Unfortunately, leadership succession is usually one of the sloppiest things that ever happens in a local church! Most of the time there is no real plan. If there is a plan, usually it is not well thought out and a person is prematurely installed as a senior leader and falls on their face.
The following are principles to follow regarding transitioning people properly into senior leadership positions:
First, we need to make sure a person has been functioning in a senior leadership capacity before hands are laid upon them and they ever receive the title. Pastors make a huge mistake when they commission someone untested and unproven to take their place as senior leader. Many churches actually choose a person to be the senior pastor based on hearing them preach on a Sunday! (I wish the only thing a senior pastor had to do was preach good sermons! Preaching is the easiest thing I do as a pastor!) Never give a person a title before a function; titles don’t make the minister, they merely affirm what the minister has already been walking in.
Second, any potential senior leader should be a spiritual son with the same DNA of the senior leader, so that the vision can be perpetuated. I have seen disastrous situations where churches of multiple thousands were reduced to only several hundred in just a few short years because they put in the wrong person (with a different vision) to replace the senior pastor! The most capable person to take the place of a senior pastor is a spiritual son who already has the vision and the DNA of the church imprinted in their soul, so they can organically lead the church according to the divine pattern God gave them.
Third, the candidate for senior leadership should have already gained the respect and affirmation of the congregation. It doesn’t really matter what the candidate thinks of themselves and ultimately it doesn’t even matter what the senior pastor thinks of them. The greatest test to determine the legitimacy of a successor is to see how the congregation receives them. If the congregation can’t receive or respect a candidate then they are probably not the person God has called to lead that particular flock.
Fourth, the candidate needs to have the capacity for problem solving executive-level issues. God surrounds power with problems so that only problem solvers will be trusted with power. Executive-level leadership also means executive-level challenges and problems! Good preaching isn’t enough to be an executive leader. The ability to walk in wisdom and solve problems is one of the top qualifiers for those being considered as successors for senior pastors.
Fifth, the candidate needs to have a strong marriage and spouse who understands the sacrificial nature of the call to lead. A church is not only retaining a senior pastor but also the spouse and children of the candidate. If the spouse is not supportive, or committed to God, then the candidate should be held back until the spouse is in full agreement or in a good place with God. Nothing will derail a senior pastor quicker than having a spouse who doesn’t want them to make sacrifices for the sake of the people and the ministry.
Sixth, the candidate needs to have a test run of being fully in charge for a season so that they can be truly assessed. After all is said and done, the only real way to know the capabilities of a candidate for senior pastor is to let them fully lead for 2-3 months to see how they do. Of course this should be one of the last things done before moving them into a senior-level role; much mentoring and preparation should have already taken place before putting them under that kind of pressure. If they can handle serving in a senior leadership role for three months, then allow them to do it for six months and again evaluate before handing the senior role of the church over to them.
Seventh, the candidate needs to have the gifting to take the congregation to the next level. A candidate should not just have administrative capacity but the leadership capacity to take the congregation to the next level. It is not enough that the church is maintained; it is always God’s will that the successor increases the productivity and fruit of the church so that the church does much greater in the second and third generation than in its first generation. This is in line with what Jesus taught us in John 14:12 and in other passages where the children enlarged the territory of the Kingdom after their fathers handed it over to them. (For example, David did better than Saul, Solomon had more success than David, etc.)
Eighth, the candidate needs to be rooted and grounded in the word and spiritual disciplines. The worst thing that can happen is to put a person in as the spiritual leader just because they are gifted. It is not enough to have great administrative capacity and preaching gifts. The number one requirement is to have a vast knowledge of the word and ways of God so they can hear the voice of God. Leaders who do not daily practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible meditation and worship are not worth a dime.
Ninth, the candidate can’t have major financial issues related to debt. Candidates who are in a lot of financial debt are dangerous because they will be tempted to compromise the word of God or do things that are unethical in order to bring in more money for income. If a person can’t manage their home properly then how can they manage the house of God (1 Timothy 3:5)?
Finally, the candidate needs to be able to manage the complexities of organizational challenges. In this day and age it is getting harder and harder to lead a growing church. Now a senior leader has to be well-versed in the basics of non-profit rules and regulations, real estate, and business management, as well as having a high emotional intelligence to be able to relate well to people, manage a staff, hold leaders accountable, continually develop and nurture new leaders, place people in ministry according to their natural and spiritual giftings, and be able to extract out of the church’s DNA a compelling purpose that they can communicate and motivate people to give their lives for the cause of Christ. Sounds daunting doesn’t it? Well yes it is! That is why we need to continually pray for our senior pastors and be very careful when selecting and processing potential senior pastors.
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