We’ve seen how it happens. A preacher does a great job and begins to develop a following. Eventually great crowds are coming, at least in part because of the quality and reputation of the pastor’s preaching. So what happens if the pastor gets hit by a truck, messes up, decides to retire, or just comes to the conclusion that the pressure is too great and he doesn’t want to do it anymore? What does the church do then? Finding another preacher/pastor who can achieve the same level of influence is almost impossible – at least, we almost never see it happen. Occasionally we see the preacher turn the reigns over to his son as if the pulpit were the family business, but again, it almost never works. There is something about the gifting of the original which is seldom replicated in successive pastoral tenures.
So what do we do about this? How does a church protect itself against this eventuality? It’s fun to ride the wave while the star preacher is doing his thing, but eventually the wave flattens out. Sometimes it happens abruptly. If the church hasn’t thought about succession, it can be disastrous.
Actually, I think that succession planning is as much a responsibility of the star as it is of the church. There are several things that a successful preacher/pastor can do to help the church after his tenure has come to an end. Some of those things are as follows:
- Eliminate Debt. It is extremely tempting to load up on debt while the church is riding high. While the people are flocking, the church can handle high debt ratios, and besides we have to have a place for all these people to sit. Yet, when the crowds stop coming and the mortgage lingers, a church can be crippled for years to come. By all means, use the money that is coming in the good years, but be careful about racking up debt to leave to a shrunken congregation after you are long gone.
- Build a Strong Governance Structure. If the health of the church is dependent on your personal leadership, it can be difficult to sustain healthy governance after you are gone – particularly if all the other strong leaders are leaving with you. In good times, you want to make sure that the policy structures and systems of governance are well designed and sturdy enough to withstand the challenges created by your eventual departure.
- Develop Leaders. It should go without saying, but a big part of your job as a preacher/pastor is to be actively working to develop leaders. A church that is rich in gifted and trained leaders will be more easily able to carry on the vision of the church after you are gone. Developing these people includes letting them have an opportunity to preach often enough that they get good at it and that people are actually happy to hear them.
- Create a Productive Denominational Relationship. I know that denominations are not particularly cool or cutting edge, but they can come in handy at a time of difficult transition. You might not need them very much when you are flying high, but establishing a solid relationship will provide the lines of communication necessary when your church is in need of some of the services that they provide. You might even be surprised by how useful and productive the relationship can be even when things are good.
- Create a Culture of the Word. You will want to do everything you can to make sure that your ministry is about the Word and not about you. This is always a good idea, but it will be particularly helpful to your people as you transition out. Helping people understand that they are hearing from God through his Word more than they are hearing from you yourself, will make it easier for them to listen to others who take the same approach.
Of course, it will be extremely easy for you to avoid this matter, because after all, it won’t be your problem. You will be long gone and won’t have to face any of the consequences of a poorly planned succession. But if you really love the people to whom you are preaching, you will give attention to these things. This whole thing is a little like squirrelling away the nuts during the summer because the winter could be long and cold. Your church won’t want to wait until they have the problem to begin trying to deal with it.
There are any number of highly visible examples of churches who have experienced this very problem. You can work to make sure that your church is not the next.