By Bob Russell
In 2006, I transitioned out of the church I had led for 40 years. The transition was challenging, but it has been successful. There are six principles I’ve found that will help any church leader during a time of transition.
Choose your successor wisely.
Our plan worked because we depended on a quality person. My successor, Dave Stone, was not a clone of me, but we both had a common set of convictions and doctrine. When you choose your successor, they must be a person of character first and foremost. If you choose a successor based on talent over character, it will come back to bite you. Your appointed successor must be patient because overeagerness can cause tension in the church, and they must be more talented than you, so they can take the church to an even higher level.
Mentor, but don’t micromanage.
Initially, I thought mentoring had more to do with verbal instruction than anything else. I soon discovered it has a whole lot more to do with exposure and sharing life experiences. Wisdom is more caught than taught. I began asking the men I mentored to go to lunch, ride to a funeral with me, or look over my sermon. I learned to avoid condescension and treat them as equally as possible so that they did not develop a benchwarmer’s mentality. When mentoring, try to be a caring big brother rather than a protective parent or dogmatic teacher.
Sacrifice your ego.
We all have egos, and we all want to be liked. There is likely a part of us that wants to be missed and may even have a small hope the church struggles in our absence. But that is not how we are called. There may be twinges of jealousy, or even throbbing pain, but in those moments we must pray that Christ is exalted above us. I had to pray often that He be increased, and I be decreased. I had to remember I was part of building a kingdom for Christ, not for Bob.
Establish a realistic timetable, and stick with it.
When I left, I set a date and said that unless God intervenes with a dramatic, undeniable red light, I would stick with it. People will say to you that you will know when it’s time, but you won’t. By the time you know, it will be way too late. It requires a decisive spirit, but it is healthy for your church and will help avoid speculation and gossip.
Make a clean break.
When you are succeeded, get out. Spend time away. Retired pastors who still hang on hinder the work they gave their lives to establish. It can be hard to worship when you are so used to being behind the scenes. Step away completely for you own sake but also do it for your successor. If you are constantly around, looking over his shoulder and listening sympathetically to criticism, you are making his job harder.
Enlist congregational commitment.
Lastly, communicate clearly your plan. Don’t think you will sneak up on your congregation; respect their intelligence and honor them as members. They do not want to hear of your succession plan from another source. But even before congregational commitment is church board commitment. When I first brought my plan to the elders, they needed time to consider, and it took them six months to reach a consensus. Eventually, we were able to move forward with a unified vision.
Adapted from Pipeline 2017: Succession at Every Level. To learn more about how to a leadership pipeline helps in ministry transitions and succession, check out our free Ministry Grid courses Introduction to Leadership Pipeline and Leadership Pipeline Competency Overview.