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 to die with his boots on—and he did.”

The “no plan” plan of succession has been the most common pattern over the years, says Linda Stanley, vice president and team leader for Leadership Network. “The large-church pastors in our leadership communities, ages 45 to 65, may talk about succession. But few if any have actually detailed a plan,” she says.

‘I wish we had talked about it, but Jerry [my father] never raised the subject. He wanted to die with his boots on—and he did.’ Jonathan Falwell

A number of high-profile pastors are bucking the trend by creating plans and making them public. At the 2012 Global Leadership Summit, Willow Creek Community Church founding pastor Bill Hybels, then 60, devoted a session to his journey of beginning one. Warren, 60, has likewise gone on record with the outline of his own plan. This fall, at a gathering of senior pastors whose churches draw 5,000-plus in attendance, “a big topic of conversation was Next,” said Tim Harlow from Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois. “It blows my mind to be thinking in these ways. I’m only 53.”

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Since the 1970s, the number of large churches in North America has steadily grown, as has the average size of a “large” church. Thirty years ago, when Leadership Network convened its first peer group of pastors with 1,000-plus attendees, fewer than 100 existed. Today there are some 1,650 megachurches (attendances of at least 2,000), plus roughly 3,000 churches in the 1,000–1,999 range, according to a joint study by Leadership Network and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Four Models

Our research found that among the 100 largest Protestant U.S. churches, the average senior pastor is age 55 and has led the church for 21 years. And 44 percent of the pastors founded the church. According to Scott Thumma and Dave Travis (in Beyond Megachurch Myths), 82 percent of today’s megachurches grew to their large size under the current pastor. These numbers raise the question: Will these churches be able to keep growing once the lead pastor is gone?

Here are four of the most common emerging models of leadership succession:

Family Plan. The pastoral reins are passed to a relative or long-standing spiritual son or daughter. Danny de Leon plans to do both. He became senior pastor of Templo Calvario in Santa Ana, California, in 1976, growing the church by thousands.

Three years ago, de Leon, then 70, and the church board outlined a plan. “Our church has always developed its own leaders,” he says, “so why not develop [them] all the way to senior pastor?” The plan is to have two lead pastors. One—de Leon’s son Danny Jr.—will head English-language services. Marcos Roman, who met Christ 17 years ago at the church, will lead Spanish services. A younger brother, Lee, will continue as executive pastor and run Templo Calvario’s community development group.

The timing is set for 2016, when de Leon will mark 40 years of pastoring and 50 years of marriage. “I will take the first month off, telling them, ‘Don’t call me for anything.’ In my retirement, I will continue in an emeritus capacity, meeting with the staff and board but otherwise not going to the office.”

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His successors are already preaching more (de Leon preaches half the time) and building teams of people in their 20s and 30s. The test is whether de Leon can truly let go at appropriate levels. We met several long-term pastors, some who stay around and thrive, others who languish.

Sometimes the family plan involves a husband–wife handoff. At NYC’s Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral, Floyd and Elaine Flake have co-pastored thousands since 1976.

Their denomination has a retirement mandate at age 75. Floyd is 69, Elaine is 65. The current plan is for Elaine to succeed him. “This is not common in ame churches, but the people have already made it plain who they want as pastor, and the bishop supports that change,” says Floyd. “Elaine is in the pulpit every Sunday, and she’s been preaching here for 14 years.”

Floyd plans to have the mortgage paid off and leave the church debt-free. “We are working to ensure that in future handoffs . . . our successors can set goals based on cheering the heritage they inherit,” he says.

In some cases, family successions work well, such as for Bethany Church in Baker, Louisiana, now in its third generation of Stockstill leadership. For others, family successions prove not to have been the best path.

Denominational Plan. The larger the church, the more likely it is to chart its own course. If it has a bishop or district superintendent, he or she often consults with the church to appoint the next pastor.

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Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, Iowa, draws 10,000 weekly, the largest attendance of any Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) church. Mike Housholder, who founded it in 1994, is 50. “I feel God’s called me to stick around for a while,” he says. But still they’ve begun addressing succession. “We’ve discussed this issue on our board of directors and at senior staff meetings on several occasions.”

As an ELCA church, Housholder says, “When the time comes we’ll partner with our regional synod office. Ideally we’d have an intentional overlap, appointing the future senior pastor to work with me for a season before the transition is made.”

Adam Hamilton is founding pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, one of the largest United Methodist congregations, drawing over 8,000 each weekend. It has two succession plans, one for emergency (death, disability, moral failure), the other “around my retirement,” says Hamilton, 50. “The succession plan is 15 years [away], but we are implementing elements now, including having a regular preaching pastor in my absence.” Hamilton will also preach one fewer weekend a year each year over the next 15. “Generally UMC bishops are grateful to have larger churches help identify leaders and increasingly have these persons on staff before retirement.

“I initiated conversation when I was 45, at what was likely the halfway point in my ministry here,” says Hamilton. “We’ve had informal conversations about this before, particularly when we built our current sanctuary and lenders insisted on key-man insurance as a condition of the loan.”

At many large churches, the leadership doesn’t publicize details but lets congregants know a plan is in place. This becomes important during capital campaigns, when people want to know what will happen should their pastor get hit by the proverbial bus or retire early.

In reality, the church often leads the denomination by example. Mike Slaughter, 63, arrived at Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio, when it had fewer than 100 attendees. Now there are over 4,000, and the church includes 501(c)(3) organizations, a counseling center, low-income housing, and multiple campuses. “This complexity almost requires leaders to be raised from within,” says Slaughter.

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“I consider us R&D for the UMC as they work with other large churches,” he says. “We want to serve as a test case.” By working with Leadership Network CEO Dave Travis, Slaughter has transitioned senior staff to a younger team, most in their 30s, including a 31-year-old teaching pastor. “My focus is to mentor and train our senior team and to pastor our staff,” he says.

Slaughter plans to retire July 1, 2019. “Our board and all staff know the timeline, and this fall we told our lay leaders—and now we’re telling anyone who reads this!”

Process-Only Plan. A common approach is for the outgoing pastor to help create and set in motion a succession plan—and then get out. This was the case for Leith Anderson, who retired in 2011 after 35 years of pastoring Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. “Wooddale and I developed a written protocol about 10 years before the transition,” says Anderson. “It specified how to manage the situation if the senior pastor dies, is disabled, becomes heterodox, fails morally, resigns, retires, etc. Doing this takes the pressure and emotion out of the process.”

When Anderson formally announced his retirement, the protocol kicked in and was carefully followed. A new pastor was called 16 months after Anderson left.

Intentional Overlap Plan. Our research for Next found that more large-church pastors than not intentionally overlapped with their predecessor. It seems to be the strongest model for succession—when the church culture matches it.

The overlap typically runs for months but occasionally for years. A prominent example is Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, where best-selling author Max Lucado, after 20 years as senior pastor, needed to move from full-time to half-time due to a heart condition. The church board called Randy Frazee as new senior minister. In place since 2008, the overlap continues, with good results. They’ve even weathered awkward moments such as when Frazee noticed tour buses pulling up to the church, and found out people were coming to hear Lucado. Frazee said he was preaching that day. “I guess it stinks to be you,” the tour guide responded.

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Some churches have a co-pastor situation, but that rarely leads to permanent co-pastor arrangements. Since 1980, Larry Osborne has been senior pastor of North Coast Church in Vista, California. Chris Brown, 18 years younger, became co-pastor in 2004, and preaches just as much as Osborne. In business terms, North Coast has always had a shared leadership model that functions more like a partnership in a cpa firm than a sole proprietorship with valued employees. Should Osborne die or step away, Brown would likely take on the managing partner role that Osborne held until Brown was elevated.

‘I don’t believe in a transition plan longer than 18 months. It’s hard to find a true big L leader willing to wait 3 to 5 years. With a partnership model, 18 months is plenty of time.’ Larry Osborne

“I don’t believe in a transition plan longer than 18 months,” says Osborne. It goes by . . . too slowly for the one waiting in the wings. It’s hard to find a ‘big L’ leader willing to wait 3 to 5 years. With a partnership model, 18 months is plenty.”

No One Model

Research in Elephant in the Boardroom affirms that no model is the best or even most likely to result in a seamless pastoral succession. One of the most-watched handoffs was that of Gene Getz, founding pastor of the formerly named Fellowship Bible Church in Dallas. At 72, he passed his leadership baton to a former intern. “There is no one pattern or approach for making a successful transition,” Getz wrote recently in DTS [Dallas Theological Seminary] Connection. “We need to be guided by supracultural principles that emerge from biblical models and directives. We also need to learn from history in order to avoid making mistakes that have led to outright succession failure.”

Our research affirms the same conclusion: From the Moses–Joshua handoff to Jesus’ training of the Twelve, succession planning is both biblical and essential, but there is no cookie-cutter template.

The only thing that’s certain? It’s an inevitable need in every church. And we hope to move it from taboo to normal.

Warren Bird, PhD, an ordained C&MA minister, is research director for Leadership Network and author or coauthor of 27 books, including Next (Baker Books).

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