Succession Planning for Larger Churches


A few years ago, I received a call from a member of a Staff-Parish Relations Committee of a very large United Methodist Church. She said their pastor was retiring after a long tenure, and she was assigned to make some calls for the committee, with the bishop’s blessing, about potential successors. I assured her that there were much stronger options than myself to which she tactfully let me know they had no interest in me! She wanted to ask me about some people on their list.

At least, that’s close to what happened. In any case, the incident illustrates part of the complexity and mixed patterns of leadership selection for larger churches.

With all appointments, they work best when everyone remembers that the itinerant system began as a missional strategy, not a clergy placement system.

While all churches and pastors fall under the same system, there is no one practice of itinerancy, but multiple expressions of itinerancy practiced side by side. On one end of a continuum are the very largest churches where the role of laity is prominent, with some even forming “search committees” and, with the permission of the bishop, seeking candidates. On the other end are the very smallest churches where district superintendents are often on their own to find persons to serve those churches, usually local pastors or laity. Talk of “our system of itinerancy” ignores all its variations. The final authority of the bishop to “fix” appointments is the one common denominator.

There is a sense in which the model often applied to the largest appointments may capture the best elements of itinerancy for our day in that it takes very seriously the congregational interests, those of potential new pastors, and the bishop’s final authority to appoint. With all appointments, they work best when everyone remembers that the itinerant system began as a missional strategy, not a clergy placement system.

Large Churches Lead Pastor Succession

There is no way for any conference to grow without robust growth among its largest churches. Churches averaging 1,000 or more in worship are the only size tier of churches in which there is at least 50 percent growth each year. At the same time, some conferences have lost one-quarter or more of their large churches in the past ten years. This is where many conferences face their greatest opportunities and vulnerabilities in the next five to ten years.

Many of these churches will change pastors in the next ten years. And churches are particularly vulnerable to dropping in attendance when there is a change in pastoral leadership, so good succession planning is critical. Below are some possible components of a system to identify, cultivate, and support new lead pastors for large churches.

What Leadership is Needed?

One way to start is to identify the skills and aptitudes that differentiate exemplary large church lead pastors from the just effective or less-than-effective pastors of such churches. While not all large churches are alike, they share some common characteristics. In addition, among larger churches there are clusters of comparable “church types” (urban, suburban, long-established, relatively new, etc.) requiring distinctive sets of competencies. These competencies, once identified, become the criteria for assessing potential appointees.

There are ways to discern these competencies drawing from the wisdom of lead pastors, associate pastors, and laity from larger churches, along with bishops and superintendents. The goal is to identify baseline qualifications (“ticket for admission” criteria) and then identify those competencies that appear to distinguish the exemplary pastoral leaders from the effective or less than effective.

The danger of this approach is that you will describe exemplary leadership for the past era and not the next era. You must be attentive to changing circumstances in these churches and changing leadership needs. When a pastor has been at a church for a long time, the church is no longer the same church to which the pastor was originally appointed. It helps to ask questions such as: How will the next ten years be different from the past ten years for this church? What are the key challenges this church will face in the next ten years?

How to Identify Such Leadership?

Since most pastors get to larger churches by moving to them, rather than growing them, there is no guarantee that a pastor who was effective in a different setting will work out in a larger church. There are things that can make success more likely. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, though one must consider the current settings in which potential pastors are serving. But many pastors will not have been in settings where the full range of competencies needed for large church leadership will have been tested. This means that first and second appointments need special attention, especially for clergy roughly between 25 and 40 years of age, since they are most likely to have ten years of experience and still have ten years or more to serve when appointed to a large church. They need either a significant challenge or an opportunity to learn, or both. It will be important that the potential lead pastors will have led a church in growth appropriate to their context over a sustained period.

What about Pre-Training of Potential Large Church Pastors?

Pre-training is used widely now in which a group of clergy is identified that some believe have the potential to fill key places in the future. Most often the groups are for clergy who may have the opportunity to start a new church or to move to a much larger church. Putting aside the limitations of how the groups are formed, it is very hard to do training that “sticks” when it is intended for a setting for which the pastors have no immediate experience. A temptation may be for the clergy selected to think more about a future placement than their current situation, always a danger for any pastor but not something we want to encourage. There is nothing wrong with such training so long as it does not take away from what is done with pastors once they are appointed to the more challenging assignments. Training offered for new or younger pastors does well when it focuses on their current ministry settings and what they can do with what they are learning immediately.

A more directly applicable approach could be designed for new lead pastors of large churches to deal with what we believe are the common personal issues for these pastors as well as the areas of ministry where they must increase their capacity for these new responsibilities.

How to Increase the Chances of a Fruitful Transition?

New lead pastors of large churches need special support, especially during the first year. While it appears counterintuitive, the largest churches are often far more fragile than smaller churches. All churches do better or worse depending on the quality of their leadership. However, a larger church is more vulnerable to sharp and early downturns if a pastoral match is not working. Attention to pastors and churches during the first year is critical. Some components of such support might include:

Entry. A plan that begins when the appointment is made that includes personal and professional support and guidance using trainers and mentors.

Just-in-Time Competency Enhancement. Some past research involving interviews with all the large church pastors in one conference identified competencies that need to be enhanced when a pastor enters a large church, as well as the common personal issues that arise during this transition. The most substantive ministry issues were:

  • Preaching/Worship
  