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Succession planning: how to prepare the church for a new pastor

By Rev. Dr. Perry Hopper and Vincent Schera

FINANCE AND ADMIN ICONThe pastoral search is not an easy process for church leadership. Often, they are inadequately prepared to handle pastoral transition.

Pastoral searches that are rushed — or have not followed a careful discernment process — can have painful results for a congregation. Stories of church splits, poor matches between a pastor and congregation (and even clergy who have left ministry altogether as a result of an especially difficult pastoral experience) are far too prevalent.

Nevertheless, pastoral and leadership change is inevitable.


EMPTY PULPITWhether it occurs as a result of sudden death or chronic illness, a call to another ministry or profession, an ethical indiscretion, or through retirement, it is the responsibility of the current pastor and church leaders to develop a plan for when a pastoral vacancy occurs. Just as succession planning has become standard for many businesses, it is necessary for churches to enable them to handle pastoral change with a sense of spiritual readiness and stability. A good pastor-to-church match significantly contributes to a congregation’s ability to do God’s work through ministry — work that is impactful and transforms lives. Pastoral change can provide a rich opportunity for a church to re-examine its congregational identity and deepen its faith journey together.

Every congregation will approach the pastoral search differently. In the case where there is adjudicatory leadership (such as a regional or local body), it is important to reach out to them for assistance with succession planning and pastoral transition.

Church culture, by-laws or other factors might also play a role, but a few tips garnered from successful searches and thoughtful resources can serve as wisdom for the journey.

#1: Formulate an emergency plan. In the event of death, a serious accident or an unforeseen situation, emotions are likely to run the gamut among members — grief, anger and uncertainty about the future. Church leaders need to be proactive about preparing a plan before a crisis happens to provide for a stable transition of leadership during what is likely to be a highly emotional time for a congregation.

Leaders should be guided by Paul’s reminder in 1 Corinthians: “But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” (14:40)

#2: Consider engaging an interim minister. This can be especially helpful when a previous ministry has ended painfully. Interim ministers are engaged for a fixed period of time, generally one or two years. A minister who is experienced in interim ministry can assist a congregation with processing the hurt, grief and anger that typically follows a pastorate that ended with ethical misconduct, or even an extremely long pastorate in which members might have difficulty moving forward. Dealing with these feelings is necessary in order to have an effective search process.

ThinkstockPhotos-529590645#3: Build a search committee that is spiritually rooted and resilient. Ideally, the committee should be composed of a healthy balance of church leaders and lay members who reflect age, gender, ethnic and income diversity and various ministries within the church. It is essential that committee members demonstrate spiritual maturity, sensitivity, open spirits, and are consensus-builders. A healthy search process is rarely less than a year and can last up to two years, so members must be committed to a lengthy and involved process. The ability to maintain confidentiality is an absolute must.

#4: Speak with other churches who have gone through a pastoral search within the last year. Much wisdom can be gleaned from interviewing members of a successful search process.
• What questions helped them the most?
• What might they do differently if given the chance?
• What spiritual practices sustained them during the search period?
• What did they observe and experience that helped them realize they had identified the candidate who was the right fit for their church?

Hearing from those who understand the responsibility that accompanies the search process can be invaluable.

#5: Take the time to discover what the church is looking for. Everyone on the committee will have an opinion of what the church needs in a pastor. It is important that these preferences are stated candidly and openly so the committee can move forward in an honest discovery and discernment process together. A careful review of the church’s vision and mission statements and stated ministry objectives is key to assessing the qualities and skills that take priority and assist in drafting a job description for the pastoral search. The committee also needs to hear from church members and structure a process that helps the congregation to ask where they have been as a community of faith and where they sense God is leading them. This can happen through a series of forums, small groups, or a survey; many resources are available to help facilitate what needs to be a keen listening process.

#6: Put more emphasis on character than on skills. Ideally, a committee is seeking a candidate with a healthy balance of “excellence in character and skills.” But it is important to give more attention to who the person is rather than on what they have done. This cannot be overstated because gaining a clear sense of a person’s values, mindset and character traits will tell you more than accomplishments can about how well he or she will interact with members. As you consider a candidate’s gifts in preaching / teaching, pastoral care and administrative management, recognize that no minister excels in all three areas. Your discovery process will reveal which areas are most significant for your congregation as you live into the future with a new pastor.

Finding the right pastor is a process that may not happen as quickly as some would like. But, having a plan in place prior to beginning your search — and considering all your options — will make for a smoother, more manageable transition process.


Perry Hopper serves as the associate executive director and director of denominational relations of MMBB Financial Services and is responsible for coordinating special programs that support MMBB’s mission.

Vincent Schera serves as chief human resources officer and implements and manages all HCM policies and programs for MMBB Financial Services.

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