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7 Essential Principles I Learnt in Succession Planning

Succession Planning

In 2009 Dianne and I began our succession planning.

After decades of pastoring in our church, C3 Church Hepburn Heights, we were keen to move into the next phase of our lives.

Di and I were both hungry to transition our church, our incoming pastors, and ourselves successfully into the next era.

We studied succession planning examples, asked questions, and ultimately developed a succession plan template.

The lessons we learned during our three-year succession journey have proved invaluable to many churches and pastors.

1. Engage a consultant

Despite our extensive, well-documented, and ultimately successful process I was left with one major regret.

I did not engage a consultant.

There were some difficult and testing moments in our succession journey, which are normal and to be expected.

If we had a consultant to guide us through these choppy waters, some of these moments could have been resolved more easily and quickly.

I think a consultant experienced in succession would have helped us avoid some of those moments entirely.

Succession planing without a consultant is like climbing Everest without a sherpa.

succession planning

2. Strength and regularity of feelings will surprise

One person we did engage in our journey was Keith Farmer who is a mentor and confidante to dozens of ministers in Australia.

We engaged Keith to mentor Dianne and me and Jase and Em through our journey.

Keith was not there to assist us with strategic decisions or leadership issues. His role was to help us navigate the journey successfully in our personal and family worlds.

One word of wisdom from Keith turned out to be very accurate.

The idea of not being in the middle of the action is different from the feeling of not being in the middle of the action.

During the last year of our transition, I often handed the reins to Jase. This deliberately removed me from the middle of the action.

And it didn’t feel good.

I felt relatively powerless at times and struggled with those emotions.

I discovered it’s important to not react to those feelings. Recognize them as part of the process of handing over power and authority.

I realized my emotions were quite understandable when I came up with this analogy.

Leading a succession journey is like being the wedding planner, father of the bride, minister and reception compère all at the same time

Now that is a mix of emotions.

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3. Succession planning is excellent shepherding

One of the most poignant and memorable nights of my pastoral life was the night we announced our succession journey to our leaders.

We’ve always been deeply appreciative of the staff and volunteers who have stood with us to sacrificially build the church.

Therefore, this night was always going to be special and significant.

As I looked over the gathering of these wonderful servants of Christ, I had the startling realization that a great succession is excellent shepherding.

When you transition your church into the care of a new pastor, you are shepherding your flock into a place of security and provision.

Succession is a highly spiritual endeavor with eternal ramifications so it must be handled with a shepherd’s heart of kindness, love, and care.

Succession planning

4. Grief is normal

Succession involves loss and regret, and their inevitable companions are grief and mourning.

You may mourn over missed opportunities that will never come again or unfulfilled dreams.

You may regret the passing of the status and perks that accompany senior leadership. Or it may be the joys of ministry that you will miss.

It is important to remember the rolling grief that comes and goes is normal, but unrelenting grief is unhealthy.

Your loss of senior leadership can cause you to get stuck in inconsolable grief. You will need to seek some help to move through it.

It’s also helpful to know that you may journey through grief at a different rate and time from your spouse. I moved through most of my grief before our handover, whereas Di moved through more of hers after our handover.

“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” – Vicki Harrison

5. Face your fears

Various fears will assail you in a succession journey.

What if my new future doesn’t work out like I planned?

If my successor fails, then what?

How will I feel if he succeeds and his endeavors outshine mine?

Your mind will be filled with ‘what ifs’ and ‘what abouts.’

These fears can become irrational and need to be faced.

I found processing these fears in two places was very helpful.

First, I’d take them to the Lord as I would normally do with anything causing me anxiety. He is a god who cares about our concerns and carries them for us when we hand them over to Him.

Secondly, I’d talk about my fears with friends and mentors. Fear grows in dark places. Light dispels the darkness and allows faith to rise.

You need to consider the multiple fears you will face in this process.

 succession planning

6. Simultaneous sunset and sunrise

A succession journey is a simultaneous sunset and sunrise. It is a time of long shadows and magnificent light.

The long shadows of grief and emotional turmoil can make the ground of succession appear quite dark and murky at times.

However, photographers call the hours before sunset and after sunrise the golden hour because of the glorious golden light which is superb for photography.

Thus, it is a mixed time of learning, joy, mourning, and loss. No wonder it is arduous.

You will experience the sun setting of various activities which you have enjoyed.

I often stopped and contemplated the thought, ‘this will be the last time I do this as the pastor of our church.’

This contemplative process helped me and it moved me at various times.

I also saw the sun rising on brand-new opportunities and new horizons of faith and adventure.

Establishing our new ministry, Grow a Healthy Church, opened doors I would never have experienced otherwise.

7. Reflect on your successes

Successful transitions require a range of skills. One of the underestimated skills is the ability to intentionally reflect.

Intentional reflection slows you down and aligns you with your core values and mission.

Intentional reflection during a succession journey enables you to process the joys and pains.    

As you write down these various events you pause, reflect, and pray as you see the hand of the Lord in your ministry journey.

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A final word

Successful successions future-proof a church.

Successions require skillful leadership. They also demand complex and substantial interaction between the incoming and outgoing pastors and all the church’s key stakeholders.

Unfortunately, some churches balk at this complexity and adopt a laissez-faire approach to succession planning. They naively believe everything will just work out fine in the end. Others dread the moment, choosing to ignore its inevitability. Neither approach works well. Churches stall, incoming pastors don’t last and departing pastors suffer a tainted legacy.

Conversely, the churches that handle succession well are those that plan early and comprehensively.

They are led by forward-thinking pastors, who upon analyzing their future strategic needs, make preparations for the inescapable challenge of succession.

Healthy churches develop a detailed, yet flexible plan that serves them well as they implement that plan through the four phases of succession.

Healthy leaders engage with their key people and select a successor after a thorough scrutiny of internal and external candidates.

Ultimately, healthy churches future-proof their church by launching their outgoing pastor into an energetic future. They seamlessly embed the incoming pastor into their new role. Thus causing their church to flourish as it moves through the often-turbulent waters of succession into a new day.

John is a wellspring of information, experience and advice in all things church. His responses were often out of the box of what's been said before.
Ps Christie Blaikie
Oasis Church

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