The Bible doesn’t have a whole lot to say about leadership succession. The apostle Paul describes the selection and appointment of pastors, but the New Testament is curiously quiet about when pastors are succeeded.
In the Old Testament, Israeli kings would come and go by appointing their sons, or by a coup d’état, or death or military defeat. In the work of the tabernacle, the Levites did ministry from age twenty-five to fifty, at which time they were to retire from the work (though they could still assist). On the other hand, David ruled for forty years, which begs the question: what leadership context is tougher—government or church? Hmmm.
Like any leader, you want to be spending time thinking about the future of the organization you help lead. In one of my favorite leadership books, The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner write:
The domain of leaders is the future. The leader’s unique legacy is the creation of valued institutions that survive over time. . . . In fact, it’s this quality of focusing on the future that most differentiates people who are seen as leaders from those who are not . . . It’s something to which every leader needs to give more time and attention.”
In 2001 I was in Los Angeles for a conference and decided to visit the Crystal Cathedral, home of the largest glass building in the world. In the mid-1980’s at the height of their television ministry, I—like millions of other people—had seen the “Hour of Power” show.
As the service started, I was stunned by a few things: the sanctuary was less that half-filled with a sea of whitecaps: people in their senior years. I remember turning to my wife and saying, “This church isn’t going to survive the next few years.” You didn’t have to be prophetic to see that.
At one point in my pastoring Vineyard Cincinnati, I got concerned about the “graying” of the church. Our demographic stats were decent in terms of age brackets; you could even call us an intergenerational church. But it was clear that our largest demographic skewed older. And by the way, if you don’t periodically survey your church, you’re missing a golden opportunity to uncover the truth about who you really are; we typically did an all-church survey every two years. I’ll take facts over anecdotes any day of the week. (If you want a copy of the questions we used, let us know.). And it was easy to imagine what we would have been twenty-five years ago, when the average age of our leaders was mid-thirties.
And it wasn’t simply about dismissing aging Baby Boomers in our youth-obsessed culture. Everyone needs Jesus, no matter what age.
But we all know the reality: churches that don’t reach successive generations will eventually die. And because God didn’t put a time limit on our mission or call us to one generation of fruitfulness, we had to think hard about the future. I wanted to see Vineyard Cincinnati continue to advance the mission God has given us way beyond a single generation.
For years, of course, we had an emergency succession plan in place in case I got hit by a bus—and “key man” insurance in behalf of the Vineyard. But we had no real plan if the bus missed me. And so we began to think about how to identify the next senior pastor of the Vineyard. And frankly, for complex organizations, the how may be just as important as the who in terms of systemic health. The next year-and-a-half was spent developing that plan.
The Quaker author, Hannah Whitall Smith, writing in the late 1800’s, penned a fascinating essay late in life:
People talk a great deal about the duties the young owe to the old, but I think it is far more important to consider the duties the old owe to the young. I do not of course say that the young owe us old people no duties, but at the age of seventy I have learned to see that the weight of preponderance is enormously on the other side, and that each generation owes to the succeeding one far more duty than the succeeding one owes to them. We brought the younger generation into the world, without consulting them, and we are bound therefore to sacrifice ourselves for their good. This is what the God who created us has done in the sacrifice of Christ, and I do not see that He could have done less. He has poured Himself out without stint for His children, and we must do the same for ours.”
Is your church, ministry or the organization you lead a one-generation effort?