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Five Reasons You Need a Succession Vision BEFORE You Need a Succession Plan

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by Bryan Rose

According to a 2021 Barna group study, almost 40% of pastors considered quitting over the last year amidst one of the most challenging seasons of leadership. This statistic appears to be in addition to those pastors already approaching, or past, retirement age. A generation of leaders has been attempting to hand off the leadership baton for years. Whether or not the so-called “Great Resignation” occurs, many churches will experience a transition within their senior leadership over the next 3-5 years. As this wave of change washes up on the ever-shifting cultural sands of mainline US churches, realizing success in succession will be more about a strong vision of the future than a solid plan for a transition.

Here are five reasons your church will need a succession vision before you need a succession plan:

1. Most succession planning only extends far enough into the future to see a new pastor in place and settled. Every new leader requires a relational runway of at least 18 months without the added burden of church-wide visionary leadership. What takes place in the hearts and minds of people as their new pastor gets to know their new congregation and their new community will have more impact than any strategic plan can produce. If you’re hiring a young pastor with a young family, the greatest welcome gift your church could give them might be the bandwidth to shepherd their family through this transition as a couple. An established succession vision prevents the church from relegating one spouse to managing the household alone while the other manages already higher than average expectations at the church. An established vision creates relational headroom in seasons of succession.

2. Most succession planning overlooks individual church distinctions. Succession in the local church is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, even if the models are structured differently. Whether you are moving forward with a plan for overlapping leadership, back-to-back leadership, or a planned season of interim, knowing which models to pursue is more of a WHY question than a WHAT question. Most succession planning process models and consulting practices focus the bulk of their energy and resources on answering the WHAT question. After all, that’s what it appears you need in the moment. But the more significant question only answered at the vision level is “WHY would one of these models be a better fit given the larger picture of our church’s identity and direction?” Most, if not all, succession plans do not go as scripted, and you are only as adaptable as you are clear on your vision. Without a vision driving your decisions, it’s easy for leadership to jump from model to model or make an unnecessarily fast decision because the plan said so. An established vision ensures that God’s calling for your church’s future fuels succession planning not just book chapters and best practices.

3. Most succession planning defers future vision to a yet unknown personality. However, the confident and capable new leader you are searching for desires to step into a church that possesses a confident and capable vision. In most churches, the common tendency is to put off most planning and vision “until the new pastor gets here.” Yet the leadership principle of momentum reminds us that it’s always easier to steer a moving vehicle than a stationary one. Even if the vision or mission is not exactly how or what they would plan, confident, God-dependent leaders recognize the benefits of leading an already-established vision for a season. Beware the leader with a pre-determined vision for your church. They’re likely simply running a set of plays that worked the church they just left. Context is critical for successful visionary leadership, and every church, even if it sits just across the street, is a new context. An established vision attracts a new pastor who is confident enough not to need to be the hero and humble enough not to need immediate recognition.

4. Most succession planning works until it doesn’t. A search process may take longer than you plan, and an interim season may require more than one transitional pastor. Remaining consistent and growing in extended interims requires a visionary plan with established horizons of future accomplishment. These plans become directed by interim leadership but are not dependent on them. Lay leadership may take on sufficient but not stifling responsibility for the church, even if the transition does not go as scripted. By dreaming and planning farther in the future, the church stands ready to do more than simply survive until the next pastor arrives. An established vision creates the opportunity for the church and staff to thrive until the next pastor arrives.

5. Most succession planning attempts to attract the new pastor with carefully scripted meetings and dinners, while touting a full ministry calendar. However, a congregation pursuing a high-caliber vision attracts a high-caliber leader. Our kids might call it “game recognizing game.” The leader poised for impact over the next decade of ministry recognizes that even churched people are becoming less motivated by programming designed to keep people busy and entertained. Church activity no longer reaches unchurched families and hasn’t since the late 1990s. A church focused more on disciple-making maturity than just filling the weekly calendar full of events and ministry will attract a disciple-developing leader. An established vision creates an engaging picture of impact both inside and outside the church walls.

Auxano serves many churches and pastors to develop a visionary plan both before and inside seasons of succession. Alongside a team of staff and lay leaders, we establish the trellis on which your succession plan can take root, grow strong, and bloom into a new season of pastoral leadership.

If you’re a pastor looking ahead to the next 3-5 years of retirement planning, or a lay leader looking around for help in a season of succession, we’re here to help.

Schedule a free 30-minute coaching call and talk directly with one of our experienced vision consultants today.