4 Trends in Healthy Succession Planning

How to make a leadership transition as smooth as possible

1. Secure the Outgoing Senior Pastor’s New Pastoral Identity.

Many pastors have been serving at their church for 20 or more years, and their identity is defined by their ministry. When that goes away, pastors are left asking, “Who am I?” Smart churches answer that question by saying, “What is your identity after you leave here? Let’s talk about it ahead of time. Let’s write it down and help you start to plan it.”

For some churches, that means the pastor is going to start with a paid-for vacation. The new pastor can then build leadership trust. While that sort of expense may sound extravagant, smart boards are realizing that an extended sabbatical for the outgoing lead pastor both honors their longtime leader and provides a buffer period for the new pastor to get established.

Many churches have a policy that the outgoing pastor cannot be a part of the church for a designated amount of time. Others create a clearly defined new staff role for the outgoing pastor. These policies should be in place before a pastoral transition happens.

• What are some areas within your church where your outgoing pastor could eventually find their new purpose?

2. Establish the Financial Security of Both the Outgoing and Incoming Pastor.

Too many times, a pastor has been told by their board that they will be taken care of when they retire, only to have the board forget or have different expectations. Succession is much harder to talk about when a pastor is 65 and realizes they have no retirement funds or equity in a house. Smart churches get ahead of the curve by setting up retirement committees that help plan the outgoing pastor’s retirement and set up deferred compensation.

On the flip side, many good pastors who succeeded long-tenured pastors end up being sacrificial lambs. Smart pastoral candidates know this reality and desire to be a part of a church that has a thorough, healthy succession plan and is willing to care for their family in the long-term. More and more churches are willing to put money on the line for the incoming pastor in case the succession fails. It makes the board more likely to create a winning scenario, and it reduces anxiety for the new pastor and their family.

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• How is your church reducing anxiety by creating identity for your outgoing pastor? Is there a pension plan?
• Can you set up a committee to help the pastor plan their retirement (assuming they would like the help)?
• Are you providing financial assurances for your incoming pastor?

3. Know Your Church’s Identity.

Growing, healthy churches fine-tune their vision, mission, identity and unique position in their community. Having a firm, honest and consistent view of your identity as a church makes succession planning and a senior pastor search much easier. Nearly every church has a mission statement—some form of the Great Commission. But the smartest churches take it to a more granular level and ask, “What are we uniquely positioned to do in this particular moment for this particular place?”

When churches possess vision clarity, they’re able to begin to understand what the next pastor needs to look like. Knowing who you are ahead of time will help you as you assess candidates.

• Do you need to refresh our vision?
• Does the candidate fit where you are or where you want to go?

4. Create an Emergency Succession Plan.

Smart churches anticipate what no one wants to anticipate: What would happen if there were an emergency succession that nobody sees coming? Smart churches develop an emergency succession plan for both the short and the long-term. Please note that developing emergency transition plans is not about a lack of confidence in your pastor. It’s an acknowledgement that we live in a broken world and unexpected things happen. Your church and church staff can rest easy knowing plans are in place for any leadership emergency.

• What would you do if your pastor couldn’t preach this Sunday?
• What would you do if they couldn’t preach on Easter or Christmas?
• What if they were suddenly gone in the midst of a capital campaign?

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