Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Special Circumstances: the Assistant/Associate Pastor becomes the Senior, part four

In part one of this series, I addressed why a hand-off (where an existing Assistant or Associate Pastor becomes the new Senior Pastor) is valuable. In part two, I answered the question, "should the Assistant/Associate become the Senior?" In part three, we looked at some strategies for an effective transition of this sort.

In this (final) installment, I want to think about planning for succession.

The biggest, and most important, aspect of planning and preparing for effective pastoral succession is this single concept (let's say it together, class):

"Pastor, this congregation is bigger than you."

This is true whether the succession is in-house (where an existing Assistant or Associate Pastor steps into the Senior Pastor role or some other role) or external (where someone new to the staff and congregation is brought in as a part of succession). This is essential to get, and must never be forgotten in any part of the pastorate-- and particularly not in the process of planning for pastoral succession.

Many established, historic churches will already have a good sense of this. They, and in some cases their parents and grandparents before them, have worshiped and served in their congregation for long before the current pastor came to them, and they (and perhaps their children and grandchildren) will likely serve in that congregation after he leaves.

A congregation in my hometown in South Carolina is a great illustration of this. Their current pastor is one of the most well-known names in the Christian culture today, and certainly among "Reformed" churches and people. He is a wonderful pastor, and I am grateful that he is there. Yet, that congregation has more than 200 years of history prior to him arriving, and he would be foolish and egotistical (and he isn't, in either case) to think that the life of that congregation hinged on him.

In newer congregations, this can be less clear. A church that was planted by the man who now serves as pastor, the same man who recruited many of the leadership to dream of an established church, who led the brainstorming of the very vision that put that church in place-- that congregation may have more difficulty thinking in terms of the institution existing apart from the man.

But this is what they must do-- and any pastor who is worth his salt will begin early in his ministry to encourage that thinking in his congregants. The fact is, regardless of how young or old he is, no matter how effective his preaching or how beloved his pastoral manner, in spite of whether he speaks openly and confidently of his desires to remain with that congregation for the long-term, he will leave them one day. It may be because God has called him away, or because his health has finally prevented him from pastoral service, or because of his death. But one way or another, every pastor eventually leaves his current congregation.

So a pastor concerned about what happens after he leaves will go about teaching, counseling, and training his congregation to learn to say, "Pastor, this congregation is bigger than you." Hopefully, those who went before him did the same, and he is reaping the benefits of ministry in which those seeds have been sown. But he must continue this work.

What does that look like, practically? A few things come to mind:
  • He celebrates the history of the congregation, and acknowledges God's faithful work through those who have served in leadership (pastoral and other) throughout that history.
  • He talks openly and comfortably about previous pastors, not being threatened by their memory or what God accomplished through them.
  • He thinks in the long-term, asking questions (of himself and of the leadership) regarding how the decisions they make today will affect the saints who will be a part of that congregation in one, two, several generations from now.
  • He trains leadership for the long-term, incorporating both historic and future trajectories in the way that they disciple and train current and future leaders.
  • He casts a vision before them that has lasting and healthy implications, not one centered around himself or any one particular leader's strengths.
  • He constantly seeks to move to the periphery in leadership, placing the focus of all ministry on Christ and His redeeming work instead on of himself or any other leader.
A pastor who does these things is one the way to beginning an effective succession plan.

There are a number of other steps that a pastor, the leadership, and a congregation all might take to plan and prepare for effective succession. In most cases, these are not something that can be "templated" but must be chosen and adjusted given the context. So instead of trying to summarize these (and poorly, since I have limited experience in dealing with this question) I'll recommend a book: The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken About Pastoral Transitions by Carolyn Weese and J. Russell Crabtree. This book offers great insight into this process, and guides any congregation's leadership in working through the process effectively.

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