To every pastor who sees succession on the horizon, I have five words I would like you to consider: Take Your Shoes With You.
Following a long-term leader can be intimidating, especially if that leader has been successful. One of the top phrases I hear during succession planning with a church is, “Whoever comes next will have big shoes to fill.” It is meant to be an honoring statement, but to the successor it is filled with expectation and intimidation.
While the idea of “big shoes to fill” may feel really satisfying and be a well-deserved blessing for a departing pastor, the most satisfying reality for any minister is to see their life’s work continued. That comes with a well-planned transition and successful hand-off of the ministry. A departing pastor who does a few right things can radically improve the odds of a successful transfer of leadership.
Here are five right things that you can do to help prepare your congregation for your successor:
- Open your hands. When God gave you the call to lead your congregation you received that call with an open hand. Since that time you have held your call faithfully. Now is the time to begin to open your hand once again. You will have muscle memory, and it may take some time and practice to adjust your grip so that the call of leadership to your church once again rests openly. It is an internal, spiritual discipline to intentionally trust God with your call, but as the season of succession draws near you will need an open hand so God can lift that call from you and place it into the capable hands of another. From my observation during the past 10 years, this is harder than you think it will be, so begin to pray and practice.
- Form a future vision. Many pastors fear succession because they have no vision for what lies beyond their call as pastor of this congregation. The season of succession planning is an opportunity for a departing pastor to allow God to form and shape a fresh vision for the future. It doesn’t necessarily need to be “retirement.” After a season of rest it could be serving the Kingdom in new or different ways: coaching younger leaders, missional ministry, serving in a regional association, adjunct teaching in a college or university, interim pastoral ministry…the list goes on. Invest in yourself and hire a coach to work with you (or perhaps you and your spouse) to refresh your passion for “what’s next” and to begin to form a future vision for your life beyond this ministry.
- Open the conversation. Be proactive with your Board or Elders. Planned or unplanned, you will leave your role one day. How much better for the people if you help them to plan for it? The timeline doesn’t have to be imminent and the conversation doesn’t have to extend to the congregation at this point, but if you are nearing 60 years old or have been in your role for more than 15 years, your congregation will benefit from a planned transition. Now more than ever you need to lead by preparing those who will remain to lead through your departure. Don’t wait for your Board to approach you. Lead out in the succession conversation.
- Be a champion. Notice I didn’t say “Be a Controller.” Once the time is right for the succession plan to be enacted, champion the process, but don’t try to control it. Others will live with the results so it is right that they take ownership of the journey. Let them. You will serve the succession process best by championing it with the people. From time to time be willing to speak positively to the congregation about your departure and encourage them to trust current leadership, the process and the next leader. Cooperate, don’t control. It is one of the great gifts a departing pastor can give to his Board and congregation.
- Take your shoes with you. As your transition date draws near, tell the congregation that you will be taking your shoes with you. Remind them pastoral ministry is not “one size fits all” and the next pastor’s shoes will likely look different from yours. That is as it should be. Encourage them to trust God and to embrace this transition as a natural part of God’s good plan for His church. It is His church after all, and He loves it infinitely more than you ever could. Challenge the people to give new pastor their loyalty, to stay open to new ideas, and to limit their comparisons. Let him wear his own shoes. If these encouragements come from you, the people will respond.
Nancy Moore is president of NL Moore & Associates, a ministry consulting group with more than 10 years experience in succession planning, leadership search and selection consulting, and church assessment. Visit our website at www.nlmoore.com to request information or to learn more about our services.