Pastoral succession is complicated. How could it be otherwise? Dealing with spiritual, emotional, and institutional dynamics at the same time is always complicated. That’s especially the case in a pastoral succession where relationships are dear. But by God’s grace, it can be a great experience.
Our leadership transition nearly four years ago at Immanuel Nashville was a uniquely joyful season in the life of our church. The elders of Immanuel, along with my predecessor, Ray Ortlund, mapped out a relationally wise, Spirit-dependent path that God used to far exceed our expectations. I see things we could’ve done better, of course, but I’d walk the same joyful path again in a heartbeat.
Here are three principles for pastoral succession based on our joyful experience at Immanuel and more than a few years of theological reflection since then.
1. Calm, Confident Faith in God
Whatever [Joseph] did, the Lord made it succeed. (Gen. 39:23)
When it comes to big changes and transitions like this, it’s easy for a church to pay more attention to its plans and processes than to Jesus himself. Against that tendency in us all, Genesis 39:23 emphasizes the Lord’s readiness to bless all kinds of faithful ways forward: “Whatever [Joseph] did, the Lord made it succeed.” This doesn’t mean Joseph could do whatever he wanted. It does mean there are many right ways to proceed faithfully with God.
Our heavenly Father magnifies his power by giving us a wide lane of blessing. So the first thing to do is relax. It’s not our great wisdom but our great God who determines success. He uses all kinds of plans to accomplish his purposes. That’s one reason we ought to be slow to commend our institutional processes. So many plans succeed not because we have the best practices but because we have the best Savior.
The first thing to do is relax. It’s not our great wisdom but our great God who determines success. He can make all kinds of plans work.
The most urgent thing in any pastoral succession is to “pay much closer attention” to the essentials of the gospel, where the power resides (Heb. 2:1). Pastoral succession shouldn’t take up all the air in the room. The calm, confident faith in God that we need in such a time is downstream from what’s most essential: enjoying Jesus Christ.
2. Earnest Prayer
Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. (Acts 12:5)
Extraordinary needs compel extraordinary seasons of prayer. In Acts 12, the church in Jerusalem doubles down in prayer when it appears their beloved pastor, the apostle Peter, might not make it out of jail alive. The relevance of this event to pastoral succession is nearly on the nose.
An affectionate church recoils at the thought of losing their pastor—as they should. But that sense of need energizes prayer. There’s a place for planning, of course. The Bible affirms wise planning. Yet our confidence comes not from ourselves but from knowing God is with us in our plans. And the only way to access such confidence is through earnest and dependent prayer.
One practical way we sought God during our pastoral succession was by scheduling a series of church family gatherings focused on “praying down” God’s blessing. These meetings gave us an opportunity to bring updates about the pastoral succession, hear feedback, and pray frontline prayers for our church and our city. The prayer gatherings were opportunities for regular communication and for building the relational equity we’d need for the succession to succeed. Most importantly, the gatherings helped us keep the pastoral succession in proper perspective—as just one factor in our church’s much larger mission to glorify God.
3. Expressed Love
There was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. (Acts 20:37–38)
Through his gospel, Jesus is creating a social ecosystem of expressed love on earth. He calls it church. This explains the poignant farewell scene between Paul and the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Saying goodbye to those who have faithfully preached the gospel to us is always a sorrow.
If you’re thinking about pastoral succession, chances are your church has been blessed by the ministry of your lead pastor. Pastoral handoffs are usually a sign of stability and maturity in the ministry and tend to entail appreciation for the outgoing pastor. Appreciation and parting sorrow signify the pastoral ministry has been a success. Pastoral succession isn’t swapping one CEO for another—it’s the kind of succession that mingles sorrow and joy.
Appreciation and parting sorrow signify the pastoral ministry has been a success. Pastoral succession isn’t swapping one CEO for another—it’s the kind of succession that mingles sorrow and joy.
One of the things my predecessor helped me see is that the only way for a church to turn the corner in a pastoral succession is to fully express her affection for the outgoing pastor. When we know we’ve done right by him, that we’ve expressed our love and given honor where it’s due, we’re free in heart to lock arms and join hearts with the next lead pastor.
I hope you can see that the most important parts of pastoral succession aren’t organizational and procedural but spiritual and relational. They don’t map neatly onto a flowchart. To further complicate matters, each church has a different relational topography, requiring a unique map for pastoral succession.
I don’t know your church, so I can’t begin to offer a map. But I pray these three principles encourage you to embrace a pastoral succession that expresses faith in God, dependence on his grace, and love for your leadership.