27 Jun 2019

How Great Pastors Plan for the Future

Bella Simonetti

There comes a time in every pastor’s life when he or she realizes that they will not always be leading their churches. For some, this realization is the desire to retire. For others, they may find the Lord is leading them in another direction, a different call to ministry, if you will. 

Perhaps you’re in this situation right now, or maybe it’s a ways off for you. Either way, the time for thinking about the future is now. 

The need for having a succession plan in place is critical for church leaders. It isn’t just for those looking to retire today, or in the next five years. This message is vital for those leading a ministry at any stage in life—even if you’re just now starting to plant a church. Failure to heed this message attributes to the increase we’re seeing of the succession crisis churches are facing today. 

When it comes to having a plan in place for your church, Matt Steen says, “You should have planned for your successor 10 years ago.”

In this blog, succession-expert Matt Steen from Chemistry Staffing breaks down why having a succession plan is so crucial for the future of your ministry, and how you can put the right strategy in place for the smoothest transition. 

Retirement crisis in the church

Matt Steen has extensive experience when it comes to churches. He is the co-founder of Chemistry Staffing, a company that helps churches find the right people for their staff. The heart of the company is to connect people with the right church, both culturally and according to their skills, so that staff and ministry overall are thriving.

But before he co-founded Chemistry Staffing, Steen served as a youth pastor for eight years. He has also been an executive pastor for two different churches and has been involved in many church plants. He’s seen a lot in ministry, especially when it comes to staff transitions.

“If the church I was part of wasn’t in the middle of a succession situation, they were running up against the situation unto the point of it getting awkward,” said Steen.

Not long ago, Steen and his team sent an email out to their partners and the churches they’re working with. “We asked two questions,” said Steen. “What do you wish you had known before going through your last hiring process, and what didn’t you learn [in seminary] about the job search in pastoring that you wish you did [know]?”

“An 80-year-old man replied to the email and said, ‘They didn't teach us anything about how to retire and when to retire,’” Steen continued. “This pastor is 80 years old, and he’s still paying off student loan debt! The pastor also said in his email, ‘I know it’s time for me to retire, but I still need to pay my bills and pay off this debt.’” 

Unfortunately, Steen and his team get a lot of calls about this topic.

“Some of the pastors who call us are the ones who started a church and have been there for 20-30 years,” he said. “Others are churches that might have been there for 5 or 10 years, but the pastors are getting to an age where they are looking to retire.”

The elephant in the room 

Succession is not usually a topic most pastors, their staff, or their board members want to talk about. Regardless of the size of a church, however, the lead pastor should always consider the fact that succession can happen at any time. 

“Are succession issues common in churches? Absolutely,” said Steen. “Do they like to admit it? Absolutely not. It’s really the elephant in the room because everyone’s thinking about it, but no one wants to bring it up. But it’s there.”

Steen recalled a specific church Chemistry Staffing was helping. The church had seen so much turnover in its staff because there was a lack of clarity about what the next season looked like for the church. This was all because the senior pastor was reaching an age that was appropriate for him to consider retirement. However, there were no conversations about what this transition would look like. Steen explained that staff in these situations often find themselves looking around at their church and feeling stumped. 

“They don’t know what the future looks like for them,” he said. “It’s in every church, in one way, shape, or form, and it’s just not being addressed.” 

Staff turnover is one of the prominent challenges churches with succession issues are facing. “People don’t like being in an environment where there is no clarity,” Steen said. “Things start to become stagnant. Every pastor gets to an age where they just don't have the energy to be running the church. This is where things start to stall out. People start to see it and will pick up on it, but they’re afraid to say it.”

Steen continued, “I had a seminary professor once say, ‘You know about three years before anyone else knows when it’s time to move on, or when it’s time to hire. And then your staff sees it and knows it. And then, about five years after you know, your congregation will see it.’”

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How do we face this issue?

In the best situations, discussing succession can be awkward. In the worst of circumstances, succession can tear churches apart. From Steen’s experience as both a pastor and in his position at Chemistry, Steen says the places where succession has the least amount of friction is with the pastors who are healthiest in ministry.  

“Early on they realize their identity is not wrapped up in being a “capital P pastor.” They know the answers to questions like, ‘Who am I?’ ‘Who am I as a pastor?’ ‘Who am I as a person?’ ‘Where’s my worth and value coming out of?’ It’s holding [your role as the pastor] loosely enough to be able to say and really believe, ‘I’m here until God tells me I’m going elsewhere.’”

“I had a really cool conversation with a guy at a conference a couple of months ago. He was pastoring up until his early 50s, and he read through the Old Testament about how they put an age cap on the priests who were in the temple (Numbers 8:24-26). The age cap in the Bible is at 50.”

The pastor was shocked! The Levites were commanded to retire their regular priestly duties at the age of 50, but that didn’t mean they were done.

“The next duty was for those older priests to coach those who were becoming the new priests of the temple,” said Steen. 

Inspired by God’s Word, the pastor changed his game plan. Today, he does coaching and consulting for new pastors and teaches them how to be good leaders and stewards of what God has called them.

“I don't know if that’s the playbook for everybody,” Steen added, “but that’s a good mindset to have.”

Steen also shared about a friend of his who was pastoring a large church in the Atlanta area. The pastor wasn’t the senior pastor of the church, but he did oversee many of the church’s activities and had great influence. 

