The truth is that we are all interim pastors. There will come a day when you are no longer the pastor of your church. The key to a successful pastoral succession plan is to start planning now, no matter your age or tenure.
I spent the last year studying hundreds of pastoral successions along with Warren Bird, Head Researcher at Leadership Network. We co-wrote a book called Next: Pastoral Succession That Works to help pastors, church leaders, and church board members to understand what they can do now to start preparing themselves and their church for the day their church will need a new pastor.
There is not a singular pattern or set of rules for succession planning because there are many differentiating factors that make each succession process unique. However, throughout our studies, we’ve seen a few cardinal rules pop up. They’re stunningly clear and universally applicable, no matter your situation or stage of planning.
These are steps you can start taking right now. These ideas can apply whether you’re 32 or 62, whether it’s your second year at your current church or your twenty-second, and whether you’re in a denominational appointment system or not.
You shape your future more than you might think. Start by taking ownership of your future succession.
Everyone wants to talk about succession planning until it’s his or her own. Too many pastors push away ideas of succession planning, because they think it is an unrealistic and overwhelming task.
The unknown variables can be scary: not knowing the future burdens and dreams that God might develop in your heart, the health and growth momentum of your present church, the ongoing “fit” between you and your present church, what your church board or district superintendent might do, or how your health or family circumstances might change.
However, in reality you can take these steps now to begin planning your future.
Chapter 2 of Next, is called The “Ten Commandments” of Succession Planning. We provide a ten-step guide for every pastor and church leader on successful succession planning. Here are five of the ten steps for planning your pastoral succession plan.
1. Read this checklist with those around you.
Ask your board to read this. If you’re a young pastor thinking about succession, you are already headed in the right direction. Whatever your age and no matter how long you’ve been at your church, your board will appreciate knowing that you want to plan for your church’s future as well as your own.
Additionally, find a trusted friend or colleague to read through these ideas with you. More of your colleagues are seriously contemplating succession than you might expect. Having a trusted group of friends around you to discuss the nuances of your unique succession plan will help ease the potential fear of the unknown future.
2. Pace yourself for the long run.
Establish a sabbatical policy with your board. The most common practice for sabbaticals is a three-month paid break every seven years.
Additionally, consider mandating a policy that requires you and your pastoral staff to actually utilize your days off and vacation time. Too many successions are on the heels of a moral or financial failure, and nearly every one of those failures happened because the pastors were tired and didn’t have anyone to talk to about their personal fatigue. If you’re not in an accountability group, find one. It is an essential safety net for your emotional health as a pastor.
3. Prepare an emergency envelope.
What would happen tomorrow if you were hit by a bus today? It’s important to formulate an emergency succession plan and share it with the proper parties. This isn’t as difficult of a task as you might think. Start by thinking about emergency planning on two levels: personal and church.
Is your family provided for? Do you have adequate life insurance and disability insurance? You’re seven times more likely to be disabled than to die during your working years. If you have children, have you named a guardian?
On the church side, how prepared is your congregation if that bus should take your life or incapacitate you for an extended season? Is the church prepared by knowing who would be in charge in your absence?
Form a plan, write it down, and have your board collaborate with and/or approve the plan. This plan should be revisited on an annual basis.
Ask each of your staff members or key volunteers to create their own “hit by a bus” plan for their own succession and encourage all of them to actively develop one or more apprentices.
4. Annually measure the state of your succession plan.
Place “succession planning” as the first item of your own annual performance review and schedule a full board meeting once a year to discuss the state of your plan. Succession planning is an ongoing process, not a singular event. The discussion can include many of the points in these “ten commandments.”
5. Develop a plan for an unplanned departure.
Succession is not reserved solely for retirement scenarios. It’s also not just about emergency planning. You might sense God’s leading to leave your current church for another one. You might decide to leave ministry for another profession. Trends are showing this to be more and more common.
Does your church have a plan for how to handle a vacancy outside of your emergency plan? Who would determine how a search team would be created? Have you developed internal candidates from your current staff or perhaps from a key volunteer? Are there rules (or bylaws) you need to establish now such as whether you would allow your current staff to be considered? Do any other board policies or church bylaws need to be created now to preclude a future crisis or conflict? Would you hire an executive search firm like Vanderbloemen Search Group to consult your church during the search?
Develop your unplanned departure succession plan in the same way you developed your emergency envelope. Write out your process. Have it board approved, communicated to the appropriate people, and accessible by more than one person.
Great leaders are planning for succession now. Are you?