The Eight Costs of the Pastoral Succession Crisis: Part 1 – Personal Costs

The challenge of pastoral succession is a topic of increasing interest for good reason. In the next decade we will see an unprecedented number of pastors hitting retirement age. In a recent study by Barna Research, we learn that the average age of pastors has increased by 10 years over the last 25 years and is currently age 54. In 2017, only 1 of 7 pastors are under age 40. In some denominations, the age is even higher. For example, one denomination, using Auxano’s new pastoral succession toolbox, has a much higher average age than the national norm–40% of it’s pastors are over age 60! 

But rather than focusing on the stats of pastoral succession and the coming wave of aging pastors, let’s take a closer look at what happens if we don’t “get succession right.” As a reader you are most likely aware that pastoral succession is a challenging and emotional topic to address for many church leaders. The purpose of this article is to wave a red flag with a spirit that says, “We must have this conversation.” For many church leaders that conversation needs to happen sooner than later. What really is at stake if a senior pastor fails to pass the baton to the next senior pastor? What kind of loss will a church experience if it doesn’t lovingly address this crucial topic at the right time? 

To capture the weight of the crisis, I will cover eight costs: four through the personal lens of the pastor himself and four through the lens of the congregation and the resulting broader impact. 

The Four Costs to Pastor

Failure to Thrive, Personally

The first cost to the pastor is the overall inability to thrive at a special season in ministry where transition is normative physically, logically and biblically for a leader.  As Will Heath, Auxano’s lead navigator for pastoral succession, shares often: “Every leader must move through the natural ministry seasons from “preparing” to  “doing” and then to “mentoring.” For example, a Levite priest in the Old Testament shifted the kind of work they performed at age 50.  Heath uses this biblical pattern as a guideline for helping pastors shift their “ministry season” to one of increased mentoring. I like the metaphor used by Bob Buford that leaders should navigate a journey from “warrior” to “king” to “sage.” The failure of succession planning keeps leaders working like warriors–laboring heavily like younger men do– when they should be transitioning to a “sage” stage where their experience and wisdom does the “heavy lifting” of work. 

Collapse of Trust, Relationally

Usually, people around the leader see clearly the “emotional block” and unwillingness to think through the succession planning question. Over time some of the best and most trusted relationships for the leader, start loosing the bond of solidarity. Ranging from mildly awkward to downright toxic, the entire dynamic of the leadership will shift. If the people in pastor’s sphere of influence are a leadership constellation, the stars will soon begin falling. 

Lack of Equipping, Strategically

The irony for the senior pastor who is not preparing to transition is that they rob themselves of the beauty of ministry in the final chapter– one that can and should be defined by equipping others. Robert Clinton in his classic work, The Making of Leader, emphasizes that the greatest fruitfulness in ministry comes in the later years as leaders lead from depth of character and a lifelong of learning. Pastors in their fifties, sixties and seventies have a bank vault of wealth to give away from their personal experiences, but often do so incidentally rather than intentionally. This is most evidenced in how they do the same thing the same way year after year in ministry. That is, they don’t change the mix of “doing ministry” and “developing others.” To use one of my favorite metaphors from Jim Collins they refuse to transition from “time telling” to “clock making.” They simply don’t invest into other leaders who will make the church stronger when their season of leading is finished. 

Forfeit of Legacy, Permanently

The most heartbreaking cost, short of moral failure, is the loss of a leader’s legacy when pastoring the flock long beyond their season of effectiveness. Again, it’s so easy for a senior pastor to be blind to their decreasing value as a “ ministry doer.” (Again, they might have amazing fruit as a “leader developer” but they don’t make the transition.) No matter how well a pastor leads over their lifetime, how they finish will mark how they are remembered. It’s like an airplane ride: it doesn’t matter how well your flight attendant service was at 30,000 feet if the plane crash lands. 

As you can imagine, the cost is very high for the leader who refuses to build a meaningful succession plan. But that’s not the entire picture, as the costs are even higher for the church. In a follow-up post will walk through the next four costs below. 

The Four Costs to Church

  • Loss of Momentum, Organizationally
  • Drain of Enthusiasm, Silently
  • Death of Humility, Symbolically
  • Fumbling of Influence, Culturally

What is a Pastor to Do?

Are you at a point to starting thinking about the succession conversation? Are you on a team to where this conversation is overdue?

Think about it: How will people celebrate your leadership when your day at the helm is done? It’s not too soon to prepare.

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Will Mancini

Will Mancini

Will Mancini wants you and your ministry to experience the benefits of stunning, God-given clarity. As a pastor turned vision coach, Will has worked with an unprecedented variety of churches from growing megachurches and missional communities, to mainline revitalization and church plants. He is the founder of Auxano, creator of and the author of God Dreams and Church Unique.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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