“There was a guy he had been pouring into for years and years, and he knew this would be the man who would replace him in his role,” said Steen. The pastor told Steen that upon realizing this, he thought, “If I don't’ step aside now, we’re going to lose him, and that’s going to hurt the church.” And he stepped aside from his role to see the man he was pouring into succeed his position. 

“That takes a lot of faith!” Steen exclaimed. “But that’s the kind of mindset that allows situations [dealing with succession] to go well. I’m reminded of a quote by Andy Stanley, ‘Leadership is a stewardship; it is temporary, and you’re accountable.’ The mindset to have is to be thinking: This isn’t about me. This isn’t about what I gain out of this [role]. This is about how I create a sustainable ministry.

Practical steps to take

When is the right time to start thinking about creating a succession plan for your church? The answer, as Matt Steen puts it, was 30 years ago. 

Steen has a Master’s in Business Administration and a Master’s in Divinity, and he would tell you that what business schools teach would be helpful for seminaries to teach to pastors—namely on the topic of succession.

“Whether you’re the owner of a private company or a pastor of a church, you need to be thinking about succession,” said Steen. “You need to have a succession plan in place; it doesn’t matter if you keep it in an envelope or in a safe. Having a plan in place ensures that if something goes wrong, there’s a plan in place.” 

Without a succession plan in place, your ministry will be left hurting. But having a plan will put your ministry miles ahead. 

Another benefit to having your succession laid out is that it provides clarity for your successor. Steen mentioned that this is especially true for pastors who are the founders of the church in which they are ministering. 

“The thought process needs to be, ‘Hey, I’m not going to be here forever. How do we prepare people?’” Steen said. “One of the ways that works, and this is just good ministry practice, is to always be training up your ministry replacement.

Take action now 

When it comes to figuring out when to start planning for your successor, Steen says to start yesterday.  

“When StartCHURCH starts churches, they include content in every church’s set of bylaws about what a “wind-down” looks like on paper,” Steen said. “So, you can do it right from the beginning. But what pastors don’t think about is: How do we wind this down from a ministry standpoint? How do we wind down my contribution? How do we make sure that this ministry will exist beyond me?

For every ministry Steen has been a part of, he asks himself, "What happens if I get hit by a bus tomorrow?" “And no spouse of a pastor wants to hear that,” he says. “But it’s really asking yourself, ‘If I leave tomorrow, will this church continue to thrive? If not, then I have failed miserably.’ And we don’t like to say that, either.” 

When he works with pastors, Steen asks them two questions:

    • What happened after you left the previous ministry you were a part of? 
    • What will happen when you leave the current ministry you are part of?

“If the church or ministry you’re part of continues to thrive after you’ve left, then you’ve done a fantastic job!”

Your next steps

If you’re reading this and realizing you need a succession plan, you may be wondering what your next steps are. Well, before you start praying about who your successor should be, consider the following four steps. 

1. Check your bylaws.

Before you consider what retirement looks like for you, check your church’s bylaws. Be sure that there is language that outlines the process of succession. As Matt Steen mentioned, StartCHURCH can help you create bylaws that provide the protection your church needs to ensure a succession process is put into place. 

Strengthen Your Bylaws Today!

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2. Be okay with having conversations with the people around you.

“People aren’t going to bring it up to you unless things are going really badly,” said Steen. “And if you don’t make it okay to have that conversation, it’s going to be the elephant in the room until things get really bad. We have to be comfortable in our own skin, and holding this [role] loosely enough so that we’re okay with putting out that question, ‘Is it time for me to step down?’”

3. Give plenty of time for the process.

Steen recalled a recent conversation he had with one of the pastors Chemistry had been working with. The pastor, who was all in for making a succession plan happen, was considering a six or nine-month plan to allow for a smooth transition.

“I told him no,” said Steen. “If you can make the transition longer, like 12 to 18 months, that’s good. Time is your friend. And here’s why. When a pastor, especially a long-term pastor, goes to his board and says, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about retiring’ or ‘I’m thinking about leaving,’ that’s going to be a shock to them! They haven’t been stewing on this for months and months. They haven’t been talking to their spouse about this decision. They haven’t been aware of this and praying about this, and they don’t have the same peace you have about this.”

And by the way, don’t go to your board and announce that to the members all at once. Matt Steen recommends having individual conversations with each person closest to you, including the board members. Then you can announce your decision to the entire board. This way, no one is really shocked. 

4. Take time to mourn.

“The next part of the process is mourning,” says Steen. “The people you have prayed with and ministered with, they’re going to be sad, and it will still be a surprise to them. Once you get to a point with your board that you have all realized, ‘We’re going to be okay,’ then you start putting a plan in place.”

Then once you have a plan in place, go through it. Your plan may even include having an interim pastor for a year or so, or however long it seems necessary for the successor, the church board, and the congregation to adjust.

Steen says to also have your succession plan in place before you go to the congregation. This will help your ministry to continue to thrive and will allow your members to mourn with you, and to celebrate you, too!

Good stewardship is good leadership

You won’t be around forever to pastor your church. And if you do things right by the church you’ve started, or the one you’re leading now, the church will outlast you. Choose to be a good steward of what God has given you, and get a succession plan in place for your ministry today. And, If you’re having a hard time finding the right successor, you can email Matt Steen by clicking here, or you can schedule a call to talk with him by clicking here.

If you’re in need of getting the right language in your bylaws to make sure your succession plan is carried out, call us at 877-494-4655, or click the link below to schedule a call. Our specialists have your best interest at heart and will make sure your ministry is protected.

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Raul Rivera

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