For over thirty years I have contributed to church boards as a member or chair or consultant. I have yet to experience a situation in which a church board thought seriously about and intentionally planned for leadership succession. There may be some basic guidelines in place for conducting a search in the event the lead pastor resigns, but very little thought seems to be given to planning for leadership succession in terms of discussions with the current lead pastor or with respect to the qualifications desired in hiring associate or assistant pastors and their potential to succeed the current lead pastor.
I think I know the reasons why this is the case. Partly it arises from theological perspectives regarding pastoral calling and divine providence. If God has called a person to serve as lead pastor, succession planning feels like we are second-guessing God’s appointment. Alternatively when the current lead pastor’s role is completed, then God will provide the next leader. God is responsible for succession planning, not us. Aversion to succession planning also arises because Seminaries in which pastors receive their training rarely include serious discussion about the role of boards in church governance and the importance of succession planing as a governance issue. So lead pastors have little consciousness about the need for this as part of responsible leadership nor do they have any sense of an appropriate processes. Let me suggest one other reasons for this neglect — the insecurity of lead pastors. If church boards start discussing succession planning, lead pastors often assume that the board is in process of getting rid of them.
There is a better way. Chairpersons can provide some leadership here. First, church boards need some education regarding the important role that succession planning plays in responsible board governance. In other words church boards have to learn that succession planning is part of their portfolio and mandate. They fail in their leadership responsibility when they do not give attention to this matter. So step one is providing information to church board members about succession planning and its place within non-profit board governance. A second step would be to examine Scripture to discern how God in fact did involve himself in leadership succession planning. Consider Moses and Joshua, Saul and David or Elijah or and Elisha, or Peter and James, or Paul and Timothy — surely God delights in succession planning. It advances his kingdom purposes. Thirdly, review your current policies regarding succession planning and evaluate the gaps that exist. Finally, begin to evaluate current associate or assistant pastoral leaders among your staff and seek to discern when God already has brought into your context one or several potential lead pastor candidates. It is not necessary to indicate the results of your evaluation to any particular candidate. However, this discussion might result in directing the professional development of several in specific ways. Further, as you have opportunity to hire new candidates for such positions, do so with an eye to this larger question of pastoral succession. Promotion from within has some significant benefits.
As church boards have such discussions it also important to assure lead pastors that this is not motivated by any lack of confidence in their leadership. Rather such discussions demonstrate responsible board leadership and their involvement in such discussions gives them opportunity to exercise appropriate pastoral direction in such processes.
Timing of such discussions within your church board may also be an important factor. If your board and congregation are in a good place institutionally, then that is great time to have such a discussion. No one is threatened and no serious crisis will distort the process. If things are difficult, probably it is not wise to engage this question because it probably will only make things worse. If you recently have hired a lead pastor, it might be opportune for you as chairperson to sound him out regarding his perspective on succession planning. This conversation may last for a number of months as you both sort out your opinions and come to consensus. Once you have achieved that, then a discussion with the board can occur with positive outcome. If you experience strong push back from your lead pastor, then probably you will need to back off and wait a while.