[Although the story in this case study may seem to resemble a real situation, the names, places and actual circumstances do not describe any actual church, church board, pastor or chairperson.]
Jake celebrated his sixty-seventh birthday a week ago. This also coincided with the tenth anniversary of his service as chair of the Sixth Baptist Church. Jake enjoyed his role as board chair and felt that his gifts and experience enabled him to contribute significantly to effective board leadership. Board members continued to be affirming of his leadership.
For the past year or two Jake knew that his time of service with the board was drawing to a conclusion. It was time for younger leadership to step into the role of board chair. Several times he had raised the issue with his lead pastor and they had agreed generally that transition should occur sometime in the next year or two. He had also voiced his intention to complete his role as chair with several other board members. However, he knew that if something was going to happen in an effective and orderly manner, with a good result for the board and the church, succession planning was necessary. He had discussed this with the current vice-chair, but he indicated that he did not feel that he should step up to the chair’s role.
Jake had never been in this situation before and so he was unsure how to proceed. According to the congregation’s by-laws the board selected its own chair from among the elders appointed by the congregation. Several years previously the board had adopted a description of role and responsibility for the chairperson and this probably needed to be updated. Jake was uncomfortable with the idea that he should “give the nod” to some candidate. Rather the board as a whole needed to discuss this and come to some decision regarding succession. Jake’s primary concern was that this be done with the board’s careful consideration and at least six months before he completed his term so that he could coach the new chair and orient him to this role. He wanted the board to appreciate how important the role of chair would be to their continued effectiveness.
After further prayer and reflection Jake decided that the best approach would be to recommend that the board form a two person adhoc committee whose mandate would be to bring forward a recommendation to the board regarding the next chair. That person may or may not be on the board currently. They would have two months to do their work and bring forward their recommendation. The lead pastor would be advisory to this committee.
When Jake brought forward his recommendation at the next board member, he was a little surprised at the response. One or two members were supportive, but most seemed unconcerned with the issue and felt that Jake was being too “formal” in his proposal. When the time came, God would direct the board members to select the next chair. However, Jake persisted, explaining his concern that he have some opportunity to assist the new chair through the transition so that the board did not lose momentum. Eventually, after further discussion the majority of the board voted to support his recommendation and appointed Bob and Jack as the adhoc committee with Pastor Pete serving in an advisory capacity. The board also took some time to review the chair’s roles and responsibilities description and made two or three important changes.
After the meeting Jake felt as if a huge burden had been lifted. The board had a succession process in place and this augured well for a good result. He also sensed that the hard work he had given to develop the board’s capacity for good governance would not be lost, but could continue to improve.
At the next board meeting the new adhoc committee gave a brief report and then asked for advice. If they were to recommend someone for the position of chair who was not currently a board member, how could the board work with the nominating committee collaboratively to effect such an appointment? This was a sensitive issue because two years ago the board had proposed some names to the nominating committee for consideration as elders and this was viewed by some on the nominating committee as interference in their mandate. After some discussion it was decided that should the adhoc committee propose a candidate who was not a member of the board and the board affirmed their recommendation, that the members of the adhoc committee should first approach the person. After gaining this person’s permission, they would then as members of the congregation nominate this person for the position of elder. The board members had enough faith in the process that should this person be the individual God wanted to fill this role, then this person would be perceived by the congregation as having the gifting and qualifications as an elder.
This process went forward. Three months later Jerry was appointed by the congregation as an elder. When his term began the board appointed him as vice-chair, giving opportunity for Jake to mentor him into the role of chair.
The issue of succession in the role of chairperson seldom receives the attention it deserves within church boards. However, if this role is as critical to the effective operation of a church board as many contend, then it requires careful and prayerful attention. Time and energy devoted to selecting a qualified and perhaps experienced candidate should, all things being equal, pay significant dividends. It also communicates to the congregation that the board is taking its work seriously.
The process used in the case study may not work in your particular situation. However, your church board would do well to consider some search and selection process that results in the appointment of a qualified candidate. The board generally will follow the lead of the current chairperson if a recommendation of a succession process is proposed. You can shape the board’s expectations in this regard and educate them in the importance of good leadership for their effective work together.