization with an established leader, the next person up isn’t going to be the same. There will be some natural turnover in staff and, for our churches, possibly our members. This still remains an opportunity to move forward. 

As we have seen excellently modeled in the ministries of John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Jerry Vines at First Baptist Jacksonville, and Bob Russell at Southeast Christian Church, successful ministry succession is possible. Being able to humbly and earnestly seek God’s blessing in this process will always help find the best candidate to be the best pastor they can be.

For churches seeking assistance with this kind of succession planning (or development) I always encourage them to talk to an expert at an staffing organization which works with churches. Three of the best I know of (in no particular order) are: Minister Search, the Shepherd Staff, and the Vanderbloemen Group. Call them and talk as soon as possible. One general rule I always follow on church staffing, free sites get you bad results. This kind of search requires a specialist.


The Challenge of Seminary: an initial post

Over at the Gospel Coalition, there is a great short reflection about the challenges of seminary written by Donny Friederichsen pointing out that seminarians often forget that their time in school should be developing them both theologically by pastorally.

One of the paragraphs that seemed to stand out is this:

I also would have spent more time with real people in my neighborhood and at my church instead of gravitating toward people who liked to read dead Dutch guys and use phrases like “hypostasis,” “hapax legomenon,” and “the chthonic thralldom of sin.” I need those people too, but in seminary it’s entirely too easy to get lost in the academic world and lose contact with why you are there. (emphasis mine)

This is a good point and worth exploring. Seminary, in its current form, is presenting substantial challenges to ministry and ministers. As a quick observation, many of my peers in growing, dynamic churches are becoming increasingly wary of hiring seminary graduates who are both 1) recent graduates and 2) don’t have a lot of outside experience under their belts. For many of us, we find that seminary does a good job of preparing a student theologically but there is a massive shortfall in actual pastoral training and ministry execution.

Having graduated from seminary 8 years ago, I saw this challenge worked out. Thankfully a gracious professor of mine put several key texts into my hands while I was in my earliest days of seminary that reconfigured my outlook and steps for preparation. For what its worth, I thoroughly enjoyed seminary. It was a kind of intellectual and spiritual renaissance for me. Though there were some institutional pressures and challenges which cloud a bit of last days at my seminary, I am the minister I am because of my time in seminary.

Now, back to Friederichsen’s point. Too often our seminaries are a kind of “Sunday School 2.0” that fail to maneuver their students to interact critically and practically with pastoral ministry situations. We are seeing a substantial rise in post-seminary ministry failure rates in new graduates over the past decade, and its not because of moral failure. It is often due to burnout, firings, underperformance, expectation issues, among other factors. While not every seminary graduate is going to end up in pastoral ministry (a fairly new concept by the way), for those who do go into pastoral ministry one of the first tasks that must be accomplished is to sort through what was helpful and what was not helpful for application in the local church ministry.

The very real issues at Friederichsen brings up in his post are matters which, as I recall, were rarely addressed in seminary classrooms. They were talked about in my undergraduate instruction. For too many seminarians there is a need to balance this intellectual maturation with practical equipping tools. At this point too many of our seminaries are ill-equipped and ensconced in “church of last century” ministry models to provide a substantive change to the ministry training culture. Another challenge in the seminary model is professors who have never served a day in a church, yet are given opportunities to train and equip future pastors for ministry. While there are certainly individuals and fields where we can make margin for the academic only scholar, I wonder if we are pressing the mark too hard in continuing to elevate and place individuals with no local church experience in the midst of the training and equipping institute for future pastors.

Final thought: In Houston we have radio ad for a local law school that promotes itself by producing “practice ready attorneys.” Perhaps if we can start to get our arms around the realities of ministry and begin developing seminaries that produce “ministry ready pastors” we can see some things begin to change. Seminary is a vital part of training men and women for a lifetime of ministry. I’m looking forward to seeing how this important conversation continues.

Jun 2013