When Mike Slaughter arrived at Ginghamsburg Church in 1979, worship attendance hovered at 90 with 118 members and an annual budget of $27,000. Now, 4,000 attendees on average worship weekly at Ginghamsburg in Tipp City, OH, and the multi-million dollar budget helps resource a faith community committed to serving the poor, lost and disenfranchised.
Mike’s leadership has spanned nearly four decades, and in that time the church became known as an early innovator in multiple areas of ministry.
So, how does succession work in a church with a history of leadership like that? We caught up with Mike and incoming lead pastor Chris Heckaman to get their insights as this church enters a new season.
What has the succession planning process been at Ginghamsburg?
We’ve known for 10 years we needed to be thinking about this. We set a date two years out for a transition plan. I had known Chris for 30 years, and I knew he’d be a culture fit.
Currently, in the church’s eyes, I’m still functioning as the lead pastor, but Chris is functioning in the lead role behind the scenes. For the first year of our two-year plan, the board shadowed Chris and developed a relationship with him. He worked one day a week for a while. Then, he came on full-time and they will have worked together full-time for one year by the time he takes the wheel.
How did you approach introducing Chris to the congregation and making the hand-off as smooth as possible?
In that two-year period, we communicated to the congregation that a change was coming and shared the timeline with them. We added Chris into the teaching rotation. And, I will keep teaching about 10 times per year through 2021 to help provide some continuity.
Having walked this path, what insights or suggestions do you have for other church leaders who are planning for succession?
Successful succession greatly depends on sharing common DNA.
Find someone on the outside early and work together 5-10 years.
Acknowledge and appreciate different styles of leadership.
Many of us who are founding pastors are more visionary, like Moses. Some of the guys coming after us are more collaborative. Speaking and leadership styles are different. You’re going to have to bridge that transition with the staff, volunteers and congregation.
The exiting pastor needs to figure out what’s next before he reaches the end of the season.
You’re not ready for the golf course. At 80, God moved Moses where he could use him. You may have knowledge at 20, but wisdom comes with age. My heart is truly for equipping the next generation, so that’s where I’m putting my energy next. You have wisdom to apply to Kingdom work, even if it’s no longer in a lead pastor role. Don’t waste it.
What are some leadership lessons you’ve learned along this journey?
A few things come to mind:
Relationship building is important, even in a big system.
You can’t rush it, and you can’t sidestep it. You need to do the hard work of building genuine connections with the staff, board, lay leaders, volunteers and church members.
Different leaders have radically different leadership styles.
Mike said this above, but I want to re-emphasize it. There will always need to be a balance between what you can channel of your predecessor to gain respect, versus what ground you have to create as your own. It’s hard (and maybe impossible to expect) to cast vision when the former vision-caster is still around. Patience and an appreciation for different styles goes a long way.
Everyone is always interim.
Start planning the next succession in some way now. Prepare yourself spiritually and emotionally for what lies ahead. Anticipate that the transition, as exciting as it may be, will likely require every bit of self-differentiation, ego management, and selflessness that you can muster.
How would you encourage/challenge other pastors on the receiving end of the baton as the lead pastor?
The passing of the baton is one of the most important events in Christendom. Serving as lead pastor of a Jesus movement is a high calling. Plan to go bold or go home, knowing that this process will probably help you learn and experience resilience at a whole new level. I would also recommend that the new and exiting pastors’ roles be clearly defined, documented, signed, sealed and delivered before the successor comes on board.