Years ago I read a book by Hans Finzel entitled The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make. My first impression was “I’ve made almost all of these…I should have written this book!” When I recovered from that reality, there was one issue in particular that God’s Spirit developed into a deep conviction and a plan of action – “there is no success without successors.”
I was privileged to be part of the founding of Kentwood Community Church (KCC) in 1979, and to serve that great congregation for over 30 years. We shared together the adventures of multiplication (involved in planting 10 daughter churches), becoming increasingly multiethnic and growing numerically as we redemptively interacted with our immediate community and the great Grand Rapids, MI area. But since I’d been there from the beginning and for so long, as the years went by I was haunted by the fact that so many long-term pastorates do not transition well. In some churches, a positive ministry developed over decades was undone in just months by a lack of preparation for transition.
I was reminded of this again recently as I’ve walked alongside my friend Bishop Tom Benjamin this year. For 43 years he led Light of the World Church, an African American congregation in the heart of Indianapolis, to make an amazing Kingdom contribution to that great city and beyond. But he also had seen the mistake of “no success without successors” (I guess this mistake isn’t culturally bound!). So he decided before his own vitality or the vibrancy of the church declined, he would pass the baton. 2012 had been devoted to honoring his 4+ decades of ministry in Indy while introducing the new Senior Pastor of Light of the World, and on December 2 his successor was installed.
I get calls on a fairly regular basis from pastors and/or congregational leaders to discuss reactively transitions that should have happened, or proactively ones that may be happening in the months or years ahead. In The Wesleyan Church, many of our leading churches will face transition in the not too distant future. So I’ve compiled the beginning of a list of principles and practices that help with succession.
- Create a culture. For years our leadership mantra was that “KCC is becoming fully functional in pursuing its mission and vision without being dependent upon any one person.” It’s the culture of dependency, with its accompanying emotional enmeshment, that can be debilitating to transition. Practically, this meant developing teams so that no leader served alone.
- Get a life. For the leader, if their whole life revolves around their ministry in a congregation, it becomes their identity and source of security. I needed to develop all dimensions of life, invest in a relational range beyond the congregation, and participate in ministry opportunities beyond the parameters of one community.
- Make a plan. I worked with our governing board in 2001 to develop a succession plan, and at the time anticipated being there another 20 years. This opened communication about the topic among our leaders, and this plan was reviewed (and updated) as part of our orientation process for the board each year. It included…
…succession scenarios, not all of which were pleasant. The broad categories were pastor-initiated exit, church-initiated exit, pastoral moral failure, and death or permanent disability.
…communication commitments. So often it is the rumor mill that creates such destruction in times of transition. The congregation was informed that we have a transition plan (which seemed to set their minds at ease) and if they hear of a transition, they were to ask a board member – if the board member didn’t know, it was a rumor, because they’d be the first to know!
…an annual confidential discussion with our congregational lay leader regarding my list of potential internal and external candidates in case the need for transition should come suddenly. These were recommendations only, since in our polity selection of a Lead Pastor prioritizes congregational and denominational involvement.
- Talk time. Especially as the transition draws near, reaching agreement by mapping a specific timeline can be an uncomfortable conversation for the pastor or board (especially if they see it differently) but it’s a necessary one. In my case, the transition was relatively “short and (bitter) sweet” – less than a year. But it recognizes I’m not good at being a “lame duck” and a worthy successor would have a sense of urgency about taking the reins.
It’s been three years since I finished at KCC, and at Senior Pastor Kyle Ray’s invitation I spoke at KCC Thanksgiving weekend. It was so gratifying to interact with a vibrant conversation so optimistic about and engaged in its future vision, and so appreciative of their pastor. Not without some bumps, twists and turns, but I find myself with a deep sense of gratitude that the transition God orchestrated has positioned this congregation to believe “the best is yet to come.”