Many ministries only think about succession planning if they have a senior leader near or past the standard retirement age. This thinking does not take into consideration any surprise transitions, lengthy absences, or the importance of many other leadership positions: all considerations that are important from a risk-management perspective.
A few years ago, I knew three ministries that all experienced a tragedy unexpectedly striking their senior leaders. Two of those leaders passed away suddenly, and one was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Each organization scrambled to find solutions, and some were better prepared than others. It was an eye-opening experience for me, as an outsider, to consider what should be learned from their difficulties.
For some denominationally-affiliated churches, there may be formal structures and procedures in place that must be followed for succession planning. (If in doubt, check with your denomination or governing authority first.) For churches without such a mandated structure, however, crafting a succession plan requires key considerations. For these churches, creating a succession plan requires the cooperation of the church’s governing board as well as the leaders whose roles are being considered. If the parties don’t understand the importance of this project, it is unlikely to get the support and attention required to make it successful.
Making a Plan: First Steps
Start by determining which roles are the most critical and therefore require contingency plans. This should certainly include the senior pastor, and depending on your church, it may also include associate pastors, the executive pastor, and the business administrator (as well as the school principal or other key ministry leaders).