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How to Make Leadership Succession Work

Back in my college days, I lived across the hall from Larry Stockstill, who would eventually become pastor of Bethany Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Back in the day, he led worship on campus, but he was also one of the stars on our intramural football and basketball teams! Needless to say, he’s always been a fascinating leader. But one of his greatest accomplishments is not only following his founder father into the role of pastor at Bethany, but now, stepping aside as his son Jonathan follows him.  While most ministry leaders fail at making succession plans – particularly when it comes to family – Larry has done a spectacular job. So I asked him to share his experience about successful succession plans and how to make them work.  Here’s what he said:

— Thousands of baby-boomers are in transition and we’re seeing a huge shift in leadership happening in the next five years as millennial pastors take over. From my travels, I am observing that this transition is not going very well. I have experience in this. Our church, Bethany Church in Baton Rouge, La., is 53 years old this month having had only three pastors: my father (20 years), myself (28 years) and now my son Jonathan (5 years). Last year, Jonathan had 10,000 people saved in our community, so I’m happy to report that it’s working!

But the question is: How can we help YOU make it work?  While it’s a complex issue and I could easily write a book, here’s a few priorities that are so very important to making every transition successful:

1)  Realize when it is time to step down:

“Dreams instead of visions”—When you start transitioning away from a growth mentality (visions) to more reflection and wisdom (dreams).

“Increased influence”—When you are on so many boards, networks, and commissions that your church is on “auto-pilot.”

“Physical limitations”—When your age is telling you it will take spiritual sons and daughters to take your vision further than you possibly can.

“Future uncertainty”—When you are putting off developing your successor like going to the dentist! If you knew your time was short wouldn’t you pick up the pace?

2)  Find the right person:

“Look for your DNA”—It will be “their vision with your values.” Their style will look totally different from your style but they must carry your DNA: “purity, integrity, humility, spirituality, and order.”

“Observe their service”—Elisha had the illustrious job of pouring water on Elijah’s hands! Timothy served Paul “as a son serves his father.” Observe their work ethic and humble attitude.

“Give them ‘wheel time’”—Get them in on service opportunities, counseling sessions, executive sessions, disciplinary actions, board meetings, and traveling opportunities. See how they respond and get ready for the transition.

3)  Set them up for success:

“Give them affirmation”—Don’t just tolerate them, develop them! Let them know they are valid, powerful, and important.

“Give them input”—Their preaching, leadership, and organization should be carefully coached and refined.

“Give them mercy”—Everyone makes mistakes. That does not render them unqualified to assume the mantle of leadership. “In wrath, remember mercy.”

“Give them authority”—Your successor needs a season behind the scenes to run your ministry on a day-to-day basis, overseeing the finances and even making decisions on hiring and firing.

These are broad guidelines. The details and timeline should be up to you and your overseers. The primary thing is get excited about a new generation taking us into a new promised land!

—  You can find Larry on his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @larrystockstill.  

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  1. Very timely Phil. I am 63 and our youth pastor is 31. But I see him as my successor. He has all the above qualities. Right now I have the ability and energy to keep going but I know there will come a day when reality will set in. I have been talking to him over the past year about succession. He is not ready yet (his own admission) but i do feel he will be.

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