CityLife Church (originally called Waverley Christian Fellowship) is a multi-site church based in Melbourne, Australia. It began in 1967 with a small group of people led by its founding pastor, Richard Holland. Richard led the church for 20 years and in that time it grew to a congregation of around 600 people. Because of some health challenges in 1986, Richard passed the baton of leadership to his associate, Kevin Conner. Kevin led the church for the next 8 years and it grew to around 1,500 people. In 1995, at the age of 68, Kevin passed the baton of leadership to his son, Mark Conner, age 33, who has led the church since that time. The church is now home to over 9,000 people from 105 nationalities.
During both of these leadership transitions, the church did not lose any people but rather continued to move from strength to strength. Yes, there were changes and adjustments that had to be made due to the unique personality and spiritual gifting of each senior minister. No, not everyone found it easy to make these adjustments and before and after these transitions people did move on for various reasons, as in any church community. However, there was general unity around the need for change and the selection of the appropriate leader.
Richard stayed in the church until his passing away at age 89 in 2008. Kevin is now 86 years old and continues to be an active part of the church community. I am now 51 years old and we are beginning a season where leadership development will be a higher priority ... and eventual succession.
Pass the Baton
There is no success without a successor and Christianity is always one generation away from extinction. These two sobering facts highlight the urgent need for successful leadership transition in today’s churches and ministries. Unless we train up the next generation and pass the baton into their hands, God’s purposes could be delayed.
God chooses to reveal himself to individual people and then commissions them to carry out his plan and purpose. Part of their responsibility is to pass on his heart and purposes to their children and the next generation. Like a long relay race, God’s purposes have been moving on throughout history right up to our time and they need to continue until Jesus returns again.
Yes, we should live with the preparedness that if Jesus came today we would be ready. However, we must also live with the wisdom and foresight that prepares for the future, in case Jesus does not return in our lifetime. To do anything otherwise would be nothing short of poor stewardship of our place in history.
The Bible has many examples of leaders who were effective in passing the baton – Abraham (Gen.18:19), Moses (Ex.33;11), David (1Chron.28-29), Elijah (1Kgs.19:15-21), Jesus (Mt.28:18-20) and Paul (2 Tim.2:1-2). It also includes stories of leaders who failed to do so – Joshua (Judges 2:7-15), Eli (1Sam.1-4), Solomon (1Kgs.12:1-17) and Elisha (2Kgs.5). In each of these cases we see either a leader who failed to select and train a successor OR a potential successor who failed to lay hold of God’s calling for their life. The tragic result was the dropping of the baton and many seemingly lost years.
Principles of Leadership Succesion
In any relay race, the passing of the baton is a crucial time that can make or break the team’s success. Letting go too soon or holding on too long can spell disaster. It takes a lot of skill and wisdom to pass the baton successfully in any race, including leadership succession. Here are some practical principles of successful leadership transition.
1. Choose your successor carefully. This important decision needs to be undertaken with much prayer and consideration of the character, competency and cultural compatibility of the potential future leader. Consider the benefits of choosing a successor from within the local church verses selecting someone from outside the church. You can never guarantee the future but you can make a decision that is characterized by wisdom and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
2. Ensure that the mission continues. God has a purpose for his church and he carries this out through the generations of the righteous. Wise church leaders build their churches to last well beyond their time. They create a sense of mission and values that will continue on even when they are gone. Yes, leadership style, ministry emphasis and church programs change along the way. However, the foundations should remain, as well as the over-arching mission of the church.
3. Know the right timing. Knowing the right person to pass the baton on to is important but effectively making the actual transition at the right time is vital. Avoid seeking to pass the leadership baton on too soon. Otherwise you may not maximize your own contribution to the race and/or the next leader may not be up to speed yet. The result is lost momentum. On the other hand, avoid hanging on to the baton for too long. This will also result in a loss of momentum and can frustrate potential leaders who are ready to run but feel like they will never have an opportunity.
4. Establish a clear transition process. In a relay race there is a time when both runners are in the exchange zone and there are a few moments when both of them are holding the baton together before one lets go and the other takes off on their own. This is a crucial part of the race. Ideally, there should be a multi-year transition period that assists the incoming leader to gradually take on more responsibility and the congregation to adjust to their leadership style. It also enables the outgoing leader to gradually let go of their previous ministry role. Factors to consider include the age, effectiveness and energy level of the current leader, the age and ministry experience of the successor, as well as the congregation’s response to all of this.
5. Make a decision to let go. As the transition concludes, it is essential that the previous leader fully let go of the baton and allow the new leader appropriate freedom to fulfill their role. When the previous leader leaves the congregation and relocates to another church or ministry, this is somewhat easy. When the previous leader stays in the same congregation, this can be quite difficult. It is essential that they not seek to exercise remote control or in any way undermine the new leader. They must give the new leader their full support and backing. If this does not happen then the new leader will feel frustrated and hindered in their leadership role. Secure leaders realize that their value, worth and significance come from who they are, not from what they do or the position they hold. Therefore, they are willing to let go for the benefit of others and the church itself. When this happens, outgoing leaders only gain more credibility and honor.
6. Understand the importance of honor. For incoming leaders, it is essential to honor those who have gone before. We do not worship the past but we should honor it and recognize that we would not be where we are today without the sacrifices and contribution of earlier generations. We have received an inheritance and a heritage that others have worked hard for.
For a variety of reasons, not every leadership transition is successful. Change does not always go as we intend it to. However, we should do everything that we can to see that transitions work out for the best – for the benefit of God’s people, for the continuation of God’s purposes and for the honor of God’s name.
[These notes have been summarized from Pass the Baton: Principles of Successful Leadership Transition by Mark Conner - available in paper and eBook format]
1. Outline the history of your own church or ministry. What clear chapters do you see? What patterns emerge? What lessons can you glean?
2. Most people groups or organizations have a life cycle of some sort, starting with birth and ending in death or closure. What can you do to ensure your church or ministry has as long a life as possible?
3. Do you have a leadership development pathway in your church? How are you apprenticing, coaching, and training a new generation of leadership for every level of ministry?
4. Reflect on some of the potential challenges of a previous senior minister staying in their church after passing the baton. How can these be navigated successfully?
5. What are the primary spiritual gifts to look for in a potential Senior Pastor? In addition to character, consider the importance of leadership and teaching.
6. Consider the impact of succession on the Senior Pastor’s spouse. Depending on who they are and what their role has been, they may have quite a bit of informal influence. Often they can be the most neglected person in the entire transition process.
7. Discuss the potential challenges of passing the baton to a family member. How can these be navigated? I believe that it is important to never push a person into any leadership or ministry role just because they are a family member. On the other hand, it is also important to not hold back someone from any leadership or ministry role, just because they are a family member, IF they have a clear call from God for that role, and the accompanying spiritul gifts.
8. What are some of the financial considerations to make when planning a leadership transition? At CityLife, we salaried both Richard and Kevin for life, because of a lack of acrued superannuation and retirement benefits. This is the principle of honour.
9. What is an appropriate age to begin thinking about succession?
10. What are some key principles for the incoming leader to consider as they take the senior leadership role? How can they lead change effectively?
[Read more on "Leadership Succession" by Edmund Chan]