Why It's Important for Churches to Have a Plan of Succession

Written by Founder Raul Rivera on Feb 23, 2017 in Church Management

After his mother’s passing in October 2010, Pastor Joel R. Peebles, Sr., succeeded her and became the new church pastor. Since his succession, tension had been mounting between Pastor Joel and the board of elders. A year and a half later, the conflict had escalated.

In April of 2012, Pastor Joel arrived to Wednesday Bible study (as always) ready to teach the Word of God to a faithful congregation. However, things turned out different that night. 

When he showed up at the church, the police were there and told him that he had to leave to avoid being charged with trespassing. The board of elders had voted him out and asked for police presence to escort him off the property. The worst part of it was that he could do nothing about it. 

Though Pastor Joel had grown up in the church and had the support of an overwhelming majority of the congregation, he was losing the ministry that his parents worked hard to build. How could something like this have happened? 

We are often asked this question at StartCHURCH. The answer goes back to the organizing documents of the church, such as the bylaws. So let us take a look at how this happened at Pastor Joel’s church.

Good intentions gone awry

In 2009, when his mother was nearing the end of her life, she appointed a new board of elders. She made it clear to the board that she wanted her son, who preached every Sunday in the 8:00 a.m. service, to succeed her. 

Although she made her desire clear, no legally binding documentation could be found to ensure clear succession to the pastorate. Moreover, neither was there any documentation that made her son a board member. 

With the table set, it was only a matter of time before the board of elders dared to make a move as the one made that night in April. 

Thousands of churches are in the same predicament

The reality is that there are thousands of churches in the same predicament and do not know it because they have never had to transition through a succession. 

Many founding pastors assume that their church board would honor any verbal desires they have expressed regarding who is to succeed them upon their passing. Yet, all too often, that is not the case. I have said this before, and I will say it again. Just because they love you today, does not mean that they will love you tomorrow.

Just because they love you today, does not mean that they will love you tomorrow.

How to address succession for your church 

When I think of situations like Pastor Joel’s, I generally ask myself two questions:

  1. What did the bylaws say about succession?
  2. What did the bylaws say about removing the pastor?

I cannot stress enough the necessity of forming strong bylaws that deal with each of the above-mentioned items. Let us take a closer look at them. 

Strengthen Your Bylaws Today!

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1. Succession  

As the lead pastor of a church, regardless of the size, you should consider the fact that succession can happen at any time. We often hear the phrase that the vice president of the United States is only one heartbeat away from the presidency. The same goes for the pastorate of your church. 

As a matter of faithful stewardship, part of your job as pastor is to make sure that if you pass on, the church will be in the hands of the right person. When I think of good successions, I think of Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, and Billy Graham and Franklin Graham, to name a few. While this list can be very long, on the flip side, a longer list can be compiled of bad successions. 

So then, how can you ensure that a positive and effective succession takes place at your church? The wording in your bylaws needs to make sure that the person you choose to succeed you will stand the storms of challenge.

How can you ensure that a positive and effective succession takes place at your church?

Below are three necessities that will safeguard the process.

  1. Establish a process that allows the board to choose a successor only if the successor you select does not want to accept the position.
  2. Do not name your successor in the bylaws.
  3. The language in your bylaws must allow the successor to automatically step into his/her role without the need for a vote of the board. This is achieved by stating that the person serving in a particular position on the board (such as executive vice president) is the one who succeeds. For example, when I pastored, I wanted my wife to succeed me. My bylaws said that if the president passes away unexpectedly, then the executive vice president would succeed him/her. My wife was the executive vice president.

2. Removal of the pastor 

After looking at the affairs of thousands of churches and holding hundreds of conversations with pastors and board members, a consistent thread runs through the relationship that pastors have with their boards concerning disagreements. Rarely are decisions made with clarity and civility. I have met many founding pastors that have been removed by their board, and in all cases, the stories behind their removals are confusing, convoluted, and downright messy. 

To avoid such circumstances, your bylaws should have an article called the accountability board. This is a strategy we discuss with pastors who are enrolled in our StartRIGHT Service.

This is a special board that serves two purposes: 

  1. To provide aid, comfort, and accountability to the pastor, and 
  2. To also serve as a judiciary board that decides whether the pastor will remain in office or be removed. 

Let me explain.

  • The accountability board is an outside board. It does not have any authority in the church nor the right to meet on its own. It can meet if called to do so by the board and can only decide on matters concerning the pastor. 
  • It can convene only if it has been unanimously asked to do so by the church's board of directors. The board must make the request in writing and list its complaint against the pastor. 
  • The accountability board cannot have any members that are related to the pastor. 
  • The members of this board should be made up of individuals that are not members of the church or members of the board of directors. It is usually best if the members of this board are leaders of other ministries. 
  • The members of this board are nominated by the pastor and then confirmed by the board. This means that the senior pastor/president shall carefully select the members. These ought to be people that he/she trusts and that love him/her enough to tell the truth. 
  • To properly implement the accountability board, the senior pastor/president needs to select three individuals and ask them to serve. If they accept, they fill out a special form and sign it to indicate that they wish to serve on this special board. The board of directors then votes to confirm the nominations.

Do your bylaws contain proper language pertaining to succession and removal?

What happened with Pastor Joel?

After a three-year battle in court, Pastor Joel was restored to Jericho City of Praise. Judge Nash of the appeals court invalidated the authority of the church board to fire him. 

Although everything worked out in the end for Pastor Joel, there is an invaluable lesson to be learned. Unclear bylaws and succession language caused a three-year tumultuous battle that split an awesome church. While I am confident that Pastor Joel will do a fine job, the church experienced setbacks that will be difficult to overcome for many years to follow.

I will end by asking you a few questions to consider:

  1. Are you confident in the strength of your church’s bylaws?
  2. Do your bylaws contain proper language pertaining to succession and removal?

If you are not able to answer “yes” to both of these questions, then I encourage you to give us a call at 877-494-4655, or simply click on the link below to find out how you can begin to strengthen your bylaws today.

Strengthen Your Bylaws Today!

Click Here

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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