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05. 28. 2023

Current Events

One Out of Every One People Die

| 2 min read

Written by Matt Steen
Mar 27, 2023 8:00:00 AM

My Prayer for the Local Church Pt. 1: Succession 


A few weeks ago, I was asked at a conference about the trends that church leaders should be aware of. I took the opportunity to share my two biggest prayers for the local church in America: bench depth and succession. As we watch a generation of pastors transition from senior leadership roles into retirement or new ministries, we are more acutely aware of our need for a new generation of ministry leaders to assume their roles. I'll unpack my thoughts on the bench depth issue next time, but today I'd like to share some thoughts on succession.

The truth is, one out of every one people dies. As impressive as modern medicine is, we still have yet to defeat this statistic. Because of this, succession planning is crucial to our ministry. I was once asked, "how soon into my ministry should I start the succession planning process?" My answer was about three weeks in. Take the first couple of weeks to get your office set up, learn to use the copier, and figure out where the best places are to do sermon prep... and then lean into the process of planning for succession.



Now, the way that you plan for succession looks different depending on the stage of ministry that you are in. Early on in your tenure at a church, it is helpful to have a contingency plan in place. Have a conversation with leadership to determine what happens if you unexpectedly leave your church. I typically call this the "Matt got hit by a bus plan," but you are free to call it something less morbid if you so choose. This plan allows your church to have an agreed-upon set of procedures to rely on in the midst of a crisis. Each church's contingency will (and should) look different, but they need to be written down and reviewed every 18-36 months. The plan should designate who the interim leader will be, whether an interim pastor will be utilized, and how the new pastor should be selected. 

While reviewing your contingency plan on a regular basis is wise, as the length of your tenure grows, a shift needs to take place to begin preparing your church for the next pastor. This does not mean that you are publicly discussing setting the next guy up well, but it does mean that behind the scenes, you are working to ensure that the next pastor is set up well. There are a few, subtle ways of doing this work:
  • Create and leverage a teaching team that allows your congregation to hear from a multitude of voices on Sunday mornings. This helps a congregation learn to appreciate different teaching styles and makes learning from a different voice easier.
  • Develop a compensation strategy for your church that keeps an eye on the market rate for pastors. One of the biggest surprises a church has when beginning to look for a successor for a long-term pastor is how drastically salaries have changed over the years. 
  • Establish a leadership development pipeline that trains staff members for their next steps in ministry. Many times our successor is currently on our team. At the very least, you may be training up the next generation of pastors for other churches... which helps with our bench-depth struggles. 
  • Monitor the areas where you are the bottleneck for your church, and work to hand off as many of those as possible. There are always going to be areas where you, as the leader, need to have the last word... but they are often fewer than we think. 
  • Eliminate church debt. One of the best gifts you can give the next pastor of your church is to be debt free. 
  • Find a hobby. One of the biggest challenges that we, as ministry leaders, have is that we don't know what to do when we aren't leading ministries. The healthiest, most well-balanced leaders I have met have one thing in common: they have a hobby. Whether it is fishing (for fish, not men), carving decoy ducks, making fountain pens, or hiking, find something that you love to do when you are not at the church. This will make you a better leader today, and will give you something to look forward to when you step away from your leadership responsibilities at your church.
As you sense that your time in a church is coming to a close, your focus needs to shift to ending well. When you sense that you are 3-5 years from leaving your congregation, begin to focus on the foundation of your church and shore it up. This is not a time for huge initiatives, building projects, or launching new ministries, but is a time to prepare the church for its next season and a new vision. A few places to start: 
  • Take the time to ensure that your board is healthy and clear on their roles in the transition to come.  
  • Ensure that the church is financially healthy. Work to eliminate debt and spend time with your major donors, asking them to commit to staying with the church into the next season of ministry.
  • Review your bylaws and make sure they are current.  
  • Determine whether your next pastor is currently on your staff or if you need to begin an outside search. 
  • Create a written succession plan. Make sure that there is absolute clarity on what the transition will look like, who is responsible for what, what the outgoing pastor will (and won't) be doing in their next season and timelines. 
  • Spend time with a counselor. As much as we like to say that our identity is only in Jesus, if we are honest, we will admit that we also identify as a pastor. I have found that spending time with a counselor throughout this transition helps us come to grips with a major life change and gives us a safe place to vent when the board makes a decision that we don't agree with. 
The church in America has struggled with succession for years. We have all heard the horror stories, and we have all been warned by seminary professors about being the "next guy" after the long-serving senior pastor. I am convinced that we can do better than this, but it starts with realizing that we are all interim pastors, stewarding our congregation until God calls us to hand it off to our successor. 

If you are starting to think through succession, or are neck-deep in the process and need someone to talk to, I'd love to connect. Click here to find a time to talk. 



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