Most churches and charities have no contingency plans for when the present leader moves on. Many don’t give it a second thought, trusting that, ‘God will provide’? But many churches and Christian organisations seem to enter the spiritual wilderness when a leader moves on. Andy Peck looks at some of the key issues which need to be addressed if succession is to be successful.

My wife and I travelled half the length of the country. I was a potential candidate for the pastor’s role and we were spending the weekend to see if there was a match between the church’s needs and my gifts. The current pastor was heading for retirement and wanted a handover of maybe a year with his successor. It was a great idea – trouble was he hadn’t convinced the church – a fact that became very evident in the course of the weekend! I left the weekend, concluding that the arrangement was not going to work for us but at the same time admiring the pastor. He was doing what so many leaders fail to do: planning for succession. Very few Christian leaders do.

Leadership succession is as pivotal to a church or Christian organisation ongoing ministry as a baton handover in a relay race. Do it well and the Christian leader moves on to another ministry, or retirement, pleased that the church or Christian organisation is able to maintain momentum. Do it poorly or too late and direction is lost: people leave the church; support dries up; staff leave; and the leader who could be basking in the glow of a job well done, is remembered instead for the lousy ending.

So if it is so important, what sort of questions need to be discussed if a church or Christian organisation is to be ready for that moment when its time to say good-bye to a leader?

1. Can we talk about it?

Carolyn Weese and  J. Russell Crabtree, title their book on leadership succession,The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken about Pastoral Transitions (Jossey-Bass 2004)’ For many churches and charities, succession is the elephant no one will acknowledge. The awkwardness may be understandable, it may appear disloyal, or personal to broach the subject. But in many set ups, the success of future plans will hinge on the having the key leader in post, or appropriate plans in place for a successor.

A few years ago I was asked to facilitate a leaders planning day at a small Baptist church. I suspected that the tenure of the pastor might be a factor and so I casually asked the question which prompted some healthy discussion, with the pastor free to outline his own vision for the future, and commitment to the church. Sometimes it just takes a little courage to ask the obvious.

Leadership succession is especially important because some churches and charities have a fast leadership turnover. In the US The Barna Research Group found that the average tenure of the 1,865 pastors who responded was barely five years. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this would be typical of many UK situations. Yet few churches have any plans at all if the pastor receives a call elsewhere, despite knowing that in all likelihood it will happen! An interregnum can be a blessing, but in many set ups churches ‘tread water’ in the transition, and can take years to find a new incumbent.

Of course conversations about leadership succession can also free up Christian organisations too. Dave Pope, founded Saltmine Trust in 1980, to train young people in evangelism and mission linking with Dave’s music and preaching ministry, in the UK and overseas. “Five years ago I mentioned to the Board that I was intending to look for someone else to take on the CEO role. I have seen too many ministries struggle when the founder has carried on to long. The process was open, people were clear why I was leaving and had plenty of time to prepare.”

It took a little longer than they would have liked, but the Board appointed Phil Collins to the role of CEO, to Pope’s delight – a papal blessing, so to speak. He continues as non-executive chair, putting energies into ministry under the Flame banner, a charity he set up for this eventuality.

Of course, ‘talking about it’ can lead to some unpleasant consequences if the key leader is not keen to. More than one Christian leader has had just cause for unfair dismissal when due process was not followed, so knowledge of employment law is a must. Churches and charities are wise to pre-empt awkward conversations about succession with regular appraisal style conversations so that analysis of how things are going becomes routine. There’s nothing worse than everyone knowing the leader is way past their sell by date, apart from the leader!

2. Is it time for a major change?

Richard Nash, now Arab World Ministries (AWM) Middle East director, was appointed national director of AWM partly because his predecessor, Bryan Knell had identified that he had the gifts and philosophy to continue the work. Nash explains: “Succession prevented the hiatus that comes with a change of direction which is unsettling for staff and supporters. A prospective successor can be given opportunities on other roles with a view to seeing how they might grow and develop.”

If it is not time for a major change, then there is wisdom of planning succession. Some churches aim to appoint from within precisely because the successor is already plugged into the system: sometimes uncharitably known as the ‘better the devil you know’ philosophy!  Certainly congregations can become weary of excessive changes in direction: one senior pastor favours cell church, the next opts for seeker services, the next focuses inter-church efforts. Is it any wonder older members become jaded and refuse to budge?

Questions of direction are especially important when the successor takes over from the founder. When Mick Brooks took over at CWR, he knew it was important that the  founder, Selwyn Hughes, was involved in the plans for the future of the ministry. “ It was a key time for the ministry and really important that Selwyn and the people supporting the ministry knew we were continuing in the fashion in which it was founded. I was delighted that he was willing to publicly endorse our plans for the future.”

The value of a leader helping plan the successor is that they will uniquely know what it actually takes to build and maintain the vision, like no one else. Why waste their insight, when it could be valuable in searching for a successor?

3. Would planned succession help or hinder?

John C Maxwell, a respected leader and author in this field says in ‘Leadership 101′ (Thomas Nelson 2002)  ‘A leader’s lasting impact is measured by the quality of his succession. Leaders who leave a legacy of succession lead the organization with a long view, create a leadership culture, pay the price today to achieve success tomorrow, view team leadership above individual leadership, and walk away from the organization with integrity.’

Carolyn Weese and  J. Russell Crabtree  suggest that Jesus handing over leadership to his disciples is a model for leaders today: lack of succession planning is an abrogation of responsibility. The maxim, ‘you can’t be a success if you don’t have a successor’ sums up this thinking.

But before leaders start scanning their contact books for suitable candidates, it is worth asking whether planned succession is always the best policy? Not, according to Richard Tiplady, British director of European Christian Mission. He reflects on his role as associate director of Global Connections (GC, formerly Evangelical Missionary Alliance), when many inside and outside the organization assumed he would be taking over from Stanley Davies, who had been executive director for 13 years and had seven years to go to retirement when Tiplady was appointed in 1996.

“As time went on, Stanley and I developed an effective double act, I got my feet more and more ‘under the table’ at GC, and so more and more people assumed that I would succeed Stanley. A turning point came in 2001, when Stanley took a sabbatical and I took over the leadership of GC for four months. On his return, and with just two years to go until retirement, the question of my possible succession became more pressing. I had had a taste for ultimate responsibility in an organisation, and enjoyed it. And with Stanley’s looming retirement, the question of who would succeed him (after 20 years in post) became more real.”

In the end, although an ideal candidate, Tiplady decided to move on in 2002, after being there six years in total, knowing that there was no assurance that he would get the job and fearing that he might be seen as ‘Stanley’s boy’.

“Succession isn’t guaranteed,” Tiplady continues. “The board might have decided they wanted to show their independence by appointing someone else, rather than the ‘chosen one’. Being perceived as the ‘heir apparent’ can work against you. I think that succession planning can be problematic for all these reasons, and also because it can blind you to the possibilities of an external appointee who can bring new ways of thinking and working into an organisation.”

So for all the benefits of planned succession, Tiplady provides a warning.

The charity or church needs to ask whether succession would help or hinder the organisation. There may be times when it is best to look for an outsider after the ‘key leader’ has left. This needn’t be a disaster if there is good leadership in place to oversee the transition.

4. What opportunities does succession provide?

The reluctance to discuss succession is often borne of excessive pessimism about the process. Dave Pope believes it doesn’t need to be like this: “Leaders can see handover positively: I have come to see that there is a great joy in imparting to others what I have benefited from, indeed I would say that I can get a better thrill in facilitating others than I did from doing the ministry myself. Leaders can be positive about the future – have keen eyes open for opportunity. It was a great joy to hand over the work.”

Certainly if the role of the ministries in Ephesians 4 is to ‘prepare the saints for works of service’ it is not such a great leap for a leader to imagine that they might be equipping someone to take over their role, or at least stepping aside so that another may flourish.

One church on the south coast invited a facilitator to oversee the pastoral transition. They spent a weekend looking at the vision of the church and allowing members to voice their sadness that the pastor, who had served for over a decade, was leaving. The successor, who was from the church, shared his appreciation for the outgoing pastor and how he planned to lead things in the future. The process was not just the passing of the baton from one to another, but the whole congregation working through the pain and joy of the changes to embrace the future.

What might appear an awkward period of discussion could turn out to be just what your church or charity requires.

Over to you

Regular readers of Christianity will know that the evangelical world has sad examples of leaders who failed to see the opportunity of succession, leaving a bad taste when their ministry had been sweet. Maybe you have opportunity to prevent this and have influence that will enable a new leader, or someone from the next generation, to thrive? Perhaps this article could prime the pump for a discussion? Maybe there are other issues you need to consider within your situation?

We often speak of leaders hearing the words from Jesus at the end of their life, ‘well done good and faithful servant’. It is especially good if he doesn’t need to add, ‘but you hung on to leadership far too long!’

It’s time to name that elephant.