William Vanderbloemen has helped hundreds of churches find the right staff for their teams. And because of his experience and ongoing conversations with pastors and churches that are strategically looking at leadership succession, he has a broad and simultaneously up-close perspective on the issue. I am honored to have him answer some questions today based on pastoral succession and his new book, Next: Pastoral Succession That Works.
1. Pastoral succession seems to be a growing point of discussion. Why has it become more of a key conversation point for leaders?
In the last 10-20 years, succession planning has become one of the main agenda items for corporate boards. As the succession conversation has become a norm in the business world, many church board members are bringing the conversation to their churches.
We are also on the far side of several church growth pioneers’ tenure. Bill Hybels started Willow Creek nearly 40 years ago (1975). Rick Warren planted Saddleback about 35 years ago (1980). They were pioneers in a movement of business-minded, entrepreneurial pastors who led a church growth movement like none we had seen. It’s only natural that the autumn of their careers would usher in a new conversation about succession.
Honestly, it’s about time. Succession has been a bit of a taboo topic for far too long. Pastors who talk about their departure ahead of time have been mistaken for pastors who are on their way out or considering a move. Part of the reason I teamed up with Warren Bird to write this book was to facilitate and normalize that conversation between pastors and church boards.
2. With some “boomer pastors” in many historically healthy/significant churches approaching “hand-off” stage, where will the leaders who follow them come from?
In the book, we devote a whole chapter to this question. In larger churches there are a lot of options like former staff. Or campus pastors are often good options. For smaller churches that are not well networked, finding viable candidates can be a lot trickier equation to solve.
3. I know each context is different, but give us a suggested starting point as a timeline for succession planning.
The best time to start planning is now. Every pastor should have a plan in place for an unforeseen (and sudden) end to their tenure. An emergency succession plan is a good place to start, and smart pastors and boards will keep one before it’s needed.
The book is written in hopes that young pastors will read this and begin planning early. The earlier pastors begin to plan, the more options they will have when succession comes.
4. In successful successions, what are key elements in the culture of the church?
Through our study of 500 successions and 200 case study interviews, we noticed that churches who handle succession well have a few common denominators: (1) they pay their pastor well enough that the pastor can afford to retire, (2) they allow their pastor to develop an area of passion in the latter part of ministry that can become a new career after the pastorate, and finally, (3) they are unusually good to the outgoing pastor’s wife.
When the new pastor arrives, successful churches are patient, they have an acute awareness that the past is behind them, and they tend to be forward thinking (not to be confused with “contemporary”) as a church family.
5. In successful successions, what are key characteristics in the person handing over the reigns and in the successor?
In the end, succession rises and falls on the outgoing pastor. Every good succession I’ve seen and studied has begun and ended with a humble, legacy-minded outgoing pastor.
There are some key components outgoing pastors all tend to share (which mirror the previous answer): (1) they have sound finances and can afford to retire, (2) they have an area of passion that they can funnel energy toward after succession, and (3) they have a solid relationship with their spouse.
But at the end of the day, the thing that they all have in common is a commitment to building a church that lasts well beyond their years. Ironically, it’s that selfless attitude that secures their greatest legacy.
Successful incoming pastors have an unusual amount of patience and usually a love for history (read the book to find out why). Beyond that, the successions are so contextual that it’s hard to name a list of common qualities.
6. What is the most important thing we need to know about pastoral succession?
That it will happen. The blunt truth is every pastor is an interim pastor.
Unless a pastor closes his church, or unless Jesus returns, there will be a pastor that follows.
Pastors who figure that out now have a greater chance to have a smooth succession and to build a lasting legacy in their work.