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
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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