This is an excerpt from page 8 of the report the Barna Group provided.

Among those churches with a leadership transition or succession plan, well over half (56%) have this type of planning done internally by the senior pastor or by a leadership board. One-third (33%) of churches with a plan have it done externally, such as by a denomination or association. Another 9% of churches with a plan have both internal and external components.

Churches that do this type of planning internally are far more likely than average to be Baptist, Southern Baptist, charismatic, in a non-mainline denomination, have non-white pastors, or have a senior pastor who has been at the church a decade or longer. Those churches with external planning are more likely to be mainline denominations, Wesleyan, Arminian, or have a senior pastor who has been there for three years or less (49%).


I’m not sure it matters what the source of the succession planning strategy is. What does matter, however, is the leadership at the local church level has a clear understanding of the process they will use to help prepare the church for a season of transition.

A message to Denominational Leaders in District or Regional offices

We are starting to see that an appointment process, like in the Methodist Church, works well for mid-career types of changes. When it comes to the retirement of founding or legacy leader, however, an appointment process must be supplemented with additional planning. Engage the retiring pastor in developing the succession plan. Develop a relationship with that church’s leadership team.

A message to leaders of churches that function autonomously

Don’t go down this road on your own. Talk to denominational leaders. Use your network to get names of pastors that have retired. Get their advice. This type of transition is too important for you to try and navigate this process on your own. Seeking wise council is always a good idea.

The Old Testament word for “sojourn” carries an aspect of fear in its understanding. When the Bible references that someone sojourned it means they were literally going on a “fear walk.” Their “fear” isn’t the point. The courage to walk into the relative unknown is the stuff of faith!

In a very real sense retirement is a “fear walk.” During this season of transition, a succession plan acts like guard rails on the sides of a bridge. They are not there to trap people on the road as they journey. The rails exist to protect sojourners from danger. Using the “succession planning as guard rail” analogy let me offer four ways succession plans are protective.

Reason 1 – Succession planning will protect the retiring leader. It is natural for retiring pastors to be concerned with how their successor’s will lead the church after they have stepped aside. Sometimes their concerns are valid. Other times their concern is rooted in pride and/or fear. Either way, having a succession plan will go a long way in helping them transition with confidence.

Reason 2 – Succession planning will protect the successor.

It takes time to get acclimated to a new context ministry: where it has been, where it is, and where it is heading. Having a Transition Strategy (Module 2 – Signpost 4) will help the successor settle into their role. A clear roadmap for the incoming leader will provide guidance by establishing priorities for the things they need to know. Priorities will be established which will remove any guessing games and help insulate everyone involved from political agendas.

Reason 3 – Succession planning will protect the people inside the organization.

Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained…” People are smart! When they see a key leader getting close to retirement, they want to know a plan is being developed. In the absence of clear direction you will observe that some will reach for responsibility they should not have while others will abdicate responsibility they should not release. A clearly communicated plan is critical to help people know what to expect as well as what they are to do.

Reason 4 – Succession planning will protect key partners outside the organization.

Organizations, churches included, cannot survive without key partnerships. These could be bankers, suppliers, vendors, other church leaders, network or denominational members, community and missions partners. These partners deserve to know how/if the succession planning strategy will have an impact of your relationship.

Leaders dealing with this issue must come to grips with this fundamental truth: God placed them in leadership to steward the organization. A significant part of a leader’s stewardship is to help ensure the organization’s health after they leave. Whether the succession plan is done internally or externally really doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is done well. There is too much at stake for it not to get the attention it deserves.

Here is a list of all the posts in this series…