In September, news of Rob Bell surprised the world once again when he announced plans to leave his church in Grand Rapids and move to Los Angeles to pursue broader interests—one of those being the development of a script for an ABC television show loosely based on his life. He also plans to continue touring and speaking; he is working now on his “Fit to Smash Ice” tour.
Mars Hill released a public statement concerning Bell’s resignation and future plans: “Feeling the call from God to pursue a growing number of strategic opportunities, our founding pastor, Rob Bell, has decided to leave Mars Hill in order to devote his full energy to sharing the message of God’s love with a broader audience.”
This isn’t the first time in recent history a prominent figure decided to leave his or her church for one reason or another. Bell joins the ranks of Francis Chan, Jim Belcher and N.T. Wright—all influential churchmen-turned-authors who felt called by God to leave their parishes and pursue other paths.
Bloggers and commentators aplenty have opined on the wisdom of such decisions, but very few have considered the implications for another important participant: the Bride herself. In church, as in life, the only constant is change. Yet, many churches fail to prepare for the inevitable transition of their leaders due to death or retirement or the call to plant a new church or the pursuit of “broader interests.”
As Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk once said: “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever. The goal is to create something that will.” Should churches and pastors make plans for the next phase of congregational life? If so, what’s the best way to create something that will live well beyond the tenure of even the most beloved leader?
Tomorrow won’t take care of itself
Bruce Miller, co-founder of Centers of Church Based Training and author of Your Church in Rhythm and The Leadership Baton: An Intentional Strategy for Developing Leaders in Your Church, doesn’t discourage pastors from relying on God’s providence, but he says overemphasizing it is one of the biggest mistakes a pastor can make in terms of preparing for the future.
“It’s just not that simple to think of this in terms of providence. It’s a piece of the truth, not the whole truth,” Miller says. “Nobody shows up without preparing to preach sermons and just says, ‘God will sort it all out when the moment comes.’ They prepare. So pastors need to always be raising up young leaders.”
Warren Bird, the director of Research and Intellectual Capital at Leadership Network, agrees some churches suffer because their pastor relies too heavily on God’s providence. But, he says, the larger hurdle is often fear.
“Only a small minority believes succession isn’t important, that it is for God to deal with. A larger group don’t know how to begin a discussion without immediately positioning [themselves] as a lame duck,” Bird says. “They’re fearful that once you open that door, you don’t know where it’s going to go. It’s safer to wait until you have to.”
But thinking about succession shouldn’t be viewed as giving up or the pastor’s first step out the door, and it certainly isn’t always about retirement—many pastors leave to plant a new church, to move to another city or because of a call to vocation outside the church. Preparing a successor—and preparing the church for that successor—is merely a wise decision in the face of an inevitable reality. Whatever the reasons a pastor avoids thinking about tomorrow, Bird says, the ripples from that decision can cripple the congregation.
"Poorly handled successions go through a series of ‘sacrifice pastors’ during which attendance and momentum tend to slow down,” Bird says. “Can these be recovered? Certainly. But why invite the church to lose the momentum you’ve worked so hard to build and seen God’s hand so abundantly? Why throw water on your fire by avoiding the inevitability that you’re going to need a successor one day?”
Passing the baton
Miller says leadership is more like a baton than a trophy. You keep a trophy, but you hand off a baton. In a race, if you don’t hand off the baton, you lose the race. Pastors who fail to realize this may end up winning their leg of the race, but the churches they lead lose after they drop out. So pastors of every age need to be thinking this through.
“Every organization has a life span. There is birth, growth, maturity, decline and death,” Miller says. “The most dangerous time is at the top of the curve—when you’re mature, when you’re large, when everything is going great. That’s where you should pass the baton. You don’t want to pass the baton when you begin declining, because then it’s harder to find someone to take the baton.”
If Miller is correct, then succession is as important an issue for younger pastors as it is for older pastors. When a younger leader heads a growing church, thinking about transition may seem premature. But according to Miller, it is the most advantageous time to begin making these plans.
One way Miller’s church, McKinney Fellowship Bible Church in McKinney, Texas, is addressing succession is through their multi-site church panting model. As they plant new locations, they are raising up leaders to direct these new congregations. This provides a pool of leaders from which McKinney Fellowship could draw to lead the larger main campus one day.
In other church cultures, Bird says, succession is handled through what he calls “the family effect.” This mechanism often works best in non-white and charismatic churches as opposed to bodies with congregational polity.
“In this church culture, the pastor is like a king, anointing the next person,” Bird says. “Sometimes it is a son or a friend. Sometimes the wife, the widow, will lead the church. Regardless, there is a passing of the baton.”
He also points to a mentoring model, the highly celebrated approach taken by megachurches like Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky. With more than 20,000 members, SCC is one of the 10 largest congregations in America. Senior Pastor Bob Russell made headlines recently when he handed the church’s reins over to long-time associate pastor of preaching Dave Stone. Stone had been in a mentoring program with Russell for five years.
“This model brings in multiple associates knowing one will connect best with the congregation,” Bird says. “That person becomes the successor. Then, he begins looking for a successor 20 years his junior.”
Bird says churches need more than the name in an envelope required by the insurance company. Whatever model a congregation chooses, every church needs a genuine model for succession and every pastor—regardless of age—should bear the responsibility of ensuring a smooth transition whenever it does come.
This article is excerpted from one that appeared in Neue magazine.