When to Start, Best Practices & Creating Options for Life After Pastoring
“It’s all interim work. The sooner you can get your mind around that one point, the sooner you can get freed up to start thinking about what happens next.”
That’s something William Vanderbloemen said when he and I talked about pastoral succession a few weeks ago. Because of my work with churches at The Unstuck Group, I know firsthand how big of an issue effective succession planning is. I also know firsthand how few churches are approaching this wisely.
I’ve published content on this topic a number of times over the years, and I’ll link to some of those earlier resources below. I also plan to share another interview in the coming weeks on succession—a conversation with a lead pastor who recently walked this journey effectively—that I think you’re going to enjoy.
Regardless of how old you are now, or how far off passing the baton may seem, I ask you to not skip this episode. There may not be many cardinal rules of succession, but one William and I very much agree on is that you cannot start too soon.
In this episode, William and I discussed:
- Why succession planning in the church is so different than in the marketplace, how our familial organizational cultures complicate things, and when the conversation really needs to start
- The thing you should do NOW to set yourself up to recognize the right timing for succession when it comes and to be financially ready to take the step
- The #1 reason pastors stay too long (it’s hard to say, but the proof isn’t hard to come by)
- Practical ideas for senior leadership to set a senior pastor up for a healthy transition
- Why William says pastors need to start dreaming about what’s next now, and planning for more than tee times in the future
Leader Conversation Guide
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Share Your Thoughts and Questions on Social Media
We use #unstuckchurch on Twitter, and we start a real-time conversation each Wednesday morning when the episode drops. You can follow me @tonymorganlive and The Unstuck Group @unstuckgroup. If Facebook is where you spend your time, I’m there, too.
Links & Resources from the Episode
- William Vanderbloemen on Twitter
- Succession Planning with Vanderbloemen
- Next: Pastoral Succession That Works by William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird
- Staffing & Structure Review – The Unstuck Group
- Action Coach: 5 Succession Mantras for Uncharted Territory
- This Church’s Pastoral Succession Story Will Encourage You to Start Planning Now
- Succession Planning: How Westside Community Church Successfully Passed the Baton
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William: 00:00 In a publicly traded company, usually the first item on the agenda of the CEO’s first board meeting is their succession and I, I just think the quicker people get in their head that it’s all interim work, the easier it is to start talking about, okay, what happens after I’m not here and how do we plan for that effectively so that we can know when it’s the right time, so that we can be prepared financially so we can, our pastor can be prepared financially and we can have a lot of options for the future.
Sean: 00:29 Well, welcome to The Unstuck Church podcast where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. In a recent study, Barner research found that half of the senior pastors in America are age 55 or older and that the number of pastors older than 65 has tripled in the last 25 years. Yet at the same time, only 15% of America’s senior pastors are under the age of 40. This week on the podcast, Tony sits down with William Vanderbloemen for a conversation on pastoral succession, how and when to prepare and why you should start now. Don’t forget to grab the show notes as you listen and share them with your team. You can find them at theunstuckgroup.com/episode 91 and if you haven’t yet subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox each week, you’ll get one email with all of the details including the Leader Guide, the resources we mentioned, and the bonus resources to go along with the content. You can sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and now here’s the conversation on succession with Tony and William Vanderbloemen.
Tony: 01:27 William, I know you and your team get to work with dozens of churches across the country when it comes to succession. And one of the common questions I hear is when should the church begin to talk about this? When should the pastor begin to be thinking about this? So how do you respond to that?
William: 01:45 Well, Tony, first of all, thanks for having me on the show. I really appreciate it. Respect your work and what you guys are doing to help churches get unstuck. And I know every time we tell people about you, they come back and they think we’re smarter than we really are. So I appreciate that. That’s kind of you. Well, and then when it comes to succession, you know, if there’s one thing that I’m learning as I go down this journey of learning succession, it’s that there are no two that are alike. Whether it’s formal succession or a pastoral transition, which is a succession. We’ve overseen about 1500 of those now in the decade or so that we’ve been doing this. And when we bring new staff on as we’ve been growing, I do a little bit of their training and I’ll tell them, they’re probably tired of hearing me say it, but I’ll say, you know what?
William: 02:36 1500 searches. I mean, you know what? After this long, 1500 different churches, let me tell you something. If you’ve seen one church, you’ve seen about one church. So, and you laugh I think from experience cause they’re all just, the Bible verse God brings to mind with both candidates and churches all the time is we are fearfully and wonderfully made. It’s never as simple as cookie cutter. So I’m always hesitant to say, here’s the cardinal rule. Right? But to answer your question, there is one of the very few cardinal rules in succession. When should we start? The answer is yesterday. And I’m seeing that and that sounds maybe even salesy since we do help churches with this, but I’m seeing it as a trend line. Warren Bird and I sat down six and a half years ago to write a book on succession, a kind of one of those books that what do they call it a quant, qualitative book.
William: 03:31 You know, narrative, but backed with lots of data. And, we started asking the question, why is the church so bad at succession? One of the reasons we discovered is people are unwilling to talk about it. It’s almost been a dirty conversation. It’s not a, why is the CEO thinking of their transition? It’s why is dad thinking of leaving us? And it was just unhealthy. So our goal when we wrote this book called Next was simple. It was let’s just make the conversation legitimate. And we’ve seen that because now I’m seeing the age that we get hired getting earlier and earlier, for instance, when we first wrote the book and started getting hired to help churches with succession, it was always, well, he’s got six months left. What do we do? Or a year left, what do we do?
William: 04:21 Now, just this last year, I think we’ve signed seven different churches of over 5,000 in attendance. So they’re not that many of those, right? Seven different ones where the pastor is in their fifties and a couple of them were there passengers in their early fifties, and they signed us to like 10 year arrangements for succession. Yeah, so it’s moving backwards in a healthy way in a publicly traded company, usually the first item on the agenda of the CEO’s first board meeting is there succession. And I just think the quicker people get in their head that it’s all interim work, the easier it is to start talking about, okay, what you’re in, how do we plan for that effectively so that we can know when it’s the right time so that we can be prepared financially so we can, our pastor can be prepared financially and we can have a lot of options for the future.
Tony: 05:14 William, any sense, because you’re right in marketplace businesses, this is just common place to have this conversation. Why do you think churches and pastors are more reticent to engage in that type of discussion?
William: 05:29 Well, you know, I’ll try not to ramble. I’m a recovering preacher so I’ll try not to ramble, but, I think there are a couple of dynamics. One I alluded to earlier where the business world sees the CEO Board relationship as employer or employee and employer, the pastor and the church relationship is not seen in that light. And maybe that’s a good thing. It’s seen much more like a family and not like a corporation and that’s how God refers to it in the Scripture. So Yay, I’ll, but what that means is, you know, CEO sits down at the head of the board table and says, let’s talk about when I’m not here anymore.
William: 06:13 And the board’s like, yes, we have a forward-thinking CEO. He knows he’s not going to live forever. Let’s get on with it. Pastor sits down at the head of the table and says, let’s talk about when I’m not here anymore. And it is more like Dad’s sitting down at the dinner table and saying to the family, well let’s talk about when I’m not here anymore. And so, you know, on either side of dad are children that are wondering, is he terminal? What’s wrong? You know, is going to die. And down at the end of the table Mom’s like, did he run off with somebody? I’m going to kill him. That’s why he’s not going to be here. So you know it’s just all this emotion and anxiety and drama comes up and there’s really nothing more all consuming as an occupation than being pastor of a church.
William: 06:56 It’s where you do your relationships. It’s where you do your spiritual pilgrimage. It’s where you do your job, it’s 24/7 and it’s your full identity for some people. So talking about that being over, for board members and the congregation can be like, why is dad leading and who is he running off with? And for the pastor, it can feel like, man, that means, I mean, what’s left of my identity after that’s gone. And, I never would have admitted that as a pastor. But having been a pastor and then not a pastor, it is scary how much the phone doesn’t ring once you’re not the pastor. And, I think that those dynamics, these emotional components have made this a fragile conversation. There’s also a sense of our pastor’s strong why do we need to talk about when he’s not here?
William: 07:43 There’s an old line in the Roman Catholic Church that says the only sick pope is a dead pope. He’s strong all the way to the end but maybe, I think the opening line of our book that we wrote five years ago is every pastor is an interim pastor, and I’ve probably said that a thousand times in interviews and in conference talks, but I mean that’s the way it is. Either I only see three endings to a pastor’s tenure. Either I’m going to be the pastor that runs the church into the ground and closes it, not cool, or I’m going to happen to be the pastor on the day. Jesus returns. Very cool, very hard to get on the calendar, right? So the only other option is somebody coming after me and if I think that point is starting to get through to people, I also think that just demographics, you’ve got a ton of baby boomers and now that sort of the cat’s out of the bag that this is okay there are conversations happening everywhere.
William: 08:47 I spoke at a gathering of the pastors of the hundred largest predominantly African-American churches. A senior pastor gathering. They retreat every year. It’s kind of a quiet sort of private group. And they wanted me to come in to talk to them solely about succession and three or four times in the days that I spent with them, they said we never could have had this conversation five years ago and met with mega-metro. That’s the largest Southern Baptist churches, their senior pastor group, they called me in for the same thing, talk about succession and the same thing got said we never could have talked about this five years ago. So it’s a convergence of a lot of reasons why it’s okay now or why it wasn’t ok before. But it’s really cool to see that churches are starting to get ahead of this and think at a more mature level and a more spiritually secure level to know that God’s got this church no matter who the pastor is.
Tony: 09:41 All right. So with that foundation, talk to us and we could speak for hours on what a healthy transition looks like, but what are some of the best practices you’re seeing in a succession process that leads to healthy transition both for the pastor and for the church?
William: 09:57 Sure, sure. One is time. When I was a senior pastor, elected to senior pastor of a fairly large church and I was 31, I got lucky and John Maxwell mentored me and I asked him one time, I said, what should I do in my young part of my career? And he said, let me tell you what the wisest this pastors spend their early years creating options for their later years. Hmm. Wow. So, so time, you know, if you can talk about this sooner rather than later. That’s big. And what options need to be created? Well, what messes up successions more than anything else. That’s a great place to start because if you can remove those blocks, then you’ve got options. So number one roadblock to a good succession is money. And that might be the church is afraid of what happens when the pastor who’s been here forever quits preaching or the pastor who’s friends with all the donors because they all grew up together, leaves.
William: 10:54 The more the church can do to shore up a younger giving base, the more the church can do to rotate preaching duties. The more the church can do to prepare itself, to be in a position to survive and thrive. When the pastor’s not there, the better off they are. And that takes time. On the flip side, this is the church’s responsibility not the pastor. The church early in their tenure needs to make sure they’re doing things for the pastor to create the venues for them to be able to walk away financially. I can’t tell you the number of pastors, big-time pastors that everybody would say is so successful that have written books and they’re living hand to mouth and sometimes that’s because the church isn’t paying enough or not treating them right on one part of the contract or another.
William: 11:40 Unfortunately, the only thing that makes the headlines about pastor pay is the pastor that’s fleecing their congregation, the vast majority of the time, it’s the other way around. And pastors just cannot afford to retire. So, you know, creative solutions, like here’s a simple one for your listeners, what would it be like to put into your pastor’s compensation? A little $3,000 to $4,000 a non-cash benefit. That is a credit toward the pastor meeting with a certified financial planner every year now and furthermore, not a credit to go meet with the church’s certified financial planner. Let them go see somebody that’s not in the church and the church just pays the bill. That would go miles toward the pastor at 62 or three or four being able to say, oh, okay, I can walk away. By the same token, the church shoring away a little bit of money as the pastor gets older to prepare for the transition.
William: 12:34 You might find that you’re in a position where it’s not right for everybody, but it might be that the smoothest succession plan is to keep your pastor on for six months or a year while the new pastor’s getting settled in and you’re having to pay two pastor salaries for a period of time. So if you’ve had reserves set aside for awhile, you’re spending your early years creating options for your later. So two more roadblocks real fast. You just have to cut me off if I’m talking too long. I like what you’ve said so far, so keep going. Okay. Second one is pastor’s get a life. That sounds rude. It sounds rude, but the church will swallow your entire identity if you let it. I had a seminary professor that said, William, never forget the church is a very jealous mistress.
William: 13:25 And what I mean by that is it will suck up your identity so much that when you walk away you don’t have anything to do. And I love playing golf as much as anybody, but it gets old after a while. You know, so what avocation can you pastor be developing right now? What life outside your pastoral call can you be developing? And it might be a ministry, when we helped Randy Pope in your town in Atlanta Tony, he had a real passion for a discipleship program that goes on at perimeter. He’s going to step down and he’s going to be an associate pastor at the church over just that area. Larry Stockstill loves missions. When he stepped down from Bethany World Prayer Center, his son Jonathan took over and said, dad why don’t you run the missions? And it doesn’t have to be within the congregation.
William: 14:13 Maybe you develop a real avocation for preaching and helping churches through a transition. There’s room for transitional pastors, but it’s on you pastor, to identify what are the things that God’s wired me up for outside of this pastoral call that I would want to do when it’s over. What will be my life when this vocational call is over? So a lot of times guys retire and they don’t have anything to do and guess what they end up doing with nothing when they had nothing to do. They go and metal with their church. Story after story of the retiring pastor being the nightmare. And I’ll tell you what, Tony, I’ve never ever met a pastor who said, man, I’ve enjoyed building this church for 25 years. Now that I’m retired. I think I just want to blow it up. Like nobody says that. Nobody. But it happens.
William: 15:00 But it does happen. It happens all the time. It’s textbook. And it’s not always true, but much of the time it’s because the pastor doesn’t have a new vocation. You know, it used to be you could not teach in a Presbyterian seminary unless you had at least 25 years of pastoral experience. So, it was your ambassador role. So what would be your apostolic role to the church, your ambassador role to the church, your avocation after this call that’d be a question I’d ask. Then the third roadblock that is frankly a chapter we couldn’t put in the book because we would’ve gotten burned at the stake is, and I’m using generalizations here. Most pastors are men, most lead pastors, particularly are male right? Right. So, and most of them are married, I’m sorry for our Catholic friends, but most of them are married.
William: 15:48 And what in the world are you male pastor, who is married doing to prepare your wife for the days when you’re not a pastor? Because you get to go pioneer and build and do all these things. And wives of pastors are asked to sink roots to go deep, to love the people and man that can really upend their world and sometimes they’re able to just move away and that’s fine. But, now with social media and connectivity, you’re never really going to move away from your church no matter how far you live from it. So you’ve gotta be able to, what is it? What are we going to do to honor the spouse of the outgoing pastor and to make sure that they find a new identity. So those are the three biggest roadblocks, money, pastor’s avocation. And what do we do with the spouse.
Tony: 16:36 Of those three roadblocks? William, what do you sense the most common challenge is of the three?
William: 16:43 Money. Money. Yeah. Yeah. So, and I tell people, even if the money isn’t there when we get into a succession, Tony, and they’re probably churches that are listening to you right now, their pastor’s 60, they’re like, oh man, we didn’t spend the last 10 years. We don’t have the money. Let me tell you, you may think you don’t have the money, but the most expensive thing a church can do is mess up their succession. So spend the money to get it right, whatever that means. And it will pay for itself as opposed to the opposite and things going downward and bad.
Tony: 17:15 All right. So you kind of joked a little bit about kind of selling yourself and your services, but why do you think it’s so important for a church to bring in somebody from the outside to help facilitate this process?
William: 17:30 Well, historically the church always has. It was the denomination though. Well if you on the way back it was the bishop. Yeah. And then it was the denomination and I’m from the denominational church. It’s where I grew up and served in the Presbyterian church. So I can say this as a wounded member, but you know, really ever since about the mid sixties, the denominations have become less and less functional. And I maybe, you know, one that’s really, really functional right now, but I don’t, and you know, that combined with the rise of the non-denominational church where they’re more people attending non-denominational churches on any given Sunday than denominational in Protestant US, you know, you just we’re on uncharted territory where the, the outsider that was supposed to guide is now mostly dysfunctional. And then most people are going to churches that don’t have a guide and they end up in a total mess and don’t know what to do.
William: 18:28 And we’ve seen this in way too many very large non-denominational churches just in the last year or two where one of the components is the church has no network, no connectivity. And so then what do we do? Well, there’s no outside guide. So I think historically congregations have always had an outside guide. And we’re in this weird slice of history where we don’t, and especially if you built the church yourself well no one knows the church as well as we do. So I just think we’re in a weird time. And stepping back and looking at historically you’d say, oh, well gosh, we’ve always used outside guides and why do we use them? We use them because a third set of eyes helps. We use them because you’re talking about in a succession, you’re talking about a heart transplant for the church and you know, Jesus is the heart of the church.
William: 19:17 But within the staff, the pastor is the heartbeat of the church. And a succession is a question of bringing an outsider inside the body to be the heart of the church. And as one surgeon told me one time, you know, William in this state, I’m not allowed to do a transplant on one of my relatives. You know, operating on yourself is a dangerous thing. So I just think a third set of eyes gives some objectivity. And I also think, not just objectivity, but expertise by repetition. And I want to say that carefully not just expertise. It’s not like when I get called in, I tell church boards all the time, I do not know your church as well as you do. And I never will. That’s not the expertise. But sometimes the expertise in succession has to do with who has more repetitions under their belt.
William: 20:08 And unless you’re a really dysfunctional church that fires the pastor every year, I’ve probably got more repetitions than you do, so it’s because if there’s, this is horrible, you’re going to think I’m just jaded and definitely going to hell. But the line that keeps coming to my mind, the Scripture verse that God brings to my mind as I look at people doing succession on their own is there’s a way that seems right to a man, but it’s a way that ends in death. So I see these smart, well-intended, smarter than me churches make really bad errors that you wouldn’t know unless you’ve it a whole lot of times. So I’d say objectivity and repetition. So the two big benefits of having some form of outside help.
Tony: 20:56 So we’ve talked a lot about what needs to happen for the process to work for the church and for the pastor that’s leaving. But honestly, William, you know me, I’m a fixer. I can’t imagine going in to a situation where someone has had a thriving ministry for decades. It’s been, I mean they’ve led with strength, the church is healthy, and now you’re asking a brand new person who has no connection with the church to step in and take over. It seems like this is a lose-lose situation. So convince me why I should even consider being the successor in a situation where the church has thrived for decades.
William: 21:37 Unless God is specifically calling you to it. Run away. Okay, well, I’m not looking for a job anyway, so, well, it’s a lot like, you know, my son was finishing college several years ago and came to us and he told us after his first year of college, I think I want to go into ministry and he’s fairly well-versed. And so I said, well you know what, my job is now. And he said, yes. I said, okay, what’s my job? And he said, your job is to talk me out of it. So that’s right. You know, and that’s the advice a lot of pastors give young women and men in their churches. If you think you’re called to ministry, try everything else first. I would say within ministry, if you think you’re called to follow a legacy past everything else first, cause on paper, it’s the quickest way to career suicide. You know, just statistically now, I do think we’ve learned some things over the last five years that have helped us identify whether or not you might be in a situation where God’s calling you a unique wiring.
William: 22:36 Mariner’s church is a great example of thriving. Beautiful. Maybe arguably the prettiest campus in America. And Kenton Beshore has been there 40 years, 34 or five of it as the lead pastor and 62 or three years old. We work with them on succession starting when he was about 59 or 60. And then he says, let’s do a search and it’s who’s going to follow Kent? And he started with 60 people. He’s got on a good Sunday, maybe 20,000 people over the campuses. And we thought for sure it would be someone from within the house. Turns out it was an outsider and it’s early. We’re about one year in, but it’s going incredibly well with Eric Geiger, who was from the south and was Southern Baptist and went to California. Well, you don’t just like guess on that one you have to have some science behind it.
William: 23:24 So I think there are some things if you get a really great outsider that can guide you, they can ask the right questions to determine, is this the rare find where you really should follow the legend or not? It’s frankly, it’s what it’s about the only succession I do anymore is following the legend at churches that are very, very large. We’ve got a team that do all the other ones and there is a way forward, but it’s a narrow way and it helps to know the right questions to ask whether you are that person it’s highly contextual.
Tony: 23:58 All right, lots of good conversation here. William, anything you want to add though to what you’ve shared already when it comes to getting succession right?
William: 24:08 Just realize you’re an interim pastor and that’s a bummer of a thing for people to hear. I hope you don’t air this on Mondays. You don’t do this on Monday. No we don’t. Because I mean they, people call me on Monday, I think I’m called to go somewhere else. I’m like, hang up and call me back tomorrow and it’ll be better. You know, it is all interim work and we’ve got so many churches. We work with churches like half our work is churches at 500 or so or under. So it’s not all the great big ones, but in our multisite churches, so many of them have, do you have any clients that have that one church, many locations or multiple locations or you know that phrase? Yeah, so try this on, one kingdom many locations, you don’t have to stay at your place your whole career. I get that there’s value in long-term ministry, but it’s all interim work and the sooner you can get your mind around that one point, the sooner you can get freed up to start thinking about what happens next. Parting thought for you. Why did Jesus get in trouble with his disciples more than for any other reason? You know, the way I read scripture, he got in trouble with his disciples more because he kept moving from town to town than for anything else. And that’s a unique setting, but it’s a pretty good example. It may not be bad for you to be thinking about yourself as an interim. Maybe you’re a 30 year interim, maybe you’re a three, but it’s all interim work.
Tony: 25:36 That’s very good. William, thank you for all the help that you’re giving hundreds of churches when it comes to succession, identifying the next leader, helping the church thrive. We appreciate what you’re doing for the kingdom.
William: 25:48 Oh, thank you, Tony. Same to you, man. I just think the world of your work and for all your listeners, you’re the guys front lines, Tony and I have the cheap seats and I know he’s rooting for you just like I am. Thanks for what you do.
Sean: 26:02 And thank you for joining us today for this conversation on pastoral succession. Next week, we’re back with a brand new episode to tell you of the recent leadership transition at The Crossing Church in Costa Mesa, California. If you’re considering a succession planning any point in your future, you won’t want to miss it. If you’re enjoying this podcast and it’s been helpful for you, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting platform. We really appreciate your help in getting this content in the hands of more leaders, and don’t forget for any of the questions visit us at theunstuckgroup.com.