Continuity and Clarity Are Key Factors to Healthy Leadership Transitions

One cannot underscore the impact organizational continuity and missional clarity have on the succession planning process. These two factors are among the top three to four issues that shape the overall health and effectiveness of a leadership transition.

To help you understand what organizational continuity is, let me offer a description of what it is not. Organizational continuity is not the same as maintaining the status quo. In fact, having a mindset that believes a ministry should maintain the status quo is often the biggest barrier to the establishment of organizational continuity.

The reality is that trusted leaders with a long tenure tend to mask a ministry’s need to address issues. This isn’t intentional, but over time, the leader becomes the glue that holds everything together. Their relational connection with staff, boards, elders, committees, major donors and members allows them to maneuver broken and confusing systems.  Consequently, no one ever takes the time or has the courage to evaluate the reality of the overall health of the ministry. To illustrate this point, I’ll offer two categories as examples: Governance and Staffing.


In reality, there are only two instances where people actually care what their by-laws and policies state. The first is when they are on the losing side of a key decision. The second is when it comes to selecting a new pastor. When these two issues come up, people turn to the governing documents to make sure everything is handled the “right way.”  The “right way” is usually spiritual speak for making sure things happen “their way.”

In my experience, very few ministries operate according to their by-laws. This exposes the ministry to considerable amounts of turmoil as there is no clearly stated methodology to evaluate and recommend options. It is in these environments that membership can become quickly divided on how to move forward. It is also in this environment that people stop investing in the ministry because there is no clear pathway forward.


A topic that often comes up for larger churches during a pastoral transition has to do with the staff structure. Many of these churches had modest beginnings. The typical organizational structure was a hierarchical approach. As the ministry grew, staff was added and the hierarchy built out. The challenge with a hierarchical system, however, is that it has a tendency to foster a silo mentality and actually begins working against the church’s ability to effectively implement programming.

Business leaders have been aware of best practices related to organizational structure and design for decades. Church leaders, on the other hand, have little exposure to thinking in this area. It is not uncommon, however, for a pastor or ministry leader to intuitively recognize something is off with the way their staff is structured.  Without any real way to define and explain the problem, they develop various team strategies in an attempt to address the issue. Inserting a new leader with their own perspective for how a staff should be organized brings a high level of tension and uncertainty to the rest of the staff

People in leadership that equate organizational continuity with maintaining the status quo will not give themselves the time to do the work of evaluating these, and other key areas of institutional health. Even though there may be a sense that certain areas should be addressed, they prefer to simply stay put and let the new leader deal with it later.

The unfortunate reality is that the successor is often the first person that has a willingness, or ability, to look beyond the status quo to point out underlying deficiencies that must be addressed. It is in these moments, when the former leader is no longer in place to keep everything glued together, that cracks in the foundation become exposed. These moments are often difficult to navigate, for both the membership and successor. In many cases the new guy is the one held accountable for problems that existed long before he showed up.

Like organizational continuity, missional clarity is another key factor in the healthy implementation of a leadership transition strategy. Ministries, and the contexts in which they serve, change over time. Communities change. What was once the new development that brought young families and their children to the facility’s front door is now home to empty nesters. The neighborhood that was once Caucasian is now predominately minority. Church ministry facilities built in a rural context are now in the middle of the urban sprawl. Ministries once located in vibrant areas now watch as the neighboring buildings put vacancy signs in the front widow. Conversely, ministries that committed to stay in downtown settings are seeing a resurgence as more and more people flock to city centers. As communities change over time, so do the people that make up those congregations.

Ministries with long tenured leadership are wise to invest in a process that helps them recapture their sense of what makes their church unique. At Auxano, we see churches and ministries experiencing clarity when they are able to answer these five simple, yet profound, questions.

What are we doing?

Why are we doing it?

How are we doing it?

When are we successful?

Where is God taking us?

The process of discovering the answers to these questions brings incredible hope and courage to move forward.

Consider if you will, the implications of settling into the status quo and not capturing a sense of identity as you move towards a season of leadership transition.

I’m sure your imaginings won’t take you too far before you recall the story of a transition gone horribly wrong. Chances are, you can point to a lack of continuity and identity as a key source of trouble.

Some of you will have the good fortune of reflecting on a story of a transition that went incredibly well. As you recount that story in your mind, are you able to recognize the stability and conviction with which the ministry operated in their season of transition? Those are the by-products of leadership having the courage to push beyond the status quo and committing to the work of clarity.

If you would like to talk with someone about how Auxano can help your ministry prepare for a season of leadership transition, click HERE.