226. Case Study #16. Leading Through Leadership Change — Church Boards and Succession

[For additional resources related to issues of leadership succession I would refer you to blog articles #70 and #180. Although the story in this case study may seem to resemble a real situation, the names, places and actual circumstances do not describe any actual church, church board, pastor or chairperson.]

Pete, the lead pastor, would be 65 in six months. For fifteen years he had led Community Baptist Church in substantial growth and change. Although this experience had generated some serious challenges, for the most part he had enjoyed what he regarded as his last, substantial leadership role. But a new phase of his life was imminent and he pondered how to prepare his church for this transition. He knew the standard process, but discerned that this might not be helpful for this church at this time.

The first thing Pete decided to do was to share his thinking with Don, the chairperson of the church board. They met monthly and Pete had grown to appreciate Don’s wisdom and careful leadership of the board during the past three years. He expected that this conversation would not be a surprise to Don and he guessed right. When Don heard Pete’s perspective, he told Pete that he had wondered when this conversation would begin and was glad Pete was initiating it at a time when the church was healthy, growing and supportive of Pete’s pastoral leadership.

During the discussion Pete mentioned two things that were new wrinkles to Don. First, Pete said that he wanted to give the board twenty-four months notice of his resignation (he did not feel it necessary to retire on his 65th birthday). Secondly, during this time he would like to work with the associate pastor of youth and young adults and mentor him for the position of lead pastor. Pete shared his growing conviction that it was healthy and biblical for churches to be raising leaders from within the congregation.

Don had not thought about these options when it came to lead pastor succession. He appreciated the thought that Pete had given to this, but his only experience of pastoral succession was the traditional model. In this case the lead pastor only stays a short time after his resignation (perhaps one to two months) and then leaves. The congregation then searches externally for their next lead pastor, which might take two or three years to finalize. The difficulties with this process were well known and Don was dreading this kind of transition. Pete’s ideas, although they triggered many questions, also offered hope that a better way might be found to transition leaders, develop current leaders, and retain Pete within the life of the congregation.

Don knew that the church board had no succession policy per se. The church bylaws gave some basic guidance for the board to follow, but this presumed that the traditional model of pastoral selection would be followed. So one of his questions concerned the legitimacy of what Pete was proposing, given the nature of the current bylaws. Could the church board create a pathway for the kind of leadership succession that Pete was proposing without violating the bylaws? There were also some pragmatic questions: 1) how to gain the support of the congregation for the idea that the associate pastor for youth would be mentored into the role of lead pastor; 2) if after a year into the mentoring the consensus among the board arose that the associate pastor was not the person for the role, what then; 3) if people knew that the lead pastor was going to be completing his role in two years, what would this do to his ability to lead; 4) if Pete was desiring to remain part of the congregation, could the congregation, Pete and the associate pastor for youth all handle this new dynamic; 5) without a formal search how could the congregation know that they were getting the best candidate, i.e. God’s candidate for the role of lead pastor?

But Don was smart enough to see the upside to Pete’s proposal. Instead of a one or two year gap between senior leadership and the inevitable slippage in mission accomplishment this creates, the transition would be almost seamless. No time would be wasted, no need for a new leader to take a year to figure things out, no need for the new pastor to develop a whole set of new relationships. In addition, there would be no moving expenses, no search expenses, and no potential for serious division in the congregation over a potential candidate. Further the 24 month period of proposed mentoring would mean that the church would not go through a sudden gyration in vision direction.

Both Pete and Don knew that considerable work lay before them if they were to lead the board and the congregation in this unusual direction. But they believed that the Holy Spirit might be in this and were willing to test it. So they decided on three steps in order to discern God’s direction. First, Pete would draft a discussion paper on the matter of leadership succession. This would outline various scenarios that the board might consider, without giving priority to any of them. However, as the board discussed the brief, Pete would have freedom to indicate his preferred direction. Second, Pete would have an initial discussion with the associate pastor for youth to sound him out on the possible direction, making it clear that this was confidential and not official in any way. Third, Don would evaluate the current bylaws to see whether such a proposal would fit within their current framework and if not, what might have to be changed. He would have this information ready for the initial discussion of this matter at the next board meeting.

Your take:

1. Does your church have a succession policy in place? If so, what model of succession does it presuppose or even require? Would Pete’s proposal fit within it?

2. Does your church have a value of developing leaders from within and grooming current leaders to advance into more senior leadership roles? If not, why not? Would this be a healthy practice to endorse? If so, what vocational development policy would this require the board to endorse and fund?

3. Do we have enough confidence in God’s long-range planning ability to believe that he may already have in the congregation the next lead pastor? If so, how would you go about identifying who might be the person or group of persons that might qualify? How would you begin to assess and evaluate their potential?

4. Would a proposal such as Pete is making make your work as board chairperson easier or more difficult? Why? Under what circumstances would such a proposal not be advisable?

5. In the position description of the current lead pastor is there any requirement or expectation that he will be developing one of the associate pastors to become the next lead pastor? Would this be an advisable change to consider?




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