Coaching for Succession Planning 
A change in Senior Pastor leadership is never easy. Whether the change is sudden or a planned retirement, knowing the stages of succession and how to manage each well lessens the sting and sets the church up for a healthy transition.

Written By Gary Reinecke

ICF Master Certified Coach, Resource Designer, Mission Strategist : InFocus
Have you ever heard an athlete or an actor publicly declare that they are retiring –  only to change their mind? “Just kidding!” Suddenly they are back in their field, as if nothing ever happened. This happens quite often, and this fickle attitude is confusing and frustrating for the fans, even though it doesn’t affect them personally. However, a sudden change of career plans is not a practice isolated to the athletic or entertainment industries; it also happens frequently in ministry…and the results have a great impact on the congregation. 

You may have worked with a church whose beloved pastor gave an inclination that a change is in the near future or a date is set for retirement, and then they change their mind. There can be panic, confusion, joy, etc. from the church body! I hate when a leader announces their plan prematurely because it can wreak havoc for the leadership, the church body, and ultimately the pastor and his/her family. “Why?” – you might ask; “Isn’t honesty the best policy!” 

Healthy Succession is Possible

healthy succession is possible

I grew-up in a church that did succession planning really, really well! (Read Skyline Wesleyan’s Story here.) Each pastor served for a season – a particular stage in the life-cycle of the church for which they were uniquely suited. Not surprisingly, Skyline continues to thrive today. During my time there I experienced one transition from the founding pastor to that pastor’s successor. What I remember most was how the successor honored the previous pastor’s leadership. Every year on the church’s anniversary was a highlight for me. 

Periodically I still visit Skyline (my dad served on the board for the first three of the four pastorates during its 80-year history). Each pastor was brought up one-by-one to the stage and honored by the congregation as they greeted each other with a big smile and embrace, stood side-by-side as they applauded their successor and worshiped God for His faithfulness. When a pastor realized it was time to move to a new mission, it was always handled with great care and never announced before the pastor was certain it was the right move, and they were ready to take the leap. 

The 3 Stages of Succession

Unfortunately, this is not always how pastoral transitions occur. A plan to leave a church can easily be derailed or second-guessed, leading to much confusion. Each stage of succession is important. Here are some ways for you to coach a pastor that is  contemplating moving on:

Stage 1: Pre-Transition

The first stage of a transition is really about making the decision. Do they really want to (or feel led to) leave, or is it a pattern of dissatisfaction every few years, only for the feeling to dissipate after a while? Look for emotional reactions. Some clients will want to inform their board that they are thinking of moving on but it might be far too early or before they are set in their decision. Likewise, make sure their desire to leave isn’t just a temporary urge. Some clients are reacting to a season of frustration, anger or destitution (the frustration of Covid, for example, had many pastors wondering if it was their time to move on).

A good indicator of whether the pastor is seriously considering moving on if they have told, or are thinking of telling, their family and the church board. As soon as they make their declaration public, the transition has begun. 

  • Why do you feel that it may be time to move on?
  • How can you get clarity on this decision?
  • Who needs to be told  first? 
  • What groups should they refrain from speaking to until the wheels are in motion? 

Stage 2: Transition 

The board, the staff, and the decision makers have been informed. As soon as this happens, minds are moving in the direction of, “Now what?” They are now focused on the future. This is a good time to bring in a successor. An overlap of three to nine months can be a helpful transition phase to ease the successor into their position before the pastor leaves. Most importantly, it’s essential to understand that there is an exit plan for both the pastor and the church. 

  • How long have you been sitting on this? 
  • Who have you shared this with and what was their reaction? 
  • Have you shared it with your spouse? What was their reaction? 
  • What is the motivation to want a change? 
  • When will be a realistic time for you to step away?
  • What steps need to be taken to prepare the church for a new Senior Pastor?
  • What can you do now to make the transition easier on the church and the incoming pastor?

Stage 3: Post-Transition

As a coach, you want to make sure that your client is ready for what happens after they leave their occupation. There are a few things to consider with your client: 1) Can they provide for their family immediately? 2) Are they going to find a place where they can maximize their gifts? A move this serious should be a lateral move, if not a move closer to their mission/passion. Your client might also need support through a transition to a new job or phase of life. Sometimes a change is expected to yield immediate results, and when it doesn’t there is a knee-jerk reaction to return to a comfortable status-quo. However, all changes require adjustments and time. 

  • What are your financial needs and goals?
  • What do you sense God is calling to do in this next season?
  • How will your relationship with the church and friends who will continue attending need to change?

Principles to Guide the Succession Conversation

Succession is a process, not an event. Decisions of this magnitude have ramifications for a lot of people, and it will have a myriad of responses. Avoid asserting your agenda: This goes for your client and their next steps. As a coach, you are there to guide and advise, but you are not there to dictate their next move. 

Be prepared for the blow back and surprises that come out of this. For example, some people might even be happy the pastor is leaving, which your client might not have expected. When preparing, consider all the possibilities and how to prepare for them. 

Questions for Your Reflection as the Coach

  • How does this fit with what you believe God is doing in your client’s life and ministry? 
  • What has contributed to this decision? 
  • In your mind, is this a wise move?
  • What does God want to do through you? 

Photo by Eber Devine on Unsplash

Cover Photo by Ivan Samkov

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