The 10 Commandments of Long-Range Succession Planning

William Vanderbloemen & Warren Bird: How to start the process before a transition happens

Succession is more of a process than a single event. Even if you’re nowhere near retirement, there is plenty you can do now to begin succession planning.

1. Write yourself a letter. Deal with two topics. First, suppose you retire with great health and a heart passionate about changing the world for Jesus. What might you do? Start cultivating that hobby, ministry interest, or other pastime now. Approach it as a marathon, not a sprint. Second, set markers for when you will know it’s time to go, based on whatever motivates you. Is it when the baptism or baby dedication count declines for two years running? When new young adults stop showing up? When you’re tired of new music? Remember that no one wants to tell you that you’re losing your edge. Don’t die a death of a thousand paper cuts.

2. Make sure an orderly process is clearly mapped out. It should cover everything from who runs the church day-to- day to who selects the next pastor and how. Do all appropriate people know where to find the written directives (church bylaws, denominational manual, and so on)? Be sure to add any special requests you may have. The ideal process should be planned collaboratively and initiated by the senior pastor, and it should involve the board and HR office, and also draw input from the senior pastor’s spouse. If you’re part of a denomination, seek appropriate input on that level as well.

3. Forecast the church’s leadership needs three to five years ahead. A common fault of succession planning is to make the current senior pastor the primary standard of comparison. It could be that the type of person needed for the challenges three to five years ahead (much less the changes in ten or twenty years) is not the same as you. To ensure that your succession planning is more forward looking than merely identifying someone who can thrive in your present environment, list your church’s needs and opportunities that will differ three years from now compared to what they were three years ago. List at least five examples of “more of THIS and less of THAT.” Then name at least two directly related strengths in which your next senior leader needs to excel.

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4. Develop a list of internal candidates to cultivate. Establish how each potential candidate will be given responsibilities to grow in the coming year (likely not knowing the complete reason why). Especially focus on helping them empower several layers of “leader makers.” Determine how to assess their ability to be the future senior pastor. Decide whether to use independent criteria to measure their progress, such as a search firm or an outside consultant. This step is especially crucial if the candidate is a relative of the senior pastor.

5. Develop criteria for external candidates. Create a list of measurable requirements, from a vital personal faith to particulars like how much pastoral experience they need to have, in what size church, and in what geographical area. If possible, describe where you’d begin to find them, such as by using a search firm, denominational or educational connections, and so on. Develop several specific names and become more intentional about having their paths intersect with your church.

6. Do necessary financial planning. Challenge your board to address these tough questions: What are the financial expectations if your current senior pastor dies, retires, or is commissioned to launch a new ministry of your church, and what should you be doing now to prepare for those needs? What are the salary implications if you have an overlap of outgoing senior pastor and new senior pastor? How will you anticipate the financial dip likely to occur in the six to eighteen months after the pastoral transition finishes? Likewise, help the board set patterns now to make sure you have adequate funding when the day finally arrives to retire or otherwise move on, knowing that a lack of savings is a major problem for too many pastors. Ask for part of your pay package to include a stipend for meeting annually with a financial planner outside the church who understands nonprofit and ministerial matters like housing allowances.

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7. Solidify a seasoned senior leadership team. Work on whatever needs to happen now to ensure that your existing team will work well together after your departure as senior pastor, rather than shifting to a competition where one person “wins” the senior pastor role, and the rest then move to other ministries.

8. Define “success” three years after the succession. What will success look like for you and your spouse once you are no longer the senior pastor (whether you stay or move on)? for the new pastor (and the new pastor’s spouse and family)? for the congregation? for the surrounding community? How might the fact that a new leader is in place impact each current major staff position? Are your answers to each of these questions measurable?

9. Anticipate communication issues. Who needs to know what about the succession process, and at what stage? For now, is planning limited solely to you (the current pastor), your family, and the board (the entire board, a subcommittee, or just the chair)? What should your executive pastor know and when?

10. Interview other churches. Find three churches roughly your size where the senior pastor succeeded in the last several years—ideally churches where it occurred at about your current age and for about the number of years you’ve served this church as senior pastor. The transitions may be due to retirement, family or health issues, new calling, and so on. Ask for advice: What went well? What was the biggest surprise? What were the financial implications of the transition? What do they wish they had known or anticipated or done?

Handle these issues well, and you’ll be ready for whatever is ahead.

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Excerpted with permission from Next: Pastoral Succession that Works, expanded and updated edition, Baker Publishing, 2020.