Most succession plans fail. It’s not because the plan was bad, it’s most often because of an expectation for the process to go exactly like the written plan indicated. That never happens. Life happens! When “life happens” the assumption is that the plan was flawed, the deal is over (abandoned), and the players scramble to grab for scraps at the table.

Before I go further, I want to applaud any written succession plan for the senior pastor of a long tenured church, especially large churches. Most churches never produce one at all. Then the pastor resigns or for some other reason leaves and the church begins to scramble, and often scatter.

I’ve read or listened to a number of succession plans from large churches. Candidly, I’ve never been exposed to a plan that seemed dumb or doomed from the start. The plans are well thought through, intelligent, and executed by well-intentioned Christian leaders. So why do most seem to break down? I have observed three primary reasons.

1.  A power struggle

The war stories we have all heard about succession plans blowing up usually involve a power struggle of some kind. First, it’s not wise to assume all power struggles come from ego, pride, or desire to control. Power struggles can be found amongst the best of leaders. Leaders who are passionate about their work and what they believe to be best for the organization can easily find themselves caught in a battle of authority. But either way, from good motives or not so pure motives, when human emotion mixes in with purpose, “in the name of the church”, the results can be explosive. A willingness to lean into mutual voluntary submission is a great first step to overcome power struggles.

2.  A relational breakdown

Power struggles almost always lead to the deterioration of relationships. This isn’t the only cause for a breakdown, there is a wide variety of possibilities from lack of trust to fear and insecurity. Among the list of possibilities, poor communication is usually in the center of the mix. Both communication extremes are common. One extreme is a lack of communication and the other is toxic communication that leads to misunderstanding. The curious thing is that in both cases, talking is the solution! But honest and productive conversation may require a mediator if the relationship has broken down too far.

3.  Unmet expectations

Expectations that are not fulfilled comprise a significant element of the relational failures I mentioned in the previous point. But this is such a significant issue that I’m listing it on its own for emphasis. James 4:1-2 tells us that we fight with each other because we don’t get what we want. This is pretty basic and yet very true. The variations in the story are limitless, and when people, even good Christian leaders don’t get what they believe was promised or possibly what they have earned, justice buttons get pushed and previously well laid plans are blown to little pieces.

You can see the connectivity from power struggles to relational breakdowns and unmet expectations. If you know to look for these and do your best to prevent them upfront you will be ahead of the game!

Succession plans do work. A good friend, Bob Taylor, co-founder of Taylor Guitars based out of El Cajon, California (near San Diego) did a brilliant job in naming his heir apparent master guitar designer and builder. Andy Powers is now working side by side with Bob walking out the transition. Bob thought long and deep, kept the plan simple, wrote it down, and put it to action. It’s working brilliantly. Succession plans work in churches too, but we need more success stories. The following thoughts are not meant to be a plan for you, but a guideline to help you establish your own plan that works.

1.  Determine your philosophy

It’s important to make sure the board and key leaders agree on what they believe about a pastoral transition. Success starts there! There are at least four main schools of thought. (Not in any order.) First, the majority of the church leaders don’t believe a succession plan is needed. Second, the current pastor should select, train, and install the next pastor. Third, the board and or denominational leaders should select the next pastor. Fourth, the congregation must hear the pastor preach and then they vote. There are combinations of these that lean to more mystical and some that lean toward more structural processes. It matters that you agree on your approach. (Don’t assume that all the key leaders agree.)

2.  Is the pastor ready to leave?

This point is tricky, it’s complicated and it gets very personal. Very few leaders know when it’s time to leave. Most of us just can’t see it. We all want to be of value for as long as possible. Since most can’t see it, we must depend on a few honest insiders who come alongside and talk truth about timing. Done right this is a gift. Unfortunately, it’s all too often done in hallways and secret board meetings. What could have been a wonderful and celebrated transition turns into a divided congregation and a pastor that is hurt. Give the process a little more time. Don’t rush it. Talk honestly and make sure everyone is ready.

3.  The actual transition key

It’s rare that the former senior pastor is the real problem, and it’s rare that the new senior pastor is actually the problem. It’s the gap between the two that causes the issue. It’s not unlike two runners in an Olympic relay race.

Both runners are world-class, but the entire race can be won or lost in the handing off of the baton. So often that’s where the trouble begins. It’s imperative that this part of the plan is written clearly and succinctly. It should cover the following points.

  • Who is in authority?
  • How are decisions made?
  • Who is the primary communicator from the platform?

4.  Allow the plan to breathe

The end goal is not for the plan to be perfectly executed, the goal is for the transition to work! Give the Holy Spirit room to move. You may need to make slight adjustments to timelines, financial plans, or ministry agreements after the transition. I’m not suggesting wholesale changes, but you would be amazed how much oxygen you get from a little compromise (mutual voluntary submission).

5.  Pray!

Ultimately, the best plans written and executed by the best people still need much prayer. Ask God for His covering and blessing! Seek His wisdom throughout the process. It makes all the difference.

I pray the best transition for you if and when the time comes.