Pastor Dies; Leaves No Clear Line of Succession

Written by Founder Raul Rivera on Aug 25, 2011 in State Compliance

Does your church have a succession plan for the founding pastor? If so, will it hold legal ground if it had to be enacted? Many husband and wife teams pastor the church together and desire that if either one of them passes away that the other will continue to lead the work. However, many of those plans are either expressed verbally to the board or, though in writing, not written in unequivocal terms. This is what happened to a church in Florida. When their pastor died unexpectedly, it was unclear as to who would be his successor. Though he had expressed his desire for his wife to continue the work, there was not sufficient language in the bylaws to support it. Two of the board members were not in favor while another board member and the surviving wife thought it would be automatic. This created a conflict because the board was now split without any real solution.

Did you know that approximately two-thirds of every independent church in America is led by its founding pastors? Many of those churches have bylaws that are very weak and do not adequately address succession.

Let me give you three things to consider when planning your succession.

  1. The bylaws should not state who will succeed the pastor: I have read many bylaws that state the name of who will be the pastor and who will succeed him/her. That is not necessary. A better and more permanent solution is to state a position within the board that will automatically succeed the pastor in the event of an untimely death. For example, I recommend that a church make the pastor's spouse the executive vice president and then also state in the bylaws that if the pastor passes away, the person who serves in the position of executive vice president shall automatically become the church's permanent pastor. Our software program titled Bylaws shows churches how to do this step-by-step and gives unequivocal language to ensure that it is worded correctly.
  2. Bylaws that state the name of who will succeed the pastor may not be compliant: Many pastors assume that just because their bylaws state who will succeed them, that they are covered. However, what they do not know is that those bylaws may not be compliant with federal regulation. Internal Revenue regulation states that in order for a church to be exempt from federal income tax, it must clearly show that it serves a public, rather than a private, interest. In examining a church’s compliance to this regulation, the IRS will look at the church’s bylaws to see if any of the language can be interpreted to mean that the pastor is looking out for his and his family’s personal interest. When the bylaws state that "upon his death, that his wife will automatically succeed him," it is very easy for a revenue agent to interpret that as serving a private interest and render the church’s tax exemption void. As I mentioned earlier, succession is best ensured using positions rather than names. If you clearly state which position will succeed the pastor, you can always put the right people in those positions to ensure that succession happens in a legally sound manner.
  3. Succession should not be left up to a vote of the board: Although it is the desire of every founding pastor that all of the board members steward the vision of the church, experience tells me that there are many times when board members feel that if they were in charge they would do things differently. You would be very surprised how many board members believe that someone other than the pastor’s recommendation should be the successor. One must remember that every person who serves on the board has their own filter through which they view life. They are influenced by their own personal baggage and life experiences. I cannot stress enough how important it is to create language that makes your successor an automatic event that keeps the board from selecting any successor through a democratic process.

Final word

My house has been insured since the day I bought it. Year after year, I pay an annual premium to keep it insured. There have been some years when I wondered if it was worth paying the insurance bill. Then, in October of 2008, a bolt of lightning struck my house and caused over $35,000.00 in damage. On that day I was so glad that I performed my due diligence by paying my insurance bill. In the same way, addressing succession today is like insurance. Do not make the mistake of pastoring your church with the intention of being succeeded by your spouse without documenting it correctly. If you want to do it properly, but time is a prohibiting factor, please call our office. We can create an amazing set of constitution and bylaws that create and protect a succession process for your church.

Please feel free to comment. We always appreciate good dialogue. However, we do moderate each comment to ensure that it is on topic and not derogatory to other participants. We ask that you keep your comments brief and pertinent to the topic so that others may benefit.

Raul Rivera

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