3 Ingredients for Successful Pastoral Transition

Succession has always been certain, but COVID-19 has put it in focus like never before.

Pastor in empty church

There’s an old saying among many Catholics: “The only sick Pope is a dead Pope.” Historically, the church has never liked to acknowledge a weakness, a sickness, or the possibility that their leader might not be there forever. But that dynamic isn’t just limited to one old saying. Christian teams have always shied away from admitting that their leader might one day leave them. 

Now, six years after the release of our first research book on pastoral succession, we have seen a seamless succession of a retiring Pope (only the second time in history). We’ve also seen that the conversation around pastoral succession is no longer taboo. In fact, it has become the leadership conversation for the last couple of years.

And that was all before COVID-19. 

Since the advent of the pandemic, the conversation has accelerated even more. Why? Maybe it’s because death has become more real and the fragility of life more tangible. Maybe it’s because of the massive changes and disruptions to schools and churches, pushing leaders to realize that new kinds of leaders are needed. Whatever the reason, the conversation is accelerating. 

If you’re not talking about who comes after you, then you’re behind the curve, and missing what could be the most important leadership task you face. 

So, we have upped the ante. We’ve released a newly updated and expanded research book on the subject. 

Maybe you’re feeling behind on the conversation and don’t know where to start. Here are three focal points for you. Join the conversation. Succession isn’t a hypothetical. It’s a reality, and it’s closer than you think. 

1. Define Successful Succession


To define succession success, questions like, “What would a successful hand-off look like, and how do I achieve it?” and, “What do I need to do now to prepare for passing the leadership baton?” are critical to consider for a realistic conversation. 

What does success look like three years after the hand-off from the retiring pastor to the successor pastor? Even if you’re part of an appointment system where you have no say in the person who will follow you, you still can have a huge influence on how you end, how well the church is prepared for a successor, and what path and direction the church’s momentum will be moving toward when the successor arrives.

Before succession is even on the horizon, the pastor and board should together envision what succession might look like three to five years down the road. Some aspects of envisioning this are determining the age, life stage, and style of the future pastor. Should he or she be significantly younger than the current pastor? Do you want someone already on staff or an outside hire? Set goals for what success would look like, and then visualize what it would take to accomplish those goals. This means visualizing the pastor, his or her family, the church building, and the size and demographic of the congregation. Start by thinking about the elements and traits of your current pastor. What’s working well for your church, your team, and your congregation? What could be improved? Ensure you consider the values this incoming pastor will need to align with in order to fit your church culture.

2. Identify a New Life Passion

To help identify a new life passion for the outgoing pastor, questions like, “What should I do next?” “Is my next stop a similar role in another church?” and, “If not, in light of how God has made me and the opportunities before me, what area would I love to pour my energy into after my time at this church is over?” need to be asked. 

Having a plan for where outgoing pastors will spend their energy is crucial to a healthy succession. To put it bluntly, too often pastors stay at a church not because they’re thriving there, but because their identity is tied too much to their present role and they don’t have anything else to put their passion into. 

Pastors, whether they are anticipating, in the process of, or have completed succession, should be encouraged to explore other ministerial interests. Amy Hanson, author of Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults over 50,1 affirms the importance of older pastors being encouraged to start another chapter. “They should have permission to wrestle with questions such as ‘What’s a ministry I’ve always wanted to start?’ or ‘Where is a place I’ve wanted to serve, but I’ve never had the time or opportunity?’ And then, simply granting them extended time off to take a class, go on a mission trip, or volunteer with an agency might be all that is needed for them to find a new place to invest themselves and make an impact.”2

3. Determine Financial Need

To help determine financial need when contemplating succession, questions like, “Are my household finances in order so I’m free to go when and where God calls me?” and,  “How can I make sure finances don’t keep me hanging on to my present role—with its salary—any longer than I should?” need to be asked.

It may sound crass and worldly, and it’s not a subject many want to explore, but far too many pastors face retirement with no way to fund it. This reality can wreck a succession before it even begins. Most pastors believe that if they focus on ministry, the money part will work itself out. Most also have little to no training about preparing for the day when the church isn’t there to support them or for their eventual retirement.

The lesson for younger pastors is that personal finances cannot be overlooked as an important and ongoing foundation for a future succession decision, whether from the first church they serve or the final one. The challenge for pastors of all ages is to live on less than you earn so that you can give generously and save diligently. Older pastors approaching retirement with minimal savings might consider the following options:

  • Pray diligently. Numerous Scriptures remind us that God not only cares for our every need but promises to provide for us—inviting us to ask him for our financial needs.

  • Talk frankly. Speak with your church board and with those in authority over you if you’re part of a denomination or movement. They may be able to help in unexpected ways.

  • Set goals. It is never too late to set goals for saving, for investing those savings wisely, for becoming (or remaining) debt-free, for learning about financial management, and for being generous all along the way.

  • Exercise faith. If you find yourself staying in the pastorate primarily for financial reasons, try to find competent businesspersons or career counselors in whom you can confide.

Addressing these three issues as early in your career as possible can help set the tone for a pastoral succession because they help all parties set expectations. They help clear the air of any premature assumptions about what kind of outcome is best. So much of a good succession rises and falls on setting expectations before the process ever begins. These questions will help set expectations for your church and for the outgoing pastor as well as for the incoming pastor.

1.Amy Hanson, Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults over 50 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

 2. All quotes from Amy Hanson come from personal communication with Warren Bird.

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