PASTORAL TRANSITIONS & 5 Reasons Why a Retiring Pastor is Not the Best Person to Choose Their Successor: strings attached, mentor-mentee history, cultural changes, rarity of exceptional leaders & legacy. Read the article to learn why.

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 11/21/21.

In my consulting practice, I’ve analyzed hundreds of church transitions. And, I’m preparing a Doctor of Ministry course for a nationally respected seminary on this subject. I’ve observed that many times a retiring pastor often puts forth, even informally, their successor. This can be a misstep for five reasons.

  1. Strings Attached: The retiring pastor has vested interest in the selection of a successor. The retiring pastor has financial relationships (loans, housing, benefits) and personal relationships (friends, enemies and even status, e.g. titles such as “pastor emeritus” or “founding pastor”), that can cloud, even subconsciously their selection.
  2. Mentor-mentee: The successor has operated in a subordinate relationship to the retiring pastor and the successor may have trouble transforming that relationship. This especially becomes problematic when crises arise and the subordinate may subconsciously acquiesce to the former leader’s view on the crisis.
  3. Culture Changes: The retiring pastor often seeks a successor that will reach a younger generation, a different ethnicity or another such culture. But theretiring pastors often tell me they select a successor, “Because I get along with them.” This is good in a subordinate. But this can be self defeating when you are trying to equip this leader to reach a different culture.
  4. Exceptional Leaders are Rare: The subordinate often will not have the exceptional character and gifts to lead an exceptional church. Leading a large and/or growing church is one of the most skilled and supernaturally empowered jobs on earth. And I’ve seen that men and women who can do so are very few and far between. Often they will not be found in your existing congregation. The best leader may be hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, and possibly in another denomination. The best solution is to use nation-wide search firm to cast a broader net.
  5. Legacy, because if things go bad later you may be blamed. Most pastors want to retire with a legacy that focuses on their successes. When a retiring pastor gets involved in the successor selection, that retiree’s legacy is tied to another.

Check out my other writings on this topic on how to survive (and thrive in) pastoral transitions. And, if you are intersted in auditing or earning seminary credit studying better church transitions, email me.

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TRANSITION & 51% of incoming pastors said there was no plan in place when they arrived, and 33% said the lack of planning caused problems as they took the helm. Solution: #Apprenticeship Model

by Kenneth Young, Faith & Leadership, Duke Univeristy, 7/7/20.

… Can you imagine working alongside the leader who would eventually turn the controls over to you? What would our churches, nonprofits and other organizations be like if we created such a model?

I see the apprenticeship idea supported by 2019 Barna research,(link is external) which says that planned transitions “tend to produce positive outcomes” — yet reports that 51% of incoming pastors said there was no plan in place when they arrived, and 33% said the lack of planning caused problems as they took the helm.

An apprenticeship model would allow the established leader to shape and mold the new leader, or at least work with that leader before stepping down. Institutions are well served when such a model is put into action.

For example, Bishop Paul S. Morton, the legendary gospel singer and pastor who founded the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, stated publicly how he would transition the fellowship to new leadership — noting that he did not want to die in office — and then worked directly to apprentice now-presiding prelate Bishop Joseph Walker III, ensuring a smooth, successful transition.

Biblically, Moses trained Joshua to lead the Israelites into their next season. Elijah trained Elisha, and Jesus trained the 12 disciples for at least three years to spread the good news around the globe. If we take this model seriously, our churches, nonprofits and institutions will benefit.

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PASTORAL TRANSITIONS & Dewey Smith’s personal story of his challenging pastoral transition

This popular session from the Church Central Turnaround 20/20 conference details Pastor Smith’s difficult journey of becoming the new pastor of a 137 year-old church, and the lessons he learned in the process. “I really had to humble myself like never before,” he says. “We can create climates that make church growth more conducive, but ultimately it’s God who adds the increase.”

Watch the video at …


PASTOR TRANSITION & 6 Things You Must Understand for a Successful Transition

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 9/28/15.

William Vanderbloemen has studied the inner workings of hundreds of churches. As the founder of maybe the largest pastoral search firm in America (, he shared at the Society of Church Consulting Summit on Church Staffing at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I’d looked forward to hearing from him, since he helped one of my client churches (Vineyard of Cincinnati) complete an effective pastoral succession. Here are my notes from his presentation.

1) AGILITY: Power to nimble. By this he meant that churches have everyday innovation. They work at this because every day that a church exists it becomes less flexible. So, it requires churches, like people, top practice exercises that keep you nimble and flexible. Stretching exercises as a team are his recommendations to offset calcification. He suggests you recall the “unlock your past, to unlock your future.” Read the board minutes to cite examples of where the church in the past has become nimble and flexible to foster agility.

