Prevent a crisis with a leadership transition plan

By Rick Anderson and Nathan A. Adams IV

Strokes, car accidents, heart attacks, affairs and murder are just some of the circumstances causing leaders to vacate pulpits and other critical ministry positions prematurely. However, few religious institutions have prepared adequately to survive the thorny transitions that follow. Even fewer have implemented preventative threat and security policies. In the worst and least expected situations, congregations divide, members and supporters dwindle, revenue dips, and ministries shut their doors for lack of planning.

In contrast to the church, our government expends great resources to protect our nation’s leaders from danger and has put in place a careful succession plan to ensure effective governance in virtually any contingency. Businesses also plan for tragedies to keep the factories running and services supplied. Even individuals prepare wills and trusts to provide for their families upon their deaths. Can ministry leaders really afford to be any less concerned about the welfare of their churches and their members?

Effective prevention and transition planning is about preparing for the most likely threats. Shootings in places like Merryville, IL, are now a commonly discussed threat. But far more ministry leaders across America will be unable to perform their duties this year due to disease, accidents and moral failures.

Some institutions do not want to face these unpleasant possibilities. In others, leaders and especially founders, resist the planning due to personal insecurities or differences with their boards over the future direction of the ministry, notwithstanding that they can actually exercise more control now over the future course of the institution.

Prevent moral failures

How can a religious institution best avoid or prepare itself to survive an unplanned leadership transition? Sin is inherent, but moral failures can often be prevented by implementing sound counseling, visitation and other protocols. Leaders should delegate, to a certain extent, high risk ministries to other staff.

Police the scope of your counseling ministry, so that key staff members are not handling problems beyond their training. Install windows in doors, keep doors open when feasible, visit with a colleague or visit two people (e.g., a husband and wife) together; have an accountability partner; and participate in regular training.

Nothing can ultimately prevent a moral failure or bad health, but institutions can create incentives for physical fitness and purchase health policies that emphasize preventative care. Security planning should begin with a thorough and comprehensive audit of the vulnerabilities that exist at your place of ministry.

Risk prevention and transition planning should be a team effort.

1. Create a risk management team, including the institution’s leaders (e.g., senior pastor or president, executive pastor or business administrator, and chairman of the board), an attorney, your insurance agent and possibly one or more representative supporters or members.

2. Develop a succession plan in the event of a leader’s unplanned temporary or permanent absence. The chain of command should be unambiguous. Church leaders should plan with an eye toward the importance of the positions than towards those who presently serve in those positions. Define the difference between temporary and permanent absence, in the event of a leader’s prolonged illness or incapacity.

3. Develop, understand and communicate an emergency chain of command, which is automatically activated upon the permanent absence of the leader.

4. Prepare your alternate leaders to step into the shoes of their mentors. Leaders should be discipled in the key values and culture of your institution (which is far more than the institution’s statement of faith, so that both will be perpetuated long after the present leadership is gone.

5. Consider purchasing a “key man” insurance policy that adequately sustains operating expenses for at least one year, in the event of the person’s unplanned absence.

6. Review all existing risk management policies, beginning with the counseling and visitation policies and expanding to each of the ministry risks that can be mitigated through advance planning. Paying for professional assistance on the front end will prove far less expansive than paying for lawyers once litigation is filed.

7. Finally, share with your congregation the committee’s activities. Members and supporters need to know your institution is acting responsibly and preparing for the future.

The consequences of losing key leaders can prove catastrophic for any institution. In ministry, the real losers are the people whose lives they would otherwise touch. It is far better and cheaper to work to prevent leadership vacancies and to plan for leadership transitions than to endure a leadership crisis.

Rick Anderson is the co-founder/owner of Church Security Solutions, LLC, Salem, OR, and Nathan A. Adams IV is the chair of the Religious Institutions practice team for the international firm Holland & Knight LLP, Jacksonville, FL. [] []


The Tulsa Ministry Security Association (TMSA) is an informal network of security directors from a number of Tulsa, OK, area Christian ministries. TMSA was started in early 2009 by directors from seven local ministries, with Grace Church, Victory Christian Center, and Rhema Church being the initial driving force of the group.

Many of us had already dealt with individuals who were currently security issues at other member churches, so we formed TMSA to network that expertise and information to good effect. Since that time we have been joined by representatives from another 10 local churches who see the potential in pooling our knowledge.

Recently, by effectively sharing intelligence on threats, one of our member churches notified us when a man that we knew was of interest to Homeland Security and law enforcement in another part of the state, arrived in Tulsa. All member churches were notified as were the watch commanders of local law enforcement.

There have been many other successfully shared reports of proactive incident prevention, including convicted child predators and violent or potentially violent persons. We are offering free training to workers from local churches by tapping into the expertise resident in our pool of security directors.

We first trained ushers to use passive and active, but discreet, techniques to notice and handle potential problem persons while never breaking stride with all the goals of ministry. An upcoming training session will feature a member law enforcement officer’s training on the techniques of behavior pattern recognition to help us discern between the potential problem and spiritually distraught person looking for help.

A future goal is to represent the interest of tens of thousands of local worshippers to the state legislators who represent them to press for more effective laws to preserve our freedom of worship.

Today there are more people than ever with a desperate need for a relationship with God, yet today’s church faces new and bold opposition from some who find fault with our message and others who see the church as a soft target for crime. It is the mission of the church security professional to offer protection from the latter while enhancing the ministry efforts to those in need.

— Vic Meyer CPP, director of operations and security, Grace Church, Tulsa, OK


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