Of clones and unicorns: Some thoughts on succession

I was an eager beaver new believer. I could talk to anybody about my new-found faith anytime, anywhere — yes, even inside an overcrowded bus on a sweltering day!

Impressed by my zealousness, the leader of our evangelism team repeatedly urged me to “duplicate” myself. So, I tried. Well, surprise, surprise! I couldn’t find anyone who was just like me or who wanted to be exactly like me.

Instead, I met creative types who loved God just the same, but who were way smarter in their evangelism approach.

They had some relevant skills I could only wish to have. They were so cool I wanted to be just like them! (Of course, I didn’t tell them that.)

Despite some differences in our preferences, we teamed up and built an outreach ministry that brought scores of young people to our young church, including a charming geologist-musician who would later become my husband.

Today, whenever I’m thrust into an opportunity to build a great team or find a great new leader, I remind myself of lessons learned during the early days: Don’t make a copy; find an original.

It appears I’m in good company. Last January, Tim Spivey — lead pastor of New Vintage Church in Escondido, CA, who also is an author, adjunct professor, church consultant and regular contributor to Church Executive — posted a blog titled “Replacing a Great Leader Without Replacing Them.”

Spivey says when replacing a great leader, churches and organizations tend to look for a successor with similar gifts.

Not always a smart move, he argues. What he recommends is building a system that allows all kinds of leaders — not only the uberpastors — to thrive. “Don’t build a unicorn stable,” he warns. “Instead, transform the unicorn pen into a horse ranch that can host quarter horses, mustangs, thoroughbreds or … unicorns.”

One extraordinary leader who knows quite well what makes for a great successor is Bob Russell. His transition story is one for the books. Russell pastored Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY, for 40 years. I interviewed him in 2005, one year prior to his retirement. At the time, he had been mentoring his replacement, Dave Stone, whom he described as “different than me — sanguine, evangelistic, youthful, humorous; a quality guy, more talented than I.”

Russell was also doing the rounds, speaking at leadership gatherings about his church’s succession plan, which, he stressed, wasn’t for people with strong egos.

I was lucky to have a copy of Russell’s succession notes. Here are some notable quotes:
“Your successor ought to be better than you, or have the potential to be better because he’s got to take the church to the next level.”

“My task is not to clone me, but to recognize and enhance [Dave’s] gifts.”

“The biggest compliment to my ministry will be if Southeast Christian does well when I’m gone.”

It has been eight years since Russell’s send-off party. Yet, by the look of things, the party just keeps swinging. Russell serves countless ministers through the Bob Russell Ministries. He travels and speaks to congregations and conventions, conducts monthly pastors’ retreats, produces Bible Study videos for small groups, and writes a weekly blog. Meanwhile, his former church, under the leadership of his successor, has grown to three campuses, reaching people by the thousands.

Different folks, one unicorn of a mission. Makes for a successful succession.

Rez_Gopez-Sindac— Rez Gopez-Sindac


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