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The Art of Pastoral Transition: Leading Through Successive Change

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You’ve likely read about more than one church that experienced significant trouble during leadership transition due to lack of succession planning. One thinks of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, and Mars Hill in Seattle, Washington. Each of these famously known congregations, like so many others, are cautionary tales of the loss of trust, declining membership, financial concerns, and more. What if you could take steps to avoid this kind of tragedy?

Many pastors are ready to admit their awareness of the importance of succession planning. Yet almost half of them haven’t identified their successor, according to a survey conducted by the Barna Group designed to examine the topic of pastoral succession in churches. The report on this survey indicates that one out of four pastors plan to retire within the next 7 years. This means the issue either applies to you or to one of your three friends who are pastors.

What happens to a Church when there are no plans for pastoral succession? The congregation can experience unnecessary uncertainty and anxiety. Members are left to wonder who will lead next and what will happen in the future, often filling in the blanks with worry. And we all know what happens when we let our imaginations run wild. Aliens, zombies, and more! Without a plan for succession, a congregation experiencing pastoral transition regularly loses momentum due to lack of direction. If they don’t know which way they are going, they have difficulty moving in that (or any) direction. Congregations are left without leadership, even if they acquire interim leaders whose role is not to move the Church forward, but to get through the transition. The loss of momentum can lead to eternally significant missed opportunities. When these stressors face a congregation, it leads to potential conflict and division. Some members desire to move in one direction; others prefer another. Misalignment causes damage and prevents effective movement in any direction. Feelings are hurt. Relationships are damaged. Some congregations even end up hemorrhaging members or splitting altogether.

We can see why succession planning is crucial to the long-term health of a congregation. And believe it or not, it’s rooted in the Bible. We find examples of leadership transition and succession planning as we remember Moses passing leadership to Joshua, Elijah onto Elisha, David to Solomon, and even Jesus onto his disciples.

For many years, Moses was responsible to lead the Hebrew people, first out of slavery, and then around the desert wilderness for decades (a long commute to work!). At this point, Moses was 120 years old (a bit past the point when most of us will think about retirement). As Moses was nearing the end of his leadership career, he preached a challenging sermon, prompting the people to choose between life and death, prosperity and destruction. He commanded them to love the LORD, walk in obedience to him, and keep his commands. But his last actions didn’t stop at delivering a sermon to the people. He announced his plan for succession.

“I’m no longer able to lead you,” Moses told them. I’m sure this was a humbling thing for him to admit. The LORD had told to him that he wouldn’t lead the people into the land he had promised to them. Moses explained to the people that God had told him that Joshua would be his successor. Then Moses charged Joshua, saying, “You must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance.” He encouraged Joshua by reminding him that the LORD went before him and would be with him in this succession as described in Deuteronomy 31:1-8.

Notice a few key elements from this example. Moses got to the place where he could admit that it was time for him to step down. He recognized that the need for this transition of leadership came from the LORD. He communicated the succession plan to the congregation. He instructed the congregation to follow the LORD, not his successor. He clearly communicated his hopes and expectations to his successor (even without PowerPoint slides). And he supported his successor with words of affirmation and encouragement.

Let’s consider another biblical example. 2 Kings 2 tells us that the Elijah’s leadership role was coming to an end, that the LORD was soon going to take Elijah to heaven. When Elijah told his successor Elisha that he was going to Bethel, Elisha responded, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” This time together was essential. So they went together to Bethel. Others in Bethel spoke with Elisha, making certain that he understood that the succession was near. He assured them that he understood. It had already been clearly communicated. We can see a pattern here, as Elijah was sent to Jericho and Elisha committed to going with him.

Again like before, others in Jericho spoke with Elisha about the succession soon to come. Elijah’s next stop was the Jordan River. And again, Elisha went with him. It’s clear that they spent significant time together. There at the river, Elijah used his cloak to hit the water and it divided before them (this is significant later). Then he expressed a generous offer to provide whatever Elisha needed. “Tell me,” he said, “what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. As a double portion of inheritance was given to Jewish firstborn sons as a sign of favor and blessing, Elisha was asking for exactly that from Elijah—favor and blessing. He desired to have a powerful spiritual anointing in order to follow in succession after Elijah.

When Elijah left, Elisha mourned the loss of his predecessor, signified by the cultural practice of tearing his clothing. Then he took Elijah’s cloak, hit the water, and watched it divide before him, just as it had done when Elisha had hit it. Those who watched this happen spoke about recognizing Elisha as Elijah’s successor. When they may him, they bowed to the ground and said, “We are your servants.” This second example of leadership succession is recorded in 2 Kings 2:1-16.

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Steve Baney is a Nazarene missiologist with over 20 years of pastoral ministry experience. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Pastoral Ministry with a concentration in Computer Science from Mount Vernon Nazarene University, a Master of Divinity degree from Ashland Theological Seminary, and a PhD in Missiology from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne. Baney has published work globally in print and online, including the best-selling book “Shaping Worship: 70 Devotions for Worship Leaders and Teams.” Outside of work, he enjoys drinking strong coffee and walking with his wife, two kids, and monster dog. Learn more at pastorstevebaney.com.