A prominent church with more than 25,000 members rapidly eroded into a congregation of less than 250 with dwindling finances—and its rapid demise traces back to a problem many churches unfortunately face today: the lack of a pastoral succession plan.
The absence of succession planning can cause severe problems for congregations and raise numerous legal issues. In the case of this megachurch, when the church’s founding pastor died suddenly, the congregation viewed his son, who was on staff at the church, as his heir. However, the church’s board did not feel he was prepared to be the senior pastor. A rift ensued, and the son of the deceased pastor was fired. The subsequent years of infighting and costly litigation over the church’s significant assets wasted invaluable resources and virtually destroyed the church.
This is just one among far too many examples of the devastating consequences churches suffer when they do not plan ahead for a transition in pastoral leadership.
According to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability’s most recent Nonprofit Governance Survey, 65 percent of all nonprofit boards self-report that they do not have a succession plan. As staggering as that figure is, this number would likely be higher if the survey exclusively asked church boards.
Why succession planning is essential
Dave Travis, CEO of Leadership Network, fittingly defines succession as “the intentional transfer of authority and leadership from one primary leader to another.” The need for new leadership can come very unexpectedly, such as in the case of a death, resignation, sudden illness, or termination of a leader. Whatever the reason for a change in senior leadership, churches need a succession plan for at least five reasons: