70. Planning for Succession as Church Board Chair

Responsible leaders keep their gaze forward, even as they reflect carefully on the past, so that they provide productive leadership in the present. Careful ‘piloting’ (kubernesis, the Greek word Paul used in 1 Corinthians to describe the gift of ‘governing leadership’) will bring a church board chair inevitably to consider the best way to help that board discern and develop a person to succeed him or her. Helping the board discern and appoint its next chair can be one of the last, critically important gifts you give to the board. This action is all about good stewardship.

Too often I observe that a board chair gets appointed with little thought given to his or her preparation for this task. A common scenario would find the board at its first meeting following the annual general meeting. On the agenda is the item “appointment of board chair.” Now some experienced board people will have given forethought to that item prior to meeting, realizing that its outcome will shape significantly the ability of the board to accomplish its mandate in the next twelve months. They may come to the meeting with a proposal based upon discerning prayer. Often, I suspect, that it becomes a matter of elimination as the board interacts and eventually discerns who is willing to take on this role. Lack of planning may result in an ill-equipped and unprepared person to take this role. The results can include a dysfunctional board, divisive processes, and ineffective governance within the congregation. Succession planning is critical to the health of a church board.

The structure of a church board and approved means for the appointment of its leadership will affect any succession planning. If church bylaws require the lead pastor to serve as board chair, then succession planning for a board is a matter of hiring a new lead pastor. However, I wonder how many boards consider that question when interviewing candidates for the lead pastor position, i.e. what will this person be like as board chair? If the role of board chair is a congregationally elected role, then succession planning will need to proceed in a very indirect and sensitive way so that charges of manipulation will not come forward. In many cases the board members have the authority to appoint the chair. In this situation you as the current board chair have an opportunity to engage the board directly in matters of succession planning. In this article I will presume this last scenario is the more common practice.

Planning for a good succession is important for the governance leadership that a church board needs to exercise. Presumably the board will desire to continue the development they have experienced through your leadership. By enabling you to mentor a successor for several months prior to the completion of your term, the board is making a significant choice to prepare for the transition and provide important help for the new chair.

What factors should you as board chair consider in thinking about succession planning?

1. Determine what limits current board or congregational policy establishes.

As noted above, you will need to discern whether you can approach this question informally or formally. In other words does the church board currently have a policy regarding succession planning for the chair? Do the church bylaws give any guidance? Once you have understood these parameters, then you can think through a possible process. Remember that process is probably as important as discerning a potential candidate. If the process becomes toxic, then any succession planning will be voided.

2. Discuss this question with your lead pastor.

Any new board chair will have to work closely with the lead pastor. His views on the matter of succession will be crucial. For example, he may have no inkling that you are planning not to seek an additional term as board chair and may need some time to adjust to this leadership change. Further, he will probably have wisdom to share about a possible process. It will be important to have his support when a process may be proposed to the board members. Undoubtedly he will have some opinion as to current board members or other leaders in the church who might be potential candidates.

3. Discuss this question with the church board.

In most cases it is the church board which appoints its own chair. This means that any preparation for succession planning must be done with the full cooperation and involvement of the board. The more advanced notice the board has of your decision not to  serve another term as chair, the more time there will be to prepare for good succession. If the board has no process for determining a successor and enabling you to work with that person, then this becomes a learning opportunity for the board and a chance for them to build their leadership capacity. As the board discusses this issue, they educate themselves about the role of the chair and how critical that role is for their ministry and collaborative governance of the congregation.

4. Give yourself time to act upon your plans.

Sometimes events conspire such that your decision not to serve another term has to be made rather abruptly. However, a responsible chair will be assessing this question about six months prior to the end of his or her term. Helping the next chair prepare for this role will take some time, particularly if that person has not served previously as chair of a non-profit agency or church board. If the board determines that no current board member will serve in this capacity, then discerning another person in the congregation who might have the qualifications to fill this role and preparing them to step into that position may take even longer to process. Such matters become a bit complicated when congregational nominating committees are involved and there is no assurance that the person being nominated to serve as a board person will in fact receive the necessary votes.

5. Decide carefully in advance what qualities and qualifications are most important in a new chair.

Optimally a person should be willing to serve in the chair’s role for four to six years. It takes time to build confidence with the board and enable the board to govern well with respect to the future. The candidate should have a disciplined approach to leadership and committed to good process. However, a good board secretary can be a wonderful help in such matters. The person should have the respect of the board members and demonstrated spiritual maturity, because the church board is a major ministry team within the congregational context. Make sure the person takes the role seriously and understands it potential contribution to the health and vigour of the local church. Above all, the lead pastor must be able to work well with this person.  In my opinion, optimally a chair should have served at least one term as a member of that church board. This enables him or her to become familiar with the board’s ethos, internal dynamics, and operational processes.

7. After much prayer and with all necessary permissions in place, approach an individual.

This stage of the process may be the most challenging of all. The ethos of the church board’s operations under your leadership over the past several years can be a great asset in this. If your church board has demonstrated spiritually mature and mission-focused leadership, achieved with a spirit of collaboration and mutual support generally throughout the church leadership, then some individuals will be more inclined to consider the role of board chair as an avenue of ministry. However, if the opposite has been the case, encouraging another person to consider the role probably will require greater persuasion. Your ability to communicate the personal satisfaction that comes from facilitating the vision of the church through this role will be a crucial element. As well, sharing the skills and processes that you have used to assist the board and to enable it to work effectively will help the candidate discern that he or she can do this too. Above all, try to instill a deep sense of the spiritual context and worshipful work that a church board engages in all of its activities as one of the key ministry teams within the congregation. After all the bottomline for serving as a church board chair is an obedient response to God’s calling.

Succession planning for the role of board chair is both an individual and collective function. The church board needs to take some responsibility for this, as well as the chair person. A wise lead pastor will be giving attention to this also. We can proceed with the confidence that God gifts his church with the people required to help it grow and flourish. Our challenge is to perceive what God already is preparing and get in step with Him.


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