Transitioning from one church leader to the next


There are so many churches in America that have a long, proud history. Some houses of worship have been attended by generations of the same family, as much a part of a community’s history as the ancestors of the people living in it.

Like all members of a community, churches grow and evolve, with members and leadership inevitably transitioning as circumstances change. Changes in church leadership can be necessary for myriad reasons, but this necessary transformation is not always easy to accomplish. Every church’s situation is unique, and that requires taking a unique approach moving forward.

Todd Clark
Vice President of Senior Leadership
Slingshot Group

So, what do you do when your church is in the middle of this big change? How do you move smoothly from a much-loved tenured senior pastor to a new, possibly unknown one? To find out, Church Executive recently partnered with Todd Clark, vice president of senior leadership at Slingshot Group, to host a free, 60-minute webinar titled: “Strategies for a Successful Succession.” Slingshot Group partners with churches and nonprofits to build remarkable teams through staffing and coaching.

In the webinar, Clark examines and discusses important aspects of leadership transition in the church, including:

  • Three process pathways that are being used around the nation to bring about successful transition seasons
  • How to create a comprehensive communication timeline for succession / transition that builds unity and trust in your staff, congregation and community
  • Where the pitfalls are located that trip up leaders in succession / transition seasons

Clark starts off the presentation by discussing a common association people have with the idea of succession: they see it as a relay race. Many people relate planning a succession to the process of passing a baton from one person to another in a relay race. While this isn’t entirely wrong, Clark explains, it fails to capture the entire picture in the case of church succession planning. The reason for this, is because in a relay race, the only people involved in the transition of the baton are the two racers. In a church, it gets much more complicated.

It’s obvious you have to take the transitioning senior pastors into consideration at a church. But they’re not the only ones involved. Succession planning affects everyone, from the congregation, to the church staff, to the board members, to the church’s larger community. So, how do you successfully plan a transition in church leadership with so many factors?

The answer, Clark says, is what Slingshot Group calls “ecosystem management.” This means taking the unique environment and situation of your church into account and using that as the driving criteria in your plan for establishing a new lead pastor.

“At Slingshot Group, we like to use the imagery of forestry because we believe that the ecosystem of your church is unique and complex with all kinds of things going on, just like in a forest,” Clark says.

He likens the process of bringing a new senior pastor into a church to that of planting a tree in a forest or garden. You can’t just bring in any kind of tree you want — it has to be compatible with the soil and the wildlife around it. The existing environment has to be a place where it can flourish and thrive — otherwise, the planted sapling will simply die, and it will be a waste of what could have been a perfectly good tree in the right circumstances.

“In the church world, we do that all the time. We see leaders that are great, we fall in love with them, and we say, ‘They’re so fantastic, we’re just going to take them and plant them in the soil of our church.’ We do this with grand dreams and good intentions, but a lot of times without actually considering if that person is going to really thrive in the soil of our church,” Clark says. “A lot of times, you end up with people who would be great leaders — for someone else’s church.”

Continuing with the forest metaphor, this means that a successful succession strategy involves first understanding the “condition of your soil,” or the circumstances and situations that make up the ecosystem of your church. By taking this step, you will know what kind of leader will thrive and be successful in your church for years to come.

To initiate this process, Slingshot Group has a 50-page workbook for churches heading into the transition season. It contains information sourced from a decade of research by organizations like Barna and Auxano Group. Clark says his team usually spends hours going over the workbook with partnered churches, but in this 60-minute webinar, he goes through some of the key aspects contained in the workbook to help you get started on understanding your church’s ecosystem.

Specifically, there are five important conversations of
succession planning:

  1. Protecting organizational continuity
  2. Emergency transition management
  3. Proactive exit planning
  4. New leader hiring
  5. Leadership pipeline development

Questions? Readers ask, and expert answers.

You’ve discussed a handful of process pathways, but which one is the most popular pathway for succession transition, and why?

Clark: That’s a great question. You know, it’s so hard to say which one is the most popular, or which one is the best, because there’s not really a best pathway for all churches across the board. There’s a best pathway for your church, but there’s not necessarily a best pathway overall.

I’ll tell you that the churches that I’ve worked with over the last four years — hundreds of churches in these conversations — the top two pathways would be the “stop-and-go” and the “overlap.” I think the “stop-and-go” is sometimes the default pathway for a lot of churches. Part of the reason is because a lot of the boards, elders and deacons at these churches come from the marketplace, and the “stop-and-go” is one of the most predominant pathways in the marketplace in the business world. One CEO stops, and the next CEO or VP comes in. There’s a “stop-and-go” in the marketplace and executive world, so a lot of times church leaders bring their experience from the business world, and they just begin to apply that in the church world with the “stop-and-go.”

With that being said, I don’t think any one of these three pathways is better or worse. It’s just a matter of determining which one is better for your ecosystem.

What does a church do if it has an internal candidate for a succession?

Clark: So, there’s an internal candidate — meaning that there’s somebody already on the team who maybe could be the next senior pastor. About 40% to 50% of the churches that we work with have internal candidates, so it’s not uncommon, but I’ll tell you this: When you have an internal candidate, it can be very tender. If they throw their hat in the ring to be the next senior leader and don’t get the job, there’s going to be all kinds of people in the congregation who already love them and who have a voice. It can be very divisive and very emotional for people in the congregation. They’ll ask things like, “Why didn’t we hire that person? They’re great.” It takes a lot of explanation, thought, and communication to the congregation.

It also takes that internal candidate just guarding the bride. It’s all about protecting the bride of Christ, which is the church. There might be people who want to champion them for this senior role, but they have to realize that they might or might not be the best fit for this senior role.

That’s a very deep question, but it’s a question that churches wrestle with often.

In the case of an unexpected transition, what are a couple of hit-list items that often are overlooked that could increase relational equity with the church leadership?

Clark: First of all, there probably does need to be time to heal. If there’s an emergency transition, it’s usually an abrupt cause. It can be because somebody stepped away and went to another ministry within just a few weeks or months and they announced that very quickly. Or, it can be that they got sick and they’re unable to perform their ministry, or they have to be in a hospital. Or, it can be that they passed away.

When there’s an emergency transition season like that, having an interim come in for a few months — having some other senior leaders that are already on your team step into that interim role — is really important. Giving the congregation time to heal a little bit and process is really important.

Another thing that’s good during this season is if one or a few of the board members begin to be more visible and provide regular updates. A lot of times, when you have a long-tenured senior leader, the board frankly doesn’t have to be as visible on the weekend and on leadership. Now that that senior leader is gone and not visible on the weekend, there’s presumably going to be multiple people who are communicating on the weekend to cover that space. But having a few of your board members up there on a regular basis to provide continuity and to just be that regular, stable, trusted voice to the congregation can be a very, very powerful thing.

What’s something you’ve personally learned in the three succession seasons you’ve seen and experienced in your life?

Clark: Oh my goodness. There are so many lessons.

I think one of the big things I’ve learned is when you’re that transitioning leader — the person who’s going to come in and “stop-and-go” (or “overlap”) with somebody who has been there for years — you have to find something about that leader to adapt for yourself.

Here’s the big question for you to think about: How much of that current senior leader can I adopt without betraying myself and who I am? Because you’re going to need to adopt some of that current senior leader’s methods and style to continue to provide a bridge and dexterity for the congregation into the future. But, you can’t be just like them or you’ll no longer be true to yourself, and there will be no growth.

So, how much of them should you adopt without betraying yourself? I think that’s the big lesson.

Once you’ve had these conversations — the contents of which are detailed by Clark in the webinar — then the workbook moves on to deal with organizational stability. Essentially, now that you have all the information you need, you can use that information to develop a plan that best suits your church.

The tool Clark’s team uses involves a list of 15 questions that include common factors that tend to be pitfalls in many churches’ leadership transition seasons. The goal, Clark says, is to get all 15 questions answered with a firm “yes” or “no,” and remove any obscurity causing church staff to answer, “I don’t know.”

“What we really want to do when we go through these questions is make sure we remove the question marks from our organization in a season of transition,” Clark says. “Seasons of transition don’t necessarily create challenges and problems; they just expose challenges and problems in our ecosystem.”

Once the 15 questions, which go over things like governance, facilities, finances, staffing, etc. are dealt with, then a church has to decide on the pathway it wants to use to navigate this transition season. No two churches are exactly the same, but there are three common pathways that churches can use: the “stop and go” model, the “intentional interim” model, and the “overlap” model.

The “stop-and-go” and “overlap” models relate back to the idea of succession in a relay race. In a “stop-and-go” situation, the first relay racer would stop where the next racer is to hand them the baton. One stops, and the other immediately starts. In an “overlap” model, imagine the first racer doesn’t stop running right away, but rather briefly continues running beside the second racer as they start to run, while simultaneously take the baton. For a short time, both racers are running and holding onto the baton at the same time.

These scenarios translate to church leadership as well. You can go from one pastor to the next; one pastor to an interim pastor, then to the next; or bring the new pastor in before the leaving pastor’s time at the church is done, and have their leadership overlap for a time.

“All of these options are process-neutral. One is not necessarily better than another, so there’s not necessarily a right or wrong pathway for your church. But there is a best pathway for you and your church organization,” Clark says.

He notes in the webinar that the “intentional interim” is the most-often used pathway for churches that have things in their ecosystems that need to be addressed before the new leader arrives. However, each pathway has its pros and cons, and each church has to decide which model best suits its situation.

These are just a few of the strategies and tools Clark discussed for how a church can approach organizing and executing a successful transition in leadership.

To learn more, view the webinar on the Church Executive website at www.churchexecutive.com/webinars.

— Reporting by Skylar Griego

View the webinar!

“Strategies for a Successful Succession”

Available now at www.churchexecutive.com/webinars

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