Succession planning

By Denise Craig, CAE CCA 

You won’t be in your role forever.

Whether you are serving as the Senior Pastor, the Church Administrator, or as the Facility Manager, one day someone else will be leading at your church. It could be through retirement, moving on to another role, or an emergency no one could have foreseen, things change. Roles change. Leaders change.
How can you prepare for what’s ahead?

First, you need to ensure you have an emergency succession plan in place. If you were suddenly unable to come to work, who would do your job? That needs to be in writing, clear to the staff team, and clear to the one who would fill the role in an emergency.

Next, determine your timeline for a planned succession. Is this five years out? Ten? Once that has been determined, you can back into the schedule for hiring a successor.

Finding the right person for the position will take thoughtful prayer and diligent searching. No one is just like you, nor should they be. Times of transition are also times of opportunity for an organization to find a different type of leader, with a different set of gifts. Determining who is making those decisions is also key. Is it a board, a personnel committee, or a team of volunteers gathered with this one purpose in mind?

Once a job description and list of desirable qualities have been documented for the successor, then the search begins. Be thorough in vetting candidates. Making a bad hire costs a lot, and not just in dollars. Relationships are at stake, and relational damage can have ripple effects.

After a successor has been chosen, the leadership handoff must be carefully planned. Just as with relay runners, there is a passing of the baton. It should be formal and clear. There is no room for error here. A lack of clarity in the hand off will cause confusion among staff and congregants; however, a clear passing of authority to the new leader and the clear release of the former leader will greatly increase the chances of this transition going well.

One of the biggest risks in succession is that the former leader won’t let go of the baton. When that happens, it can be devastating not only for the incoming leader,

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but for the organization as a whole. In their book Next: Pastoral Succession That Works, William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird describe churches that completely folded because the former leader wouldn’t release the leadership to the new leader. It’s tragic. The future of entire churches and organizations are in the balance.

On the other hand, when there is a transparent process, clear communication and a healthy hand-off, succession that goes well can be life-giving to a church and offer new hope for the future mission. In the Bible, we read of Moses and the way he passed the baton to Joshua. Moses certainly wasn’t a perfect leader. He made plenty of mistakes. However, when it came to passing the mantle to Joshua, he made it clear. He installed Joshua as his successor before the entire assembly of Israel. There was no question about when the leadership mantle was transferred. Moses graciously, and with dignity, transferred the leadership to someone else.

As you look ahead to your own succession, there are projects you will complete in your season. There also may be things you feel are left undone, like you don’t get to see the promised land. Even so — you can choose to pass the baton well, with grace and support for the new leader.

Succession done well requires prayerful planning and preparation. It also requires a heart submitted to what is best for the church in which you serve. Leaving a legacy isn’t just about the way you serve while in the role. It’s also about the way you give it away.

Related URLS:

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Denise Craig, CAE CCA is a strategic leader who is passionate about helping others discover their God-given purpose so they can live and lead well. With over twenty years of experience in church leadership, Denise is honored to serve as the Chief Executive Officer of The Church Network. Denise is a Certified Association Executive, a Certified Church Administrator, and a Certified Financial Coach. She serves on the advisory panel for Church Executive Magazine, and is a regular speaker for conferences, Bible studies, and financial seminars.

Denise can be reached at




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