Pastoral Succession (Part 1): The Elephant in the Room


William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird start their book, Next: Pastoral Succession That Works, with this sentence:

“Every pastor is an interim pastor.”

Most pastors agree with this statement when they read it. They know they won’t still be the pastor of that church in 50 years. But at the same time, many of them never picture themselves doing anything else. And most don’t plan for their departure.

Succession is the elephant in the room of every church with a pastor that is in their mid-50’s or older. The pastor doesn’t want to bring it up too soon, because he or she fears that the just mentioning the word will bring it on faster than they would like. And the Board or Elders don’t want to bring it up, because they don’t want to give any indication they are trying to push the pastor out. It is awkward and can lead to tense relationships as the topic is avoided or clumsily discussed. At worse, board members tackle it too aggressively and it comes across as an attempted coup.

Every week I talk to board members and pastors who are dealing with tension around the succession conversation. I meet boards who are looking at a church that has been declining in effectiveness for more than a decade, and they want to have a conversation with their pastor about retiring, but don’t know how to go about it. I meet pastors who want to retire, and feel they should retire, but are not financially ready to do so. They must keep working for another decade in order to provide well for their family.

I meet pastors who have been so married to their church for the past thirty or forty years or more that they have no identity apart from being the pastor of that church. They have absolutely no clue what they will do once they leave. And so they are gripped by fear.

I see churches put together a plan, hire the successor five years in advance, and then after that person has moved their family across the country, the retiring pastor changes his mind. And so the “successor” is stuck having to find a new job.

I talk to young pastors who are the successor following a long-time or founding pastor. They are trying to lead the church, but the retired pastor (or his wife, or other family members) are giving their opinion on every new initiative he tries to propose. The new pastor is frustrated and feels like he will never have the full ability to lead the church.

For the next several weeks, I’ll be writing a blog series on pastoral succession. We will cover the three types of pastoral transitions, how grieving plays a part, landmines to avoid, when to begin the discussion, how to move through the awkwardness, the job of each person in the success of the transition, and much more.

It is crucial we get this right. Too much is at stake in every local church. It can take a church years, if not decades, to recover from a bad leadership transition. We must get this right.

I would love to hear your story (or questions) as it relates to pastoral succession. Leave me a comment below, or if you’d like it to be anonymous, send me an email.