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May 14, 2018Leadership

Church Succession: How to Lead Our Churches into a Healthy Future

As pastors age, they can prepare so that the transition of leadership in their churches passes smoothly and their churches are set to stay on a healthy trajectory.
Church Succession: How to Lead Our Churches into a Healthy Future
By "Poste Sanmarinesi" (scan of original) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Church succession can be a sticky subject and sometimes involves a lot of awkward conversations. But it doesn’t have to. As pastors age, they can prepare so that the transition of leadership in their churches passes smoothly and their churches are set to stay on a healthy trajectory.

A variety of reasons for change

A number of things can make it difficult for pastors to step down or retire as they grow near retirement age. These can range from a deep attachment to the church and a reluctance to relinquish their leadership of it, to fear of change and a resistance to enter into a season of retirement, to the need for financial security.

This last reason can come from a very legitimate need. If they have been serving at a small church, they may have no means of retirement and only making ends meet. We need to find a way to ensure these pastors are cared for while the church is allowed to continue to grow into the next season of ministry and mission.

Too often, many churches reach a point where people say, “I wish that pastor would retire.” We never want to overstay our welcome. For example, we’ve all been in situations where we invited people over and have had a great time, but then they stay a bit too long and we yearn for them to go home.

Wishing a pastor would retire is not a great start for a smooth transition of launching the church into a healthy future. When the congregation starts to long for a pastor to retire, but the pastor refuses to recognize it, it creates an uncomfortable situation. Someone trusted must go to the pastor and lovingly speak into their life, encouraging the pastor to step down.

Note that this does not mean when pastors enter their 60s we simply ship them out. It is not uncommon, in fact, for pastors to really hit their stride in this season of life as they’ve had many experiences, much wisdom, and countless hours of training to bring to the table.

But when pastors do get into their 60s, it is wise for them to start thinking about succession and forming a plan. It’s similar to what we do in life as we get older. We prepare our family and children (if we have children) for what happens when we are gone or no longer capable of doing the things we do. If a church delays making and implementing a plan for succession for too long, the church can begin to age with the pastor.

A few tips for leaving well

When a pastor is preparing to retire, one way that person can love the church is to give the church notice well in advance of the departing date. The church can then start the process of finding a new pastor while the old pastor is still there, preaching and watching over the congregation. This way, the church is not left shepherd-less for a season as they scramble to find a new pastor.

And no, there is not a set timeframe for how far in advance pastors should let their churches know they will be retiring. Sometimes, it’s a matter of months; other times, a year or two might be ideal. For still others, 4-5 years may be needed to work through major church transitions that need to occur. This number will largely be determined by each church’s individual culture and personality.

One possibility for a smoother transition is to take one year in which the leadership slowly transitions from the old pastor to the new pastor. This way, the departing pastor has time to gradually step out of the role and the new pastor has time to get to know the church before taking on a full leadership role. The congregation will also have an opportunity to build trust with the new pastor without having to abruptly say goodbye to the outgoing pastor.

Post retirement

It is worth noting that pastors retiring from their roles can—and often, should—continue in ministry on some level. There are many ways they may continue to serve their local church and the global church. These could include, but are not limited to:

  • Becoming a mentor to younger pastors in the area
  • Taking on a smaller leadership role under the new pastor for a few years as part of the transition
  • Writing a book

Pastors do not become obsolete to the mission of reaching our world for Jesus when they retire. Many, in fact, will go on to have the most fruitful years of ministry after they retire from the pulpit.

When they have smoothly handed the baton to the next pastor, many pastors also remain integral, valued members of their church communities. Some are able to fulfill a ‘grandparent’ role, capable of gently speaking wisdom into their churches which no one else could say because of their history and experience.

Church succession, while sometimes difficult, can be a helpful step in a church’s growth towards a healthy future.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

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