Leadership Succession in Local Churches
By Alan Vink


In this paper I want to share a few of my observations about planned successions of Senior Pastors in local churches across the church sector in New Zealand.

Over the last 3-4 years or so I have personally interacted with eight churches in NZ that have had a leadership succession occur or are talking about it or attempted it but were unsuccessful or in some cases planning a leadership succession process at present. Three churches are in excess of 1000 people in attendance, two are around 500 in regular attendance and the remaining three between 200 – 300 in regular attendance. All of them are unique as you would expect. I had the privilege of a front row seat at Willow Creek Community Church before things went badly (I had a one-on-one conversation with Bill Hybels about this issue back in the day) and now I am watching Saddleback Church with interest since Rick Warren announced publicly a few months ago that Saddleback Church are looking for a successor for him probably from outside Saddleback Church.

There are a huge number of pastors in NZ who are around 65 years of age currently still ‘employed’ as Senior Pastor of their churches in NZ. There is no doubt that many baby boomer pastors are holding on to their roles into their late 60’s and even into early 70’s. A few of these churches are quite high-profile mega churches whose SP is either the ‘founding pastor’ or has served that church in excess of 30 years. In fact, it would be fair to say that many baby boomer pastors are struggling if not refusing to let go despite growing health issues in some cases. In more cases than we may appreciate there is a financial consideration. That is to say that the 65 your old pastor still has a mortgage and/or is worried about his retirement savings.

Traditionally, the advice was to pastors that when resigning or retiring from a church you should move away preferably out-of-town. That advice has been either ditched or nuanced over the last 20 years as more retiring pastors want to stay in town and if at all possible continue to attend the same church because that is where friends and family are. As a result, new conversations take place to accommodate this new reality and set up an arrangement everyone can live with.

Three Definitions

Leadership Succession is when an intentional process is put in place to find a Senior Pastor Successor while the current SP is still in his/her role. This involves a transitional process over a period of time. This is the focus of this paper.

Leadership Change is simply when the currently serving pastor resigns or retires and a new pastor is appointed usually after some kind of search committee process. Ordinarily the position may be vacant for some months or even a year or more.

Transitional Pastor is a short-term appointment of no more than two years after the previous pastor resigned or retired. Sometimes a transitional pastor is appointed because there is a problem to be fixed. It can be a very good short-term solution.

Please Note: There is no legal obligation to advertise jobs internally or externally in NZ.

Internal Promotions

Sons, Daughters and Sons-in-law

Please Note: My focus in this paper is intentionally on hand-offs within the family because that has become a pressing issue in a growing number of situations in NZ and around the world. Other churches ‘promote’ a non-family member from within the church.

Handoff to sons (or in some cases son-in-law’s) has been patchy in NZ so far, at least from where I sit. There have certainly been some discussions and even attempts but by and large it hasn’t gone well. Many sons are either not interested or not suitable. That shouldn’t surprise us for a moment. That said I am still surprised at how many kids take over from their parents in the farming sector. Not sure why.

A child that has grown up in a pastor’s home is simply a child that has grown up in a pastor’s home. No different to a child who has grown up in another vocational or professional home. Some will pursue the same career, but most won’t. In my own case my oldest son is a pastor of a small church and doing a great job. In that sense he has followed in my footsteps. I know of a number of other pastoral families who have had the same experience. He would not have been suitable to lead the larger church I had pastored (and in truth to this day he wouldn’t be interested). Similarly with my third son who has now exited pastoral ministry after spending the first 15 years of his working life in that scene.

Jeanette and I had decided we would be very careful to not put any pressure on any of our four sons to go into pastoral ministry. It’s a tough gig, right? We in fact positively encouraged them to pursue an alternative career all the while not ignoring what God could be doing and saying by way of a call to pastoral ministry to any of our kids. Today Shane is a pastor, Hayden is a civil engineer and businessman, Brendan is a property developer (formerly a pastor and school trained teacher) and Jason is an accountant.

So why is that most sons will not follow in their father’s footsteps?

  1. The most frequent reason is that the kids have different gifts and different passions to Dad. Actually, one or all of the kids may align more closely to Mum’s gifts and passions. So, if Mum was a teacher one or all the kids may opt for teaching, or something related to education.
  2. Dad either started the church or came to a much smaller church. He for what ever reason saw it grow. As it grew, he had to learn new skills especially management and leadership skills. In fact, he had to re-engineer himself, not once, not twice but many times. Now at age 65 the church is running at 500 or more but the son hasn’t grown through the growth challenges that his father had to. Even though he may be on staff of his father’s church and doing a great job does not mean he has the requisite skills to take over as the next SP and continue in his father’s legacy so to speak. It would be the exception if that is the case.
  3. The prospective son has married a wife who isn’t happy about being a pastors wife or threatens divorce if he goes into pastoral ministry or any form of Christian ministry. I’ve known such cases.
  4. As the son assumes more leadership responsibility it can happen that differences start to emerge. These can be many and varied. It could be philosophy of ministry, style and conduct of leadership and the future vision of the church and everything in between. This can lead to a parting of the ways.

As far as son’s, daughters and sons-in-law are concerned I would say this. If you feel called to pastor your fathers church then be sure you have had an opportunity to go to Bible College and had some solid experience as an Assistant Pastor (or staff pastor) in at least one other church ideally quite different to the church you grew up in and that now you might be leading one day. Further, I would recommend that steps 4, 5 and 6 below are employed.

Benefits of Internal Promotions (family or non-family)

There are a number of benefits that accompany an internal promotion of a non-family member.

  1. Institutional Knowledge. The pastor-designate knows the history of the church, who’s who and current challenges facing the church.
  2. Organisational Culture. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. Churches with long serving SP’s have developed a unique culture. An internal promotion means that the pastor-designate has imbibed that culture.
  3. Momentum. Generally speaking, an internal promotion is less ‘disruptive’ and therefore less likely to slow down or worse still completely lose all momentum.
  4. Mentoring. It goes without saying that an internal promotion allows for maximum opportunities to provide mentoring for the pastor-designate.

External Appointments

This is what happens most of the time. An older pastor sits with his Board and a conversation starts about him finishing as SP (or moving into a different role) sometime in the next few years. If the Board decide that it would be good to start the search for a successor then a plan is put in place. At this point the process would not be a lot different to any other senior staff recruitment process except that the new position/role is essentially a senior pastor designate position.

  1. As a broad outline I still recommend the 4C outline. It’s hard to beat.
    Call – Character – Competence – Chemistry (or compatibility).
  2. By all means invite potential candidates to ‘have a chat’. Otherwise go for an open field recruitment process or both.
  3. Consider asking a recruitment company to help you. They are really good at what they do. Sure, it will cost you some money, but it is worth it. They also can run some really good psycho-metric tests for you.
  4. Put together a really good succession plan. From all that I have experienced, observed and read this is crucial. A comprehensive succession plan is like a map that will guide you as the retiring pastor, your Board and not least the Senior Pastor designate. The plan should also state clearly what the new role will be if the retiring pastor chooses to stay and would like to continue to be involved.
  5. I would recommend a full and thorough review at about the 12 months point. Here it would be wise for very careful listening to take place. Listen to God and each other especially the SP designate. Hopefully, the outcome to the review will be a happy one not withstanding the need for a few tweaks to the plan.
  6. I am a strong proponent that about 12 months out a date is set for the public handover. That this is a big deal occasion in the life of this church. It is a weekend of both saying thanks to the retiring SP and a welcoming of the new SP.
    Without going into a comprehensive and detailed description of the recruitment and succession plan, there are four issues I want to briefly mention as I wrap this paper up.
    I have already talked about the importance of a good succession plan. I want to now talk about three other words starting with a ‘P’ and finish with a comment about the emotional aspect of a hand-off.

Power. Whether we like it or not the SP has power. Sure, one hopes it is exercised in a ‘servant leadership’ mode but it is power none-the less. The relinquishing of legitimate power will be hard for most all leaders. That needs to be carefully worked through by the outgoing pastor. A subset of power is the ability to influence and make decisions. This all has to change.

Personality. The SP designate will have a different personality and of course he/she should have. Sadly, a clash of personality is a very real thing even in the best of families. A clash of personality between the outgoing pastor and the new one should not in and of itself be a reason to change the plan let alone abandon it. This is when the Board must step up and assist.

Preaching. Every pastor I have ever known loves to preach, and they believe that they are really good at it in fact better than the new guy. Giving this up is hard…...really hard, Right? But please, let it go. If by chance your successor invites you to preach from time-to-time great go for it otherwise you need to sit on your hands and bite your tongue. Yes you do!

Emotions. Perhaps more than any other factor this could hi-jack the process and the plan. Here’s the challenge. While you are talking about it, all is well and good. At the early stages of the plan unfolding, you are usually still good. If the outgoing SP genuinely can’t wait to ‘get out of there’ then those emotions are less. Typically, as the plan gets to the mid-point or thereabouts the outgoing pastor starts to feel acutely some ‘painful’ emotions and if he doesn’t his wife will. Usually both he and her feel them. Now is the time to ‘speak to yourself’ in hymns and spiritual songs. Now is the time to be super careful that your emotions as the outgoing SP don’t get in the way. It’s important you feel the loss but please process the feelings privately with a few trusted friends. Whatever you do…..do not let your emotions cause you say things that will upset the new guy or worse still interfere with the process.
Things are changing and will continue to change and that is just how it is and how it MUST be.
Finally, although I have written about sons I see no reason whatsoever why a daughter (or a non-family female) couldn’t be the new SP but I am not sure that the followers are ready to let her lead especially in the larger church. I would imagine that the typical age band we are talking about is a person in their 40’s.

Further Reading Recommendations

The Elephant in the Boardroom: How Leaders Use and Manage Conflict to Reach Greater Levels of Success by Edgar Papke

12 Things Failed Successions Have in Common by WilliamVanderbloemen This is a very helpful article written in March this year.

7 Keys to Successful Leadership Succession by Thom Rainer

Successfully Transitioning To New Leadership Roles by Scott Keller. This is written for business but makes some really good points.

Bases of Power by French and Raven