Teach them how to say goodbye

succession planning

3 important lessons in church succession planning

By Nancy Beach

These days, I’m experiencing a collision of two of my favorite passions.

My mind is often filled with lyrics from the remarkable musical Hamilton. I devoured the 730-page biography, wore out the CD in my car, and then, last month, had the breathtaking privilege of seeing the show in Chicago. 

I think a lot about succession planning — how churches can do a better job of healthy transition from one key leader to the next. There’s a song in the musical Hamilton that expresses what I long to see in more churches. George Washington decides not to run for a second term, which greatly disappoints and saddens Alexander Hamilton, his right-hand man. Here’s a direct quote from their song, One Last Time:

Hamilton: “Why do you have to say goodbye?”

Washington: “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone. Like the Scripture says: ‘Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree.’ A moment alone in the shade. At home in this nation we’ve made.”

Our first President was quoting his favorite verse, Micah 4:4, about his longing to have a moment of rest. Then, Hamilton and Washington agree that through this transition, they will “teach ‘em how to say goodbye.”

I wonder what those two founding fathers would say to pastors and church communities today about how to say goodbye well — how to leave so a church can move on, flourish, and outlive the previous leader.

When it comes to healthy transition, the How of transition matters just as much as the Who. Churches must not only decide on a new leader, but also pay attention to the vital aspects of preparation and closure.

Here are three important lessons I’ve learned in the succession planning process.

Lesson #1: Letting go is much harder than we expect

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For pastors, spouses, long-time staff and church members, the letting-go process is exceedingly difficult. Pastors who begin to sense it’s time to plan for succession can often feel anxious and concerned about their legacy. For years (if not decades), they’ve defined themselves in a role of faithfully serving their church, preparing sermons, and leading the staff. Many simply haven’t given themselves permission to imagine another season.

For this reason, I highly recommend churches bless a pastor and spouse with the gift of a Life Plan experience — a few days with a trained person who can help define what a future fit might be for the next era of ministry. It’s also hugely important for both the pastor and spouse to have a confidante — a coach or good friend who’s a safe place to continually process the mixture of emotions throughout transition. Too many pastors feel a profound sense of loneliness during a season when they most need support.

Lesson #2: Money matters

I’ve been surprised by how many churches don’t have a financial plan in place for the succession process and for the future stability of their departing pastor. For this reason, some pastors stay in their role longer than they should, fearing they can’t retire with adequate resources. 

Ideally, these issues will be explored and planned for long before it’s time for the church to actively engage in succession. The church board or elder team holds a high responsibility to care for their leaders, to plan for their welfare in retirement, and to have funds set aside for the season of search and transition.

Lesson #3: Celebrate the closure

We can’t fully embrace the future unless we’ve honored the past. The pastor, spouse, staff and congregation all need opportunities to express their appreciation for the departing pastor, to share treasured memories, and to give appropriate honor and gratitude.

I imagine George Washington encouraging church leaders with this message: “Say goodbye with intentionality, grace and emotional health. You are not the first to transition, and you will not be the last. Leave your church stronger for you having been there, and look ahead to your next season with great anticipation. Teach ‘em how to say goodbye!

For more than 20 years, Nancy Beach served as the Programming Director and a Teaching Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago. Currently, she serves as a leadership coach with Slingshot Group and is a member of the teaching team at Chicago’s Soul City Church.


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