Thinking Out Loud

June 11, 2012

Church Governance Issues: Succession Plans

On the weekend I linked to the stories concerning the impeding departure of Darren Whitehead from Willow Creek in northwest Chicago and Shane Hipps from Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids.

When the subject of pastoral succession comes up, I usually dodge the question and instead discuss my personal pet peeve: Transition times.  I believe that churches of all sizes suffer greatly during the time between the moment the senior pastor leaves and his (it’s usually a ‘he’) replacement arrives; which can be a span of months or even years.

At the time I concluded,

Something; anything, has got to be better than the status quo way of doing things.

This time around I want to again somewhat dodge the question and look beyond the relatively simple  — or seemingly simple — task of choosing a successor to the present pastor; and look at the underlying cause of problems instead of the symptom.

My guess, and this is complete speculation on my point, is that somewhere in the back of his mind Rob Bell knew that some restlessness was stirring in his spirit when he invited Shane Hipps to join the staff.  Shane’s letter to his church family indicated that he inherited a role that was in part, customized to shape Rob Bell’s unique giftings and outside ministry to the larger Christian community. But when the church decided to retrench and return the pastoral role to something more traditional — albeit absent the actual sense of control that many pastors enjoy — Shane decided that this wasn’t the trip he signed up for.

Less speculative is that Bill Hybels — possibly the number one American pastor on the subject of leadership issues — had a clear sense of succession in mind when Gene Appel was hired as teaching pastor. But that didn’t quite work out. Then, out of the land down under, came Darren Whitehead.  I listened to podcasts of both men, and enjoyed the teaching ministry of both. But now Bill and the Creekers are back to square one where the role of teaching pastor — which is really one step away from being senior pastor — is concerned.

While I don’t know all the nuances of Mars Hill, I do know that Willow is not going to miss a beat as long as Bill Hybels keeps showing up for work on Monday morning. (Actually, he says he does his best writing in a nearby coffee shop.) He’s still there. There are lots of good people on staff. There are probably dozens of people in the church’s ‘farm team,’ (the Willow Creek Associates ministry network) that they are aware of. There are good men leading the satellite campuses.  And they — and to a similar extent Mars Hill — can call up just about anybody to speak on Sunday morning; people who would be thrilled to honor the invitation.

But what does your church do when there is no heir apparent?

Here’s how I would armchair quarterback this:

First, most of our local churches are far too personality oriented. We want to see the back corner church office — the one with the extra window and the larger desk — occupied. We need to get past the idea that church life revolves around a single individual. And I include myself in this; I need to think of North Point as North Point, not “Andy Stanley’s church;” I need to refer to Saddleback as Saddleback, not as “Rick Warren’s church.”

Second, we need to see succession as an ongoing process; not something that surfaces in urgency at the moment a resignation letter is issued. I alluded to the ‘farm team’ earlier, and certainly any professional sports team is always scanning the horizon to see who is upcoming through the ranks and who is setting records on other teams. So also local church leadership needs to have in view the people who God is using.

Third, especially in medium and smaller churches, we need to empower the laity.  I don’t care how small your church is; right now there’s a layperson in your church who is capable of doing a sermon next Sunday, and it would actually be a pretty good sermon, too.  This means that a pastoral vacancy, when it happens, is just that, a vacancy, not a crisis of national emergency proportions.

Fourth, we need to periodically do some teaching ministry cross-pollination among our churches. The notion of a “pulpit exchange” has become all but antiquated, but we need to allow congregations — from the largest megachurches to the smallest chapels — the privilege of hearing different voices.  Many pastors are afraid to surrender their pulpit on Sunday morning; instead, the exchange notion should be ritualized; and I hold up  the 5th Sunday of every third month as a possible day for it to take place.

Finally, we need to look at our own scriptures and borrow a chapter or two from Israel’s history and consider the possibility of co-regency.  Many of our Bible timelines are messed up, and our apparent “Bible contradictions” exist because of a failure to understand how some of the Jewish nation’s kings actually ruled as co-regents.  The idea of a “senior pastor,” “teaching pastor,” and “executive pastor,” is an attempt to divide the pastoral role in a larger church so that the absence of a single individual doesn’t cause a collapse of sustained ministry or future visioning.

Too many churches are weakened by not having a vision of what the church is going to look like in two years; in five years; in a decade. These are critical times for the church in the western world, and we do ourselves and God’s Kingdom a great disservice when we don’t bring our best to the church leadership table.

Personnel will change; God will call people to new fields; we need to allow the same Holy Spirit that is leading pastors to also lead local church leaders.


  1. Good shots Paul. I am surprised you did not mention the recent change with john piper and his successor.
    At the end of the day there no perfect system. In my denomination it is a collaboration between the district superintendent and church leadership team. Is it perfect ? No but it is what it is. I agree there needs to be more involvement by the church membership. Especially in prayer. Churches of all sizes ate easily swayed to treat pastoral transition like a dismiss transaction . This is dangerous. Also they need to be careful to not fall into the personality cult trap.

    Comment by ralph juthman — June 11, 2012 @ 8:42 am

  2. Having a plan is obviously good and prudent. However, it seems to me that boards have very little experience in actually executing a succession plan. What do you do when a board or “young” pastors bring up the succession plan (because there is not one) but their motives are suspect… for example, our pastor is just getting older… he’s not dying nor is he resigning. It appears some use the succession plan as almost a “get rid” plan as opposed to actually using the current pastor to help guide in this process… He has been guiding our souls for years… why not work with him vs against him? I just don’t get it and believe more guidance to boards should be written on “how” to appropriately move forward.

    Comment by Gary — June 15, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

    • You just reminded me of a story where a church started to put a succession plan into place and the senior pastor dug in his heels and then there was a major split.

      The example stories in this article were large, and therefore somewhat ‘corporate’ churches. It’s harder when it’s a ‘family’ church of around 200 – 400 people where everyone has regular access to the pastor, and at all hours. You don’t just put someone like that out to pasture.

      However, I’ve also been around churches where the pastors yearned to bring in younger leadership; longed for someone they could mentor. In proper Paul/Timothy relationships you are really training your replacements.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — June 15, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

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