Discussions about best practices for calling a new pastor when the current minister retires or resigns generally focus on two aspects — pastoral tenure and church size. The larger the church and/or the longer the minister has served, particularly if he or she is the founder, the more difficult the transition may be.
A great deal of the information available, both in print and online, focuses on mega- or large churches.
In a Nov. 18, 2014, article for Christianity Today, Warren Bird, research director for Leadership Network, noted four plans for succession that his research shows are currently used.
The family plan, as the name implies, means someone in the current pastor’s family is chosen as successor. African Methodist Episcopal churches, other African-American congregations, some nondenominational groups and many single-founder churches sometimes follow this model.
Congregations affiliated with denominations that exercise more control over local church governance — often appointing pastors to local churches — usually follow what Bird labeled as the denominational plan.
He pointed out that denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist Church sometimes modify their policy while working with larger congregations. The denomination works with a larger church to identify leaders and a possible successor, and apparently, willingly works with leaders to develop an appropriate succession strategy.
In the process-only plan, the pastor works with church leaders to develop specific steps to take to replace the pastor in any eventuality — disability, unexpected death, retirement or a move to new ministry.
Bird’s fourth model is the intentional-overlap plan in which the church names a new senior pastor who works with the “former” pastor for several months or even a couple of years.
Those models seem to be used primarily by larger churches. Bird said the U.S. has 1,650 megachurches — having at least 2,000 attendees — and 3,000 churches with 1,000-1,999 worshippers.
But in “Next: Pastoral Succession That Works,” Bird and co-author William Vanderbloemen of the Vanderbloemen Search Group, a church executive search firm, contend that all ministers should consider themselves as interim pastors. The church belongs to the congregation, and pastors are temporary leaders, no matter how long they serve.
Because they are temporary, all pastors — regardless of church size — should lead their congregations to plan for succession. And that plan should be formed at the beginning of a pastor’s tenure, Vanderbloemen believes.
In a blog post (ronedmondson.com), Vanderbloemen told Ron Edmondson, a church organizational leadership consultant, church planter and pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., that congregations and pastors can work together so that succession becomes a win-win — church members and the minister and his family grow together.
But some Baptist leaders question whether processes that seem to work for larger churches can or should be adapted for smaller congregations.
These leaders believe most succession plans follow a business model, and they are uncomfortable with equating the pastorate to an executive boardroom or the minister to a chief executive officer. The model generally leaves the majority of church members out — a concept that’s especially difficult in denominations, like Baptists, that operate under the congregational form of governance.
Ron Carlson, missional church strategist for the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, said he is seeing a mixture of succession approaches — with some successors appointed by the pastor only and others through an administrative team.
“Realizing that the senior pastor (CEO) of the congregation is nearing retirement, this executive board often makes the decision concerning pastoral succession…. The congregation of these churches, other than having representatives on the executive board, has very little say in the selection of these mega-church successors,” Carlson said by email.
He added that culture heavily influences practices among ethnic American Baptist churches, particularly in African-American congregations.
“African-American Baptist pastors tend to groom several younger leaders from within their congregations, and when the time comes for the retirement of the senior pastor, the retiring pastor ‘passes the mantle’ to one of those whom he has groomed,” Carlson said.
Asian immigrants have looked to older clergy who came with them for direction in church governance. Many Chin and Karen refugees from Myanmar (Burma) are strong Baptists because of pioneer missionary Adoniram Judson and those who followed him.
Burmese Baptist leaders who were leaders in their country or in refugee camps appear to appoint pastors for some churches here, Carlson noted.
“For example, the Karen Baptist Fellowship as well as the Chin Baptist Fellowship are led by elder clergy from Burma who make the appointments and who determine ordination,” he said.
However, cultural changes are taking place, even in those ethnic groups. “Newer predominately African-American congregations tend toward a more congregational approach to calling pastors…,” Carlson explained.
He added that Burmese churches also are beginning to move away from “top-down administration.”
Verlyn Bergen, currently resources and relationships team leader for Churchnet, believes a church’s style of authority — congregational or leadership authority — may determine the succession plan.
“Most megachurches have a more leadership-authority pattern of decision making and that continues even through the succession process,” he said by email.
Center on people
However, Churchnet Executive Director Jim Hill is concerned about the relational price churches that follow a successor model might have to pay.
Though he admits that his experience with large churches is limited, he has seen tension in at least two congregations in Missouri that attempted it. One ended in termination of the senior pastor. In the other, the pastor stepped aside earlier in the process than he originally intended to avoid harming or disrupting the church.
Hill sees the necessity for megachurches to use a successor model. “It might be difficult for them to remain without a CEO,” he said.
The longtime minister advocates the intentional interim approach, particularly following a long-tenured senior pastor.
“I’m not universally opposed to a succession plan but believe all churches would benefit from having an interim period,” Hill said.
“It takes a pretty secure, healthy person to be senior pastor of a large church and then be able to hand that off.”
He added that sometimes in that kind of transition or handoff, “the [new] leader arrives before the people are ready.
“Having some time between pastors is healthy,” he said.
The intentional interim is trained to help guide the congregation to look at its history, to pray for God’s direction for the future and to grasp a vision for continued ministry.
“The congregation can benefit…from taking a fresh look at who they are,” he said.
With an intentional interim’s guidance, church members will have time to grieve the loss of the relationship with the former pastor and the time to make a gradual transition. Stepping into the church can be hard on the next pastor without that transition for members, Hill said.
“Members need to have time to build excitement toward [getting] a new leader,” he said.
The intentional interim helps remove anxiety and helps identify things members think need to happen, Hill explained. That person tries to help them identify any issues that need to be dealt with before a new leader arrives. Sometimes issues surface about which church members may not have even been aware.
“He helps them understand that God is still with them, even though their pastor is not,” Hill said.
“The people need time to deal with the loss of relationship…. The interim can bring a level of calm and confidence in the future…,” he added.
The ministry centers on “people and people need time. People need a chance to walk through the process.”
Hill said he believes a pastor should leave when he or she feels God’s leading to do so. The pastor and the church should celebrate the ministry together, and then the senior pastor should walk away to allow the congregation to grieve and to move forward.
Carlson, the ABC minister, believes “the church is in a major paradigm shift and that new mental models of what it means to be and to do ‘church’ in the 21st century are much needed.”
(Related story: Succession model works for West Texas church)