10 Reasons Pastoral Successions Fail

“Pastoral successions force us to wrestle with our deep fears. Will God take care of me? Will I be betrayed?”

Robert A. Caro’s towering biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, offers a penetrating insight about power and leadership:

Although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary: to hide traits that might make others reluctant to give him power, to hide also what he wants to do with that power; if men recognized the traits or realized the aims, they might refuse to give him what he wants. But as a man obtains more power, camouflage is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise. The revealing begins.

Nothing reveals our character like succession and transitions. It reveals not just the character of the senior pastor or CEO, but the board, the senior staff and the congregation. Why? Because power always reveals.

After the publication of our New Life succession story in the final chapter of The Emotionally Healthy Leader, I have spoken with a steady stream of churches, superintendents and business leaders about large transitions such as succession. The following is my list of “beneath the iceberg” topics that must be addressed in any strategic process for a successful outcome.

1. Fear

This process forces us to wrestle with our deep fears. Will God take care of me? Will I be betrayed? Will I be seen as a loser? How will I be remembered? The list is endless, depending on the negative scripts of your family of origin. All of these will surface in the fiery crucible of a serious transition.

2. Loss of Control

Will things fall apart? What if the wrong person is chosen? What if I get hurt? Transitions are a letting go, a crucifixion, a free fall of trust into the loving arms of God.

3. Power

Most senior leaders I meet are not aware of the enormity of their power. As a result, they unconsciously undercut or damage this very fragile process.

4. Misplaced Identity

Our identity easily becomes fused to our role, especially for senior leaders. This is natural and normal, especially after many years. Transition and successions, however, cut that link in a way that is only understood by looking at our crucified God.

5. Lack of a Loving Union

Our life is Jesus, not our leadership. This relationship of loving union, of drinking of him as our living water, of feasting on him as our bread of life will need to be deepened through any transition process.

6. Lack of Vision

We are stewards of God’s church, interim leaders who are passing away. The people, resources, gifts, history and particular charism given to an organization or church belong to God—not us. Our task is to peer 10 to 30 years into the future, to pass the torch to the next generation and to ensure the ministry expands at our departure.

7. Grief and Loss

This process plunges both the person transitioning and an entire church or organization into a disorienting process of pain that we prefer to avoid. Who likes grief and loss? An awareness of our tendency to repress or medicate ourselves with distractions during this time is indispensable.

8. Laziness

It is much easier to leave and move on to a new pasture, rather than guide a complex organization like a church through a healthy process—especially as things inevitably become messy and painful. Succession and transitions are always very hard work.

9. Narcissism

We each have an underlying tendency to think we are more important and indispensable than we are. (I am not referring to a DSM-5 level of pathology). M. Scott Peck said it best: “Learning to grow out of our narcissism is the core of the spiritual journey.” Few events in life reveal and break hidden narcissistic and grandiose levels in us than a transition or succession process.

10. Unbelief

For those of us who are baby boomers, it is essential that we be thinking about handing over power and mentoring the generations behind us. This requires faith. It has rightly been said that the sin beneath all sin is unbelief, a refusal to trust Jesus and his voice. But if we will trust him, we find that miracles and resurrections will abound all around us.

Andy Crouch has said it best: “It is hard to think of many things that do more damage to an organization than leaders who have no plan for how they will hand over power.”

Pete Scazzero is the founder of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, and the author of two best-selling books: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and The Emotionally Healthy Church. This story was originally posted on Scazzero’s blog at EmotionallyHealthy.org.

Check out Outreach magazine’s interview with Scazzero, “Emotionally Healthy Leadership” »