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Succession readiness: Why your succession plan matters now more than ever

One feeling that is uniting all pastors after 2020: exhaustion. A year full of polarizing events, a global pandemic that shifted how churches operate, and a lack of in-person community has pushed a lot of church leaders to feel overwhelmed, overworked, and drained. Consequently, 2020 has caused a lot of pastors to consider stepping down years before they had planned.

William Vanderbloemen
William Vanderbloemen is the CEO of Vanderbloemen. |

The events of the last year and a half have reminded us just how little we truly control in our lives. Fortunately, we can plan for the future of our churches by talking about succession early in our careers, so that no matter what surprises come, we’re ready for what’s next. Succession is no longer just a retirement conversation, it is a readiness conversation. So how do we acknowledge the inevitable reality of succession and prepare for the future of the church?

My newest book, the expanded and updated edition of Next: Pastoral Succession that Works, provides insight into navigating leadership changes with wisdom and grace, but there’s a lot I would have added had I knew the impacts of COVID-19.

What is succession?

Pastoral succession is about the handoff from one pastor’s tenure to another, it's not one pastor figuring out what they do after their leadership. It is a forward-looking holistic look at the church body and all of its components. Succession planning asks questions like:

  • What has God done through this pastor?
  • What growth took place through the board during this time?
  • How does the board prepare for the next chapter?

There are many pieces to the church ecosystem and how it will shift under new leadership. Discussions on these topics should not happen when a pastor is on the way out, instead, there should be regular planning discussions with leaders and their boards.

Why is succession THE issue churches will have to deal with?

Succession will forever be a church issue, but over the next 10 years, it is THE issue churches will have to wrestle with. Even before COVID-19 hit, the supply of incoming pastors was short of demand due to birth rate trends. When the current generation is fully retired, there will be far fewer people than necessary to fill the space, leading to a huge leadership issue within the next ten years. Without enough pastors to step in, either you're going to have to develop a pipeline that allows for a higher risk with a less experienced person or you will have to do a pastoral search to bring in a person from the outside.

What are some of the changes you have seen in succession?

Pastors are now realizing they don’t have as much time as they thought to lay out future plans for themselves and their church. It is beneficial to prepare for succession early and leave plenty of time for the transition to take place.

Whether you plan for an interim pastor or implement a temporary leader from within your church, having a plan for the unexpected will ease your mind if you do come across this situation. We often see young people go into ministry with enormous passion, but it may not be in ministry for life. In this scenario and so many others where pastors leave unexpectedly, the church is unprepared to be left without a leader.

How has COVID-19 affected succession?

COVID-19 has created a heightened awareness of the need for a pastor and the temporary nature of their stay. We are reminded how fleeting life is and that permanence is not here. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon says “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” We are reminded that everything can be gone, just like that, and churches need a readiness plan like never before.

In Genesis 2, we are told that it is not good for man to be alone, so this period of isolation and social distancing through quarantine has made churches realize the need for a shepherd. COVID-19 is allowing us to rest in the realization that permanence is not here. This understanding and acceptance will keep our minds fixed on Heaven. It will keep our churches in a state of readiness for the next pastor, and overall, it will help the succession conversation.

What will churches need from their senior pastor?

COVID-19 has accelerated the need for technologically advanced leaders, and this digital age is calling for a new kind of pastor. Pastors are worried if their congregations will come back after learning how to virtually stream any preacher or message they desire. The new gold standard for pastors has to be a local pastor, someone involved in and dedicated to their community like never before. Someone whose main goal is to reach and connect with their local body in a way an online pastor cannot.

The future is not going to be about having the best sermon but having the most localized message. Preaching is turning away from directives and data and turning to self-reflection. Pastors will have to spend time looking in the mirror first, finding where God speaks to them, and then understanding how to use that message and calling in their specific community. In a world where everyone can access every sermon ever, the need is for somebody to speak to our local parish, content, and zip code. Pastors will need to speak into a camera, do things digitally, and think about their online presence, but have a specific affinity for their local community.

What does the future of succession look like?

Every church is different, every individual is different, and every situation is different. If anybody tells you that they have a cookie-cutter answer to succession, run away because there are no five easy steps. My hope is that if my first book made the conversation not taboo, my second book would make the conversation more normal, and a third, forward-looking book would say, “Okay, my big job now as a 25-year-old coming out of seminary is to prepare the church for when I'm not here.” If we look to Jesus as an example, much of his ministry was preparing the world for when he would no longer be here. It’s time for us to move from seeing succession as a taboo conversation to the new normal of how we train pastors.

William Vanderbloemen is the CEO of Vanderbloemen, which serves teams with a greater purpose by aligning their people solutions for growth: hiring, compensation, succession and culture. Through its retained executive search and consulting services, Vanderbloemen serves churches, schools, nonprofits, family offices, and Christian businesses in all parts of the United States and internationally. Follow him on Twitter @wvanderbloemen.

He is the author of Next: Pastoral Succession That Works, Search: The Pastoral Search Committee Handbook, Culture Wins: The Roadmap to an Irresistible Workplace and Don't Just Send a Resume: How to Find the Right Job in a Local Church.

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