3 keys to a seamless pastoral succession

By Joy Roberts

As personal financial planners at a Christian financial services organization, we are privileged to serve pastors and church executives who are dedicating their careers to advancing the Kingdom.

It’s equally rewarding to witness a well-crafted succession plan that allows a congregation to thrive when a pastor moves on to the next phase of his calling. Leadership Network is one of the foremost experts in church succession planning.

ThinkstockPhotos-476362211Director of Development Erik Thornton and his colleagues have studied countless church transitions of leadership and said every transition should have the same goal.
“When a church can seamlessly transition its leaders, that gives the church the ability to stay on course,” Thornton says.
Our friends at Lenexa Baptist Church in Lenexa, KS, recently experienced a leadership transition as long-time pastor Steve Dighton, who also serves as a GuideStone Financial Resources trustee, retired. This transition is a prime example of the outcome that Thornton and his colleagues encourage.
Each change of leadership is unique; yet, the most successful succession plans we have observed follow a similar model of preparation, partnership and provision.

PREPARATION: Build out a timeline
Lenexa’s five-year succession plan began in 2011 when a lifetime of health struggles forced Dighton to make a painful decision.
“The job had gotten huge, and my health was less than it needed to be. So, that was the driver of the transition,” Dighton explains.
During his tenure, which began in February 1990, Dighton led the Kansas City-area congregation in a dramatic transformation from 100 members meeting in rented spaces into a 6,000-member, multi-campus church. When he handed the leadership reins to pastor Chad McDonald in March 2015, it was the next-to-last step in a five-year plan. The final step has Dighton serving as senior pastoral advisor through March 2016.

PARTNERSHIP: Involve lay and ministry leaders
Dighton quickly learned that pastoral succession needs to be a team effort. After his first attempt at training a new pastor faltered, he insisted on working with a transition committee comprised of members with specific expertise and experience. McDonald was serving as campus pastor of Lenexa’s Greenwood, MO, congregation when he was called on to serve as senior pastor. He credited the committee for ensuring that he was fully prepared to lead the church.
The committee’s goal was to ensure that the incoming and outgoing pastors were prepared for their new roles and that the congregation remained focused on its mission throughout the succession process. They developed a plan allowing Dighton and McDonald to share senior pastor duties, with Dighton taking the lead for 12 months; then McDonald became senior pastor, with Dighton serving as pastoral advisor for another 12 months.

PROVISION: Assure that finances are in order
During the first year they worked together, Dighton led McDonald through the specifics of running the church, including the complex financial details. Although the executive leaders manage the church’s finances, Dighton knew it was important for McDonald to learn how the church allocated its resources and managed its investments.
“I knew that I needed to be the best steward I could possibly be of these resources,” McDonald explains.
Meanwhile, the committee developed a benefits plan to ensure their beloved pastor would be cared for during his final year at the church and throughout his next season of ministry.
Dighton says his flexibility today is the direct result of his church’s decision to provide a well-designed retirement account and help him fund it during his years of active service.
“Now I have a way that I can financially step away and actually plan how I want to spend the rest of my ministry,” Dighton says.
Pastors Dighton and McDonald report that Lenexa Baptist Church is flourishing. The congregation has embraced McDonald, the pews are full, and financial support is strong. All these indicators make it clear that Lenexa Baptist is nearing completion of a seamless succession plan.
Letting a long-tenured and deeply loved pastor move into a new role can be a difficult time for any church. Congregations that prepare for the change, build partnerships to manage the change, and make financial provisions to facilitate the change are more likely to have a positive succession.

Joy Roberts is managing director of Personal Financial Services at GuideStone Financial Resources in Dallas. In this role, she and a team of experts work exclusively with churches, their pastors and executive leaders to craft financial strategies to support them during their years of active ministry and throughout retirement.


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