Passing the Baton: Keys to Pastoral Leadership Succession Success

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Every pastor is an interim pastor.

That statement may sound harsh or abrupt, but it’s becoming a catchphrase. Saddleback’s Rick Warren commented about the quote on Instagram, noting that it’s something his dad—also a pastor—said repeatedly. As William Vanderbloemen and I explain in Next: Pastoral Succession That Works (Baker Books), a day will come for every church leader when a successor takes his place.

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And based on our research, the smartest churches address succession head-on. A church that doesn’t handle it well faces significant losses, sometimes to the point of no return. Crystal Cathedral is now bankrupt due in part to succession issues. The same is true of many once-prominent churches, like Earl Paul’s Chapel Hill Harvester Church, that are now gone. An outstanding long-term pastorate offers no guarantee that a church will survive, let alone thrive.

In 1968, 12 years after Jerry Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, the church was drawing more than 2,000 weekly worshipers, putting it on early “top 10” lists from Elmer Towns and John Vaughan.

Then in 2007, at 73, Falwell died suddenly from cardiac arrest. When I interviewed his son Jonathan, I noted that if anyone was high risk, it was his dad—who flew private planes, received death threats for his politics, and had serious health issues. Jonathan technically had been named co-pastor two years earlier, when Falwell underwent two hospitalizations in one month with potential open-heart surgery to follow. But the two never discussed in detail Thomas Road’s future after its founder was gone. “I wish we had talked about it,” said Jonathan. “He wanted to die with his boots on—and he did.”

The “no plan” plan of succession has been the most common pattern over the years, says Linda Stanley, vice president and team leader for Leadership Network. “The large-church pastors in our leadership communities, ages 45 to 65, may talk about succession. But few if any have actually detailed a plan,” she says.

A number of high-profile pastors are bucking the trend by creating plans and making them public. At the 2012 Global Leadership Summit, Willow Creek Community Church founding pastor Bill Hybels, then 60, devoted a session to his journey of beginning one. Warren, 60, has likewise gone on record with the outline of his own plan. This fall, at a gathering of senior pastors whose churches draw 5,000-plus in attendance, “a big topic of conversation was Next,” said Tim Harlow from Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois. “It blows my mind to be thinking in these ways. I’m only 53.”

Since the 1970s, the number of large churches in North America has steadily grown, as has the average size of a “large” church. Thirty years ago, when Leadership Network convened its first peer group of pastors with 1,000-plus attendees, fewer than 100 existed. Today there are some 1,650 megachurches (attendances of at least 2,000), plus roughly 3,000 churches in the 1,000–1,999 range, according to a joint study by Leadership Network and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Warren Bird

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