2) RECREATE EFFECTIVE CULTURES: The question he uses to understand culture is “When were the times when you functioned best as a team? And, what were the things that characterized your team at those times.” This is what he defines as “the code for your culture.” In new churches it it the set by the top five leaders in your church. In old churches it is set by its history. “I think we have seen the death of the 5-year plan. It is now about defining and supporting out culture.” So Vanderblomen feels the future is not planning your future, but understanding, stating and aligning your current and future teams with your culture.

3) FOSTER FLATTER ORGANIZATIONS: This means people on the front lines, those in the trenches, are given empowerment to make decisions rather than waiting for upper management to give permission. “It is not necessary to check in with the hierarchy. If those on the front lines understand the problem, they solve the problem on the front lines. This is a flatter organization, where teams can make the decisions, they don’t have to ask the higher-ups if those on the front lines know the culture.” He went on the say these we characteristics of Millennials.

4) FEWER SPECIALISTS: “There are fewer specialists on staffs today. A good Children’s Ministry leader can learn the speciality skill to be a youth pastor.” He stressed you hire leaders and then they can adapt and move around to fill needs. This is partially being filled by more part-time workers. A part-time but excellent leader will be better part-time rather than just using her or him as a volunteer. Hiring more part-time leaders is the future. “Fewer people, but better people; they are spending more money on smaller staffs.”

5) THEOLOGICAL AWARENESS: Being aware of theology and practice is something younger generations want today. Online and accelerated seminary programs are attractive, but they don’t want to leave their context to go to school. This is exactly what Wesley Seminary offers.

6) AWARENESS OF OPPORTUNITIES: My students undertake a SWOT analysis, where the O stands for external opportunities that an organization must respond to. This means a church is sensitive to what is happening on the outside and an organization is prepared to pounce upon new opportunities. “Communication breakthroughs lead to religious renewals that take advantage of those breakthroughs.” He went on to talk about Roman Roads that carried the Good News, how the printing press fueled the Reformation and I would add how the Industrial Revolution was used to spread the method of the Methodists. Being ready to take advantage of new communication tools usually leads to great spiritual breakthroughs.

PASTOR TRANSITION & Thoughts from a Conversation w/ William Vanderbloemen

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 9/28/15.

Tonight I had dinner with William Vanderbloemen, founder of one of the most successful pastoral search firms and co-author with respected researcher Warren Bird of NEXT: Pastoral Successful That Works. As the former pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Houston (the oldest Presbyterian church in Texas) he learned from a colleague how Christian hospitals had effective succession plans. Out of these two careers came one of today’s most effective pastoral succession firms.

We were discussing how churches branch out with different cultural worship expressions. Knowing Bill was from Texas, I mentioned that a colleague of mine in Texas was branching out with a “Cowboy Church.” If you know about Cowboy Churches, these churches often hold worship at rodeos or under a tent, where boots and cowboy hats are welcomed, even expected at church (see Cowboy Church with Rodeo Arena, They do Church Different).

William responded, “The key for success is if the preacher is really from the cowboy culture. You can’t fake that in Texas. There is one Cowboy Church pastor and he is missing two fingers. He lost those riding in the rodeo. That is a signal that he is part of your culture.”

William’s response reminded me of what I had heard about his firm from my client, Vineyard of Cincinnati, that had used him with their pastoral search.

The key is authentic cultural relevance. The cowboy pastor with two missing figures was a sign to his cowboy culture that he was committed and authentic.

As a man who leads probably the largest pastoral placement firm in America, I’ve heard from my clients that he stresses the importance of matching a pastor to the authentic culture of the organization. “So do you have a place on your questionnaire that asks, ‘How many fingers do you have’?” May be we should he replied.

TRANSITION & Leadership Succession Basics

by Bob Whitesel Ph.D., 7/16/15.

Below is my commentary and some notes I’ve taken (and with which my consulting experience can confirm) on my friend Warren Bird’s book with William Vanderblomen: Next: Pastoral Succession That Works (Baker Books, 2014).

8 year average senior pastor tenure with 18 years avg. senior pastor career (Bird, Vanderblomen, 22)

Principles (p. 30).
> The Bible teaches models of succession.
> Every leader is an interim.

Succession plans keep the church healthy and prevent personality cults regardless of the type of succession plan: emergency, nonemergency yet unforeseen departure, and retirement (pp 33-34).

Founders syndrome (ch. 7): Long term pastorates usually lead to healthier churches. A new culture and a new team is required in second generation pastors.

Unintentional interims (ch. 12): Without ongoing succession planning and a current succession plan, well-meaning team members may become unintentional interims. This usually does not go well because unintentional interims have been team players rather than team leaders. Planning for succession also prevents a leader unintentionally becoming a sacrifice pastor.

Where to look for succession pastors (ch. 14). A leader who is sensitive to the current organizational culture plus understands the emerging organizational culture culture and is a slightly smaller organization is the best leader to choose.

How much it will cost (ch. 15). Bird and Vanderblomen make the argument that whatever the cost, it is usually worth it. Of course Vanderblomen leads a highly successful and professional search firm

How to know when it is time to leave (ch. 4). Due to a need for security, leaders often decide too late that it’s time to live leave. Hence a succession plan in advance helps everyone see the direction of the organization and helps them plan ahead. On a bell curve growth chart this would be about the middle of the plateau at least.

“Ten commandments” of succession planning (ch. 2). Below is their very helpful infographic. I recommend you buy the book for the many helpful details.


SUCCESSION & How Pastors Are Passing the Leadership Baton #WarrenBurd

Succession plans can destroy a church. Or help it thrive for years to come. What are the keys to success?

By Warren Bird, 11/18/2014, Christianity Today

…Four Models

Our research found that among the 100 largest Protestant U.S. churches, the average senior pastor is age 55 and has led the church for 21 years. And 44 percent of the pastors founded the church. According to Scott Thumma and Dave Travis (in Beyond Megachurch Myths), 82 percent of today’s megachurches grew to their large size under the current pastor. These numbers raise the question: Will these churches be able to keep growing once the lead pastor is gone?

Here are four of the most common emerging models of leadership succession:

Family Plan. The pastoral reins are passed to a relative or long-standing spiritual son or daughter…

Sometimes the family plan involves a husband–wife handoff. At NYC’s Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral, Floyd and Elaine Flake have co-pastored thousands since 1976…

In some cases, family successions work well, such as for Bethany Church in Baker, Louisiana, now in its third generation of Stockstill leadership. For others, family successions prove not to have been the best path.

Denominational Plan. The larger the church, the more likely it is to chart its own course. If it has a bishop or district superintendent, he or she often consults with the church to appoint the next pastor…

In reality, the church often leads the denomination by example. Mike Slaughter, 63, arrived at Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio, when it had fewer than 100 attendees. Now there are over 4,000, and the church includes 501(c)(3) organizations, a counseling center, low-income housing, and multiple campuses. “This complexity almost requires leaders to be raised from within,” says Slaughter.

“I consider us R&D for the UMC as they work with other large churches,” he says. “We want to serve as a test case.” By working with Leadership Network CEO Dave Travis, Slaughter has transitioned senior staff to a younger team, most in their 30s, including a 31-year-old teaching pastor. “My focus is to mentor and train our senior team and to pastor our staff,” he says.

Slaughter plans to retire July 1, 2019. “Our board and all staff know the timeline, and this fall we told our lay leaders—and now we’re telling anyone who reads this!”

Process-Only Plan. A common approach is for the outgoing pastor to help create and set in motion a succession plan—and then get out. This was the case for Leith Anderson, who retired in 2011 after 35 years of pastoring Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. “Wooddale and I developed a written protocol about 10 years before the transition,” says Anderson. “It specified how to manage the situation if the senior pastor dies, is disabled, becomes heterodox, fails morally, resigns, retires, etc. Doing this takes the pressure and emotion out of the process…”

Intentional Overlap Plan. Our research for Next found that more large-church pastors than not intentionally overlapped with their predecessor. It seems to be the strongest model for succession—when the church culture matches it.

The overlap typically runs for months but occasionally for years…

Some churches have a co-pastor situation, but that rarely leads to permanent co-pastor arrangements. Since 1980, Larry Osborne has been senior pastor of North Coast Church in Vista, California. Chris Brown, 18 years younger, became co-pastor in 2004, and preaches just as much as Osborne. In business terms, North Coast has always had a shared leadership model that functions more like a partnership in a cpa firm than a sole proprietorship with valued employees. Should Osborne die or step away, Brown would likely take on the managing partner role that Osborne held until Brown was elevated.

“I don’t believe in a transition plan longer than 18 months,” says Osborne. It goes by . . . too slowly for the one waiting in the wings. It’s hard to find a ‘big L’ leader willing to wait 3 to 5 years. With a partnership model, 18 months is plenty.”

No One Model

Research in Elephant in the Boardroom affirms that no model is the best or even most likely to result in a seamless pastoral succession. One of the most-watched handoffs was that of Gene Getz, founding pastor of the formerly named Fellowship Bible Church in Dallas. At 72, he passed his leadership baton to a former intern. “There is no one pattern or approach for making a successful transition,” Getz wrote recently in DTS [Dallas Theological Seminary] Connection. “We need to be guided by supracultural principles that emerge from biblical models and directives. We also need to learn from history in order to avoid making mistakes that have led to outright succession failure.”

Our research affirms the same conclusion: From the Moses–Joshua handoff to Jesus’ training of the Twelve, succession planning is both biblical and essential, but there is no cookie-cutter template.

The only thing that’s certain? It’s an inevitable need in every church. And we hope to move it from taboo to normal.

Warren Bird, PhD, an ordained C&MA minister, is research director for Leadership Network and author or coauthor of 27 books, including Next(Baker Books).

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