Pastoral Succession (Part 2): Seven Signs It Might be Time To Start Talking about Succession


We’ve already acknowledged that pastoral succession is the elephant in the room of many church elder or board meetings. So when is the right time to begin talking about succession? Let’s look at seven signs.

1. The church was growing at one time, but is now in decline. This doesn’t mean the current senior pastor is failing. It just means there might be a need for new vision or energy in the lead pastor chair.

2. The congregation is growing older. It’s often been said that a pastor attracts people to the church who are about 10 years younger older than he or she is. I’ve never seen any stats to back this up, so not sure if it’s true. But pastors tend to relate best with those in their phase in life. A younger pastor connects with young families because they relate well to having babies at home, struggling with finances, managing teens, or sending kids to college.

3. The pastor has lost his passion or energy. I am 51-years old. I don’t have the energy I had at 41-years old. I’m guessing when I’m 61, I’ll have even less than I do today. Although there are exceptions, it’s the nature of growing older. Sometimes less energy translates into less passion. The drive to tackle big problems and go after a big vision just isn’t there anymore.

4. Staff turnover. If you are losing quality staff over a sustained period of time, that could be a sign there is trouble at the top. It’s possible the lead pastor isn’t letting others lead. It’s possible the younger staff members don’t understand or buy-in to the vision, or even more common, the vision is muddy so isn’t pulling people to stay.

5. The Lead Pastor has other things they want to do. I talked to a pastor in Louisiana who wanted to pursue a position at a seminary. I talked to a pastor in Washington who wanted to spend his remaining years pouring into missionaries. If you are a lead pastor, and your excitement and energy is increasing toward things outside the church--then it’s possible your congregation would benefit from a leader who has 100% of their passion focused on the church.

6. You have a really strong successor on staff. Every week I talk to associate or teaching pastors who are on staff, ready and called to be a lead pastor, and they would love to do that at their own church. The senior pastor has said, “Someday, you are going to be my successor.” But “someday” could be two years or ten years. No one knows. Without a conversation, this church will lose their up-and-coming leader who is ready to be a lead pastor.

7. Age of the pastor -- I talked to a 69-year old pastor who was retiring, and asked him, “Why now? Why not 5 years ago or 5 years from now?” He was healthy and still leading strong. He said, “Tim, I just couldn’t see this church with a 70-year old pastor. It is time.” There is no magic age when a pastor is no longer effective and relevant. But it is a factor.

Those are all signs that you should begin the conversation about succession if you haven’t already.

However, here is the real answer:

You should begin the succession conversation the day your new pastor arrives at your church.

I worked with a church in Pittsburgh which had it written into their bylaws that the new pastor must name his successor within two years of the day he started. This would be shared confidentially with the Board, and could be reconfirmed or changed each year. That church recognized that no pastor will stay forever. It is never too soon to begin planning for succession. Starting early can take the awkwardness out of the conversation when it’s time to start executing the plan.

Next week we will look at the three common types of pastoral transitions.

Tim StevensComment