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:
- Minimize disruptions. Every church needs a carefully documented plan to ensure that pastoral leadership will be handed over to the next top leader in an orderly way that has minimal impact on operations.
- Provide uninterrupted pastoral leadership. Congregants continue to need spiritual guidance and pastoral leadership when a senior pastor leaves, and before the new pastor arrives.
- Properly handle the church’s resources. Every church needs sound stewardship, especially during transitions. As an organization financially dependent on contributions from its members, a church must make every effort to properly steward the assets of its congregation. A church that wastes resources on expensive litigation—which can be avoided by a succession plan—is not carefully managing the congregation’s resources. In the case of the megachurch whose founder died, the years of litigation jeopardized 110 acres of valuable real estate, and a 10,000-seat sanctuary, plus several valuable ventures. It brought a lot of bad press—both through traditional media and blogs—and bad feelings, but worst of all, many people were turned off to church altogether.
- Progression of ministry . Succession planning should not be thought of as just switching out one leader for a new one; rather, it is an opportunity for growth. While churches rightfully grieve the loss of old leadership, the arrival of new leadership, when handled strategically and wisely, can breathe new life into a congregation, ignite a fresh vision, and create innovative ministry opportunities.
- The best alternative to litigation. In my experience, the alternative to chaos and court intervention is a well-orchestrated succession plan. As an attorney, I have great appreciation for the court system. As a Christian, I recognize the admonishment of 1 Corinthians 6:1 that suggests we make every effort to avoid bringing cases in civil court against other Christians. However, when there is no thoughtful, documented plan established to fill a pastoral vacancy, chaos often results. That chaos often prompts conflict, and the opposing parties tend to look to the court system for help. Dissatisfaction usually results. Depending on the nature of the dispute, courts may not weigh in because of First Amendment concerns, and when courts do intervene, it’s common for neither party to like the outcome. Case in point: the megachurch dispute affecting tens of thousands of people and numerous important assets ultimately was resolved by the decision of one judge. Neither side walked away feeling fully satisfied.
Denominational churches still need a succession plan
While denominations generally have a clear process to guide local churches when a vacancy occurs, there is a difference between what’s on paper and what often happens. What I have seen in practice is that the “replacement” leader provided by the denomination often brings out the worst in fellow Christians. I have even seen local congregations of a denomination change the locks to the church building to keep out the new pastor sent by the national office. Like independent congregations, churches that belong to a denomination need a succession plan, and they would be wise to coordinate that plan with denominational leadership.
Key questions to answer
In their book The Elephant in the Boardroom, Carolyn Weese and J. Russell Crabtree outline several questions to help start the process of creating a succession plan:
- Do you have a strategic plan that defines where your church is going and how you are going to get there? Creating a new strategic plan or carefully examining the current one helps leaders explore the strengths and weaknesses of their church’s vision and mission. As far as succession planning goes, the leadership team should reflect on how a transition in pastoral leadership would affect the church’s vision and mission.
- Do you have a clear understanding of your particular church culture and the specific advantages and risks a pastoral transition poses? Every church has a unique culture, and the current senior leader is often responsible for that culture. For instance, he or she might draw a certain crowd to the church. Does succession planning provide an opportunity to broaden that crowd or change it in a way the church leadership finds desirable?
- Have you had an honest, structured discussion with your governing board about what is going to happen to the church when the pastor leaves? Having “the talk” between the senior leader and the church board can be tough, no matter who initiates it, but it must be done. In fact, it should be done with regularity, as opposed to it being a haphazard, uncomfortable discussion. Make it a part of a regular agenda that starts early in the new leader’s tenure.
- Do you have a pastoral transition plan in place that describes in detail how your church will maintain excellence at the point when the current pastor leaves and a new pastor is called? As discussed earlier, a succession plan must strive to minimize disruptions in ministry and operations before the new leader arrives.
Work with a qualified church attorney
Ideally, the senior pastor initiates the succession plan discussion. However, sometimes the church board makes the first move. Regardless of who initiates, the church should engage a competent attorney with experience representing churches. Along with a strong legal understanding of succession, the attorney should also know how to apply biblical principles to church leadership, governance, and pastoral transition. Prior to hiring, ask the attorney to explain the Bible-based principles that guide his or her understanding of succession planning. Moreover, an attorney with experience in this area should be familiar with the legal parameters that such a plan can (and cannot) include.
Positioned for success
It has often been said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. In large part, the church has managed to avoid the latter, but the former has had its hand in the demise of too many ministries. Consider what actions you need to take to ensure that your church is best positioned for continued success by having a properly prepared succession plan.
Erika E. Cole is an attorney who works exclusively with churches and is a founding partner of The Law Offices of Erika E. Cole LLC.