Writing Your Succession Game Plan

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As a senior pastor, it can feel overwhelming to start thinking about your retirement. You may feel alone and isloated from the other church staff members as you think about what your church will look like without you. As difficult as it can feel, it is of your best interest and the best interest of your church to start planning for it early. It is a lot easier on your church, and especially the church leadership, if there is a well thought out plan in place.

I was on senior staff teams at Ginghamsburgh Church in OH and Willow Creek in IL for a total of 14 years, and more recently I have been an Executive Search Consultant with Vanderbloemen Search Group where we do a lot of work with senior leader transitions. The senior leader is often retiring after many years of service to the church.  Although there is not one pastoral succession plan of transition that fits all churches and senior leaders, it is important to have a game plan. It is ideal to not wait until you receive word that your senior leader is leaving to create that game plan. Create the plan now, and then you are ready.  Here are a few thoughts about how to create an effective pastoral succession plan:

1. Decide who the key stakeholders for the transition are. 

You will likely come up with some groupings like elders, senior leaders, church staff, key lay leaders, and the congregation.

2. Determine the responsibility of each group and the level of communication needed for each group. 

We’ll start with the elders. Again, this is not a one size fits all method but merely general principles to assist you in your pastoral succession plan. The Elders, or the top governing group, will generally carry the biggest load in creating a pastoral succession plan. The Elders or top governing group of the church should be responsible for the following:

      • Creating the Timeline: Create the overall game plan. Work with the transitioning senior leader to determine the timeline for the transition.
      • Selecting the Search Team: The Elders will need to determine if they as an Elder team will handle the search for a new senior leader or if they will create a search team of a combination of people from different leadership groups across the church.
      • Hiring a Search Firm: The Elders will need to determine if the church will do their own searching or if they will partner with a professional search group to help them expand their reach and identify their next senior leader.  It takes a lot of stress off a church governing body when they can partner with a professional search team and allows the church to have access to a greater pool of people when partnering with a professional firm.
      • Defining the Role: The role of the exiting senior leader will also need to be discussed. Will they be part of the team choosing the new leader?  If they are retiring, will they have a role in the church after retirement? At some churches, the retiring senior leaders continue to serve in a lesser role such as maybe something missions related. In other instances, it is decided that the exiting senior leader will have no role in the church after retirement. It is important to have this conversation before you launch the search for a new senior leader. Candidates for the role will want to know the answer to that question, and you owe it to the exiting senior leader to allow him or her to be part of that conversation.

3. Communication to the church staff and congregation once the previous decisions have been made. 

Communication is key. People are passionate about their church, and they want to know what’s going on. You don’t have to tell them every detail, but you should keep them updated. It creates ownership and buy-in from the congregation and church staff.  If there is silence, people create their own stories about what is happening as the senior leader transitions, which is almost always the incorrect story. I have recently seen churches do a tremendous job of communicating to the staff and congregation at the beginning of a senior leader search:

      • Some churches use online surveys to allow staff and congregation members to have a voice into the traits and characteristics of the new senior leader. Generally these surveys include 4 – 6 simple questions and allow a place where congregation members can write additional thoughts. The benefit of surveys is that you get lots of voices in the mix.
      • I’ve helped churches do focus groups with staff and key volunteers to allow them to share their thoughts verbally about what they most enjoy about the church now and what traits they hope to see in the new senior leader. Try to keep the groups focused on the positive and thinking about moving forward.
      • A church that I visited recently had created a poster infographic of the search process, timeline, and a photo of the search team. This is a very clear communication tool to the congregation about the succession process.

4. Once you have gathered information from these different people groups, use it to inform the creation of the job description.

Whether you partner with a professional search firm or not, putting effort into early communication will pay off in creating an in-depth job description.

5. Honor the senior leader who is transitioning. 

It is a huge deal to them. The church has been their life for many years, and it is emotionally difficult to say goodbye to a congregation. It is important for the senior governing body to walk alongside this person. Some days they will be looking forward to retirement. Other days they will feel they made the wrong decision and are retiring too early.  Give the exiting senior leader a voice and plenty of space to transition with grace.

I encourage you to not skip the hard work for planning for a transition. A succesful succession process is pivotal in your church's long-term sustainability.

What questions do you have about your church's succession process?