by Doug Davis Sr.
For many senior pastors planning for a successor is painful. And for those pastors who do plan for succession, following through on that plan is often very difficult. Many pastors planted and birthed their churches. It is their baby. Regardless of how much it has grown or changed, the church is still their baby. They labored over it, nurtured it through tough times, and watched it grow. Their church has been their life for decades, and they cannot imagine what they would do if they ceased to lead their church.
But over and over again we have seen the sad results that occur when a pastor holds on to his leadership role too long. As his energy and Strength decreases, the church suffers. He is unable to keep pace with a new generation, and the church slowly withers and becomes a shadow of its former self. Without a plan for leadership succession, the mission of the local church is placed in jeopardy.
When a senior pastor chooses not to prepare for succession, he forces his church to someday face a succession crisis. If the senior pastor is removed, incapacitated, or passes away without a succession plan, the mission of the church changes from winning the lost to choosing a Successor. This process can take months or even years, forcing the church into crises mode and turning it away from its primary mission of reaching the lost.
Succession will eventually happen whether it is planned or not. If you are the senior pastor, someone else will eventually take your position. As the leader of the church, you can ignore this reality and let other people make all the important decisions, or you can be part of the decision – making process and guide the church into a smooth and productive leadership transition.
There are two primary reasons why a pastor should plan for succession. First, it is his duty. As the CEO of the church, the primary responsibility of the senior pastor is to protect the church and prepare it for the future. If the chief leader has not created a succession plan, then he is failing in this fundamental duty.
Second, the senior pastor is the only one who can do it. No other leader on the church staff knows the church as well as the senior pastor. Therefore, no one else has the inside knowledge that is needed to create an adequate succession plan. No one else on the church staff has the authority to make a succession plan.
Therefore, the responsibility of succession planning rests squarely on the shoulders of the senior pastor, and it is a tragic failure if he does not prepare his church for this eventuality. God’s church is the most valuable thing on the earth. The future of any church must not be left to chance, talent, looks, family, friends, or members of the congregation.
The future of the church must be determined by one thing: the will of God. We must never put family before the work of God. (See Luke 14:26.)The successor mayor may not be the senior pastor’s son. Eli used his sons in leadership, but it was not God’s choice, and the result was the departure of God’s glory. Samuel used his sons in leadership, but it was not God’s choice and the result was disaster. How many churches have been destroyed because a well-meaning senior pastor named his son as successor only to see the church destroyed?
But the issue is not whether the successor should be a family member or not; the issue is finding God’s will. It is absolutely essential that the senior pastor hear from God as he creates a succession plan for his congregation.
The text for my last official sermon as senior pastor was Luke 2:29-30: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation:’ Because Simeon witnessed God’s provision for the future, he was content to pass off the scene. Like Simeon, I am at peace, for I believe that my eyes have seen God’s provision for the future of His people.
Preparing for someone else to pastor the church you are pastoring is quite a process, but preparation is imperative in order to have a smooth handoff. There have been many jerky and turbulent transfers of leadership. These kinds of transitions are hard on a church. They also are very difficult for the ministers involved.
Many pitfalls are possible when these big decisions have to be made in a hurry or without much planning. We need to do our best to avoid these problems by preparing wisely.
First, it is vital that you and your spouse are mentally prepared to let go of the pastoral position. This is not as easy as one might think. If you have pastored your church very long, you are used to being in charge, making decisions, administrating, and taking the lead in everything you have not specifically delegated. Your wife has been the first lady for many years. Both of you must be prepared to release not only the stresses and responsibilities of the pastorate but also the authority and the honor.
This is a huge change! If you and your wife are not mentally ready, the likelihood of problems arising in your relationship with the new pastor and his wife will be increased.
The second thing, equally as important, is that your finances are in order. This takes years of preparation. You should have a good idea how much money you will need after the transition has happened. Here are a few things to consider. Are your house and cars paid for? Are you free of other debt? Are there any major house repairs needed? What are your monthly living expenses? How much money will you need in retirement years? Can the church financially cover your needed income? If not, will it be able to help? If so, is this agreed to by the church board and written down and passed by resolution? If you have been employed outside the church, do you have retirement benefits beyond Social Security? Do you have an official church 403(b) plan set up? Will there be enough money in it when you need it? The Bible exhorts us to occupy until the Lord comes. This means to take care of our business! The staff of our own UPCI Ministers Retirement Fund will help you set this up. There are others who can assist you with this, but the main thing is that we take care of our business now.
If you are over forty, now is the time to consider your life after sixty-five. Sadly, at retirement, some who have lived a comfortable middle-class lifestyle suddenly find themselves living in poverty. Do not let this happen to you and your spouse! How? By beginning to save, living below your income, getting out of debt, downsizing, and seeking wise counsel. Ask the Lord to guide your every step.
Third, we should do our part to make sure we are physically healthy. In our fifties and sixties we need to seek God for the discipline to get ourselves as healthy as possible and then stay that way. Nobody is saying it is easy; it is not. We all need to exercise, eat healthy, laugh a lot, and pray through daily. With God’s help, we can do this!
Personal preparation will help you as you help the church find their new pastor. This whole process should be bathed in prayer. Each pastor should recognize when this time comes. You can ride a horse into the ground and it die there. You can also refuse to let go of a church until it dwindles down to a shell of what it has been. Give your church a bright future! Make sure you know your church’s constitution and bylaws and what they specify in regard to a pastoral transition. It is important that you follow these strictly.
How do you find someone to take your place as pastor? If you do not have an obvious candidate, you can ask your trusted ministerial friends and acquaintances for suggestions. Consider the ministers who have preached for you in the past. District officials may be able to help. Talk with younger pastors who have a proven track record. Once you feel you have a candidate, invite him to come preach.
Rev. D. D. Davis is the founder and Bishop of Bethel, overseeing the overall ministry of the church and fulfilling the spiritual needs of the congregation. In addition to these duties, he and his wife frequently travel overseas to minister in different countries and to assist in handling various concerns of the Global Missions Department of the United Pentecostal Church International.