Editor's Note: Recognizing that a number of pastors in Virginia will soon retire from active pastoral ministry, we began this series two issues ago with a foundational book review by Gary Chapman, who directs the Southwest Virginia Christian Leadership Network for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board, and with an interview with Craig Harwood, a seminary-trained human resources director with the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta.
How should a church go about finding a new pastor after the old one retires? The standard answer for Southern Baptists has been to form a pulpit committee, collect résumés and begin the process. If the retiring pastor has been in the church a long time, then having an intentional interim pastor is often recommended. And the understanding is that when the retiring pastor leaves, he'll stay out of the process of finding a new pastor, and he'll not interfere with the new pastor getting established.
Having been at Bonsack Baptist for 30 years, and looking at the last seven to 10 years of my ministry, I assumed that is what would happen in our church. However, a personal consultation with Lyle Schaller, noted church consultant, changed all of that for me and for our church. After taking the time to review the history, ministry and statistics of our church, he said that the number one issue for Bonsack was succession—namely, who will succeed me when I retire and what process the church will follow.
Schaller said that the larger the church and the longer the tenure of the pastor and the sharper the growth pattern, the more crucial succession becomes. He also said that the traditional way of replacing pastors in such churches often doesn't work.
When I thought about the large churches with long-tenured pastors in my own Roanoke Valley Baptist Association as well as the state, I was struck with how many of them had difficult or disruptive periods after their pastor left or retired. When I asked Schaller why succession was such a problem for those kind of churches, he identified several factors.
• For one thing, pulpit committees from these kinds of churches have had so little experience looking for a pastor that they are often at a disadvantage as they enter unfamiliar territory.
• For another thing, the complexity of a large church makes it doubly difficult for a new pastor to come in and do well. Typically, the new pastor will have come from a smaller church situation. If he or she doesn't understand the dynamics of the size of the new church or its unique culture, then she or he is more vulnerable to making the kind of mistakes that can be disruptive, if not disastrous.
• Also, people in a church need “stability zones” that help to provide continuity whenever there are major changes. One of the reasons a long pastorate often contributes positively to church growth is because the pastor becomes a stability zone during continued change. His face, his personality and the relationships he has built over the years help people in the congregation through important transitions. When he is not there, a major stability zone is gone.
Schaller suggested that Bonsack consider a different approach to succession that would include a time of transitional ministry. Specifically, he suggested that we call a new pastor while the old pastor was still here. Bring on a new pastor or “co-pastor” for a period of four to six years before the old pastor retires. And, after a lot of prayer and discussion, that's what we've decided to do.
One of the first steps for us is to do some strategic planning. This fall or next spring, we are going to look ahead for about seven years at our ministry plan. The whole church will be involved in looking at our mission, vision and values. We'll talk about our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as well as the things that are not getting done as we envision the direction our ministries will be going.
Then, we'll take some time to think through the kind of staffing we'll need to accomplish our ministry plan. In recent years, we've drawn from our own church body to find gifted lay persons to lead specific ministries in our church, including building superintendent, office manager, secretaries and communications director. I expect that we'll move more toward a team-based ministry approach that would include ordained ministers as well as full-time and part-time lay persons familiar with the culture of our church. We'll also be visiting other churches larger than our own, to learn from them.
With a ministry plan and an idea of our staff configuration in place, we'll start looking for a new pastor, or co-pastor, perhaps within the next two years. With my being involved in the process, the church can take advantage of my knowledge base and experience. In talking with a prospective new pastor, we'll already have a clear picture of both our ministry plan and staffing direction, which will be invaluable in working through any potential candidates.
Schaller pointed out that in churches averaging over 800, the preaching must be consistently excellent. So we'll be looking for someone who excels in this area. I would continue to preach, but not in all of our services. We've had two morning services for years as well as an evening service; and it is likely we'll consider starting other worship services as needed. So there will be ample opportunities to preach. We may both preach on the same weekend but in different worship services. Or I might preach a six-week sermon series followed by six Sundays when the other pastor preaches. In the process, the church will get used to several “preaching-teaching” pastors, both of whom do a credible job even if they go about it with different styles.
No doubt there will be challenges. One of my primary responsibilities will be to see that the new pastor succeeds. For this approach to succession to work will require humility, patience, honest communication, transparency and trust. But I am convinced that the potential rewards are worth the risk. For 30 years, Bonsack has experienced unity and harmony in the midst of continued growth; and yet the opportunities for reaching many more people for Christ are greater in our future than they have been in our past. What a joy it would be for me to see this wonderful church move to new levels of ministry. Schaller put it this way: “The big question for Bonsack is how big a hole will the long-tenured pastor make when he leaves? If his leaving creates a 75 percent hole, it will be disastrous for the church. If his leaving creates a 5 percent or 10 percent hole, things will keep on clicking with hardly a missed beat.”
We believe this approach to succession holds the promise of multiple benefits:
• A new pastor would have valuable transition time to learn the size and culture of our church, increasing the probability of success, while the old pastor would continue to provide stability and security. At the same time, the old pastor would be gradually giving up responsibility as the new pastor grew in the position.
• Having worked with the new pastor for several years, the old pastor would no longer be seen as a “threat” but rather an asset. Consequently, the old pastor would be free to come back—indeed would be encouraged and expected to help out with a variety of teaching, training and preaching opportunities, thus adding value to the church.
• With a successful transition, the long-tenured pastor would leave a much smaller hole with much less negative impact. And that would spare countless lay people the incalculable damage that so often occurs in large churches when the pastor they've known for so long retires.
While no plan is perfect, we are prayerful and hopeful that this approach will avoid some of the pitfalls of a long pastorate and enable Bonsack to make the transition to a new pastor in a way that encourages this church to continue to grow and prosper to the glory of God.