Church Leadership Includes Succession Planning

Posted by Aaron Buer on October 24, 2019

I’ll never forget the day my boss asked me,

“So, if you get hit by a beer truck tomorrow...who would take over your team?”

I was like,

“First off...a beer truck?!? Why does it have to be a beer truck? Secondly...I’m not sure.”

What about you? Do you have a plan?

One of the most common conversations I get into with other church leaders centers around succession.

We are in the middle of a very interesting era in the church in America.

The founding pastors of many successful churches are nearing retirement age.

The best question is...what’s the plan? Is there a plan?

Some of these churches have been in the news.

Some of the leadership handoffs have gone amazingly well and some have gone catastrophically wrong.

Maybe you’re thinking:

“Interesting conversation…doesn’t exactly apply to me.”

Actually, I think it does. You see, whether you’re a founding pastor, a ministry leader or a volunteer small group leader, you won’t be here forever.

Let that sink in for a second. You won’t be here forever.

I recently heard something that hit me hard: Every pastor is an interim pastor.

We are all temporary. It’s not my church. It’s not your ministry.

It all belongs to Jesus and we are all interim in our role.

The ministry you lead or serve in needs to continue after you move on.

And, you have a role in making that a possibility. So, what’s your plan for what happens after you leave?

Here’s what I want to say in this post: Someday choosing your successor probably won’t be your responsibility but multiplying yourself right now is your responsibility.

If you are willing to engage in the work of multiplying yourself—developing others to do what you do, you will set your church or organization up, in the best possible way, to continue to thrive after you are gone.

So, how do you do that? I have a few ideas.

1. Identify the Competencies

What are the skills that are required for you to do what you do?

Maybe you need to preach effectively?

Maybe budgeting skills are crucial. Perhaps your job requires competencies in the area of discernment and critical thinking.

Maybe you need to be able to connect deeply with people and earn their trust.

The first step toward empowering others to do what you do is to fully understand what is required to do what you do.

If you find this task of identifying key skills and competencies challenging, invite people who work with and around you to help you.

Often others see what we can’t.

2. Share the Work

Once you understand what is required for someone to do what you do, it’s time to invite a few trusted people to share the work you do.

If you are a preacher, invite a few others, who you believe stand a good chance of learning the art of preaching, to...you guessed it, preach!

You might be thinking, “Are you crazy? What if they bomb?” Well, they might.

I’m not saying give them half of the preaching schedule, I’m saying, let them try it.

Here’s the deal: If you don’t start sharing your work, you’ll never identify the people who could someday do what you do.

As you do this, you’ll redirect some people toward a role that better suits their gifts and talents, but you’ll also identify a few people who have strong potential to someday do what you do.

Once you are sharing the work, it’s time to start investing in and developing those who show potential.

Teach them what you know, give them feedback, invite them to share their ideas.

Maybe they will succeed you someday. Maybe they will go on to bless another church or ministry with the skills and experience you’ve gifted them with. Either way, it’s a huge win.

The challenge here is that developing others requires letting go of some responsibility.

Many leaders are never able to make that jump.

In my research for this post, I came across some helpful language from Todd Adkins about the progression of releasing responsibility:

Intentional Ministry: I do, you watch, we talk
Guided Ministry: I do, you help, we talk
Collaborative Ministry: You do, I help, we talk
Equipped Ministry: You do, I watch, we talk

Most of us struggle to fully equip others for the work we do.

Multiplication requires releasing responsibility and equipping others. It’s hard and at times painful but important and necessary work.

3. Utilize Coaches

Something you might be feeling is,

“This sounds really important but I don’t think I have enough time to do this!”

We still have to do our jobs, right?

If we focus so much on developing others that we end up failing to deliver on what we are required to do...that’s a problem.

You might need a faster succession plan!

Here’s a possible solution: There are other people in your church and in your life that possess the skills and competencies required to succeed at what you do. In other words, you don’t have to be the one to mentor every single competency.

Something we are working toward in our church is identifying leaders who are highly proficient in a particular competency and then pairing them up with someone who needs development in that same competency.

I would argue that each person on your staff on board is highly competent in one or two areas. Ask them to mentor others specifically and only in those areas.

Mentoring and coaching is such a powerful way to develop others. A great question to ask yourself is,

“Who else could coach this person in this particular skill?”

4. Name an Emergency Successor

Once you’ve identified the critical competencies, begin to share the work and start coaching and developing others who could potentially do what you do. It might be time to do something a little crazy.

I recently heard the story of a church that successfully navigated a leadership handoff with their senior leader.

Part of their story includes the senior leader naming an emergency successor long before he actually retired.

I’m talking eleven years before.

Now, in their story, the emergency successor actually became the long-term successor, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

The question is, who are you going to have this conversation with:

If my plane never lands, I’d like you to step into my role while leadership figures out what to do next.

The reason I like this idea is that you’re not committing to a “forever and ever, amen” succession plan.

But you are recognizing a specific person as a potential candidate for that role who could temporarily step in if necessary.

Side note: Maybe you’re a senior leader who wants to talk about a succession plan but the board isn’t currently interested.

Maybe you’re a board member who wants to talk about a succession plan but the senior leader isn’t interested.

A conversation about naming an emergency successor can be a good way to get into the bigger conversation because it feels less threatening. Just saying.

Wrap Up

So, whether you are a small group leader or a senior pastor, I would argue that you should be multiplying yourself so that someone else can step in and lead the small group or the entire church.

Choosing the next leader might not be your responsibility but it is your responsibility to multiply yourself now.

I hope this has been helpful. We’d love you hear your thoughts, stories or questions in the comments below. We actually do respond. Thanks for reading!

Topics: Advice

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