Guess what? Every position in your church will turn over leadership multiple times in the history of its ministry. No person or position is permanent. Because of this I believe every church needs an active and dynamic succession plan for all key leadership positions. The instructions of the by laws are not sufficient. They are largely dormant being unread and not updated. Both staff and lay leadership transitions can be costly to a church ministry. The loss can range from people and dollars to momentum and culture. So let’s be proactive and get ready for the inevitable today.
Here are some steps I would suggest to create and maintain a succession plan strategy that is both alive and dynamic for your church.
- Designate a Succession Team. For some churches this may fall under the responsibility of Personnel, Elders, Trustees, Board, or Deacons. You might utilize these teams or create a subordinate team from select members.
- Name the top positions needing dynamic succession plans. These can be both paid staff and volunteer leaders. You want to focus on those that are critical to weekly ministry and operational success. This will help you develop a deep bench today, opening up the need for cross training and mentoring which are both added bonuses.
- Craft transition steps, potential replacements, and training paths. With each position create what a transition looks like. What are the steps involved? In your plan you need to include announcing the transition, covering the workload during an interim period, properly training and onboarding the replacement. As you move forward, you can develop a list of potential internal replacements for each position as well as create a scope of training to help them become prepared for the future.
- Meet regularly as a team to evaluate and update the plan. At first, the group may meet monthly to get a strong start on the effort. Once a working plan is in place the meetings can become less frequent. They may occur quarterly or semi-annually. You can even make them an agenda item in regular team meetings and a topic for annual personnel reviews.
- Clarify long term church vision. Every church needs a clear and powerful vision. The longer tenure a leader experiences the more fuzzy vision can become. Whenever there is a turnover in staff the possibility of a new vision becomes a hot topic. A clear vision that has become actionable by ministry teams helps fill the void created by a leadership transition.
- Craft 3 to 5 year goals. Helping chart the future with a culture of always moving forward anchors a ministry team and congregation. As a pastor looks to retire, he wants to leave well. There is a list of items he wishes he would have accomplished. However, if we are thinking of succession 5-10 years in advance we can make sure the vision is being completed and the major items on the “To Do” list are checked off.
- Clean up the calendar and budget. Over time vision becomes fuzzy, calendars become full, and budgets tend to inflate. The financial position of the church at the time of retirement is always a major concern. One of the best ways to clean up the finances is to focus the calendar and budget toward a clear set of visionary goals. The one who follows you will be very thankful.
- Create systems and processes for ministries to enjoy momentum. If our ministries are heavily reliant upon one key person then we are building on an uncertain foundation. Systems and processes that are easily repeatable by teams is the way to go. It becomes easier to enlist people. Their training needs become obvious. Roles are more clearly defined. The possibility of success is high. All of this increases confidence and culture while securing a safer future in the absence of a key leader. It will erase sideways energy and unproductive questions during a leadership void.
- Develop future leaders. With a succession plan in place, the need to train leaders in specific areas of growth has been articulated. This is your chance to expand the circle, plan for development, help people practice new leadership skills, while providing appropriate feedback. You want all of this to be monitored by and communicated to the Succession Planning Team as they lead this endeavor. It is best to learn and fail in advance of a critical need. This better protects the church in the future.
- Stage your exit well. Transitions are tough no matter how well they are handled. When it comes to retirement this is usually not a quick decision. Both the staff member and the church will need adequate time to process all that is occuring. If this plan is a living document, you will be able to edit it as you learn and grow. The closer you get to the official decision or announcement the more you will need to account for the emotions being experienced by all. Retirement is emotional for everyone. There will be both grieving and celebrating. It is a demonstration of the kingdom at work and God’s calling moving forward for all. Do not underestimate this season of growth. Retiring is as much about the future as it is the past.
Bonus: Disappear for 6 to 12 months. It is really important for the leader to provide space to the church and ministry leaders once retirement begins. Whether you intend to stay in the community and church or not, it is best to disengage for six to twelve months. This means you need to go dark. No retirement office at the church. No showing up on Sundays. No calling leaders to see how things are going. There will be a day for you to re-engage in a healthy fashion, but everyone needs clarity for a season.
No transition is as easy as a few simple steps contained in one blog. However, I desperately want to raise awareness and demystify succession planning. It needs to be normalized for the sake of all. It relieves pastors of immeasurable emotional pressure and protects the church. If I can help in any way, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or others who can assist your church in creating healthy succession plans.
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