How Pastors Are Passing the Leadership Baton

Succession plans can destroy a church. Or help it thrive for years to come. What are the keys to success?
How Pastors Are Passing the Leadership Baton
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Every pastor is an interim pastor.

That statement may sound harsh or abrupt, but it’s becoming a catchphrase. Saddleback’s Rick Warren commented about the quote on Instagram, noting that it’s something his dad—also a pastor—said repeatedly. As William Vanderbloemen and I explain in Next: Pastoral Succession That Works (Baker Books), a day will come for every church leader when a successor takes his place.

And based on our research, the smartest churches address succession head-on. A church that doesn’t handle it well faces significant losses, sometimes to the point of no return. Crystal Cathedral is now bankrupt due in part to succession issues. The same is true of many once-prominent churches, like Earl Paul’s Chapel Hill Harvester Church, that are now gone. An outstanding long-term pastorate offers no guarantee that a church will survive, let alone thrive.

In 1968, 12 years after Jerry Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, the church was drawing more than 2,000 weekly worshipers, putting it on early “top 10” lists from Elmer Towns and John Vaughan.

Then in 2007, at 73, Falwell died suddenly from cardiac arrest. When I interviewed his son Jonathan, I noted that if anyone was high risk, it was his dad—who flew private planes, received death threats for his politics, and had serious health issues. Jonathan technically had been named co-pastor two years earlier, when Falwell underwent two hospitalizations in one month with potential open-heart surgery to follow. But the two never discussed in detail Thomas Road’s future after its founder was gone. “I wish we had talked about it,” said Jonathan. “He wanted ...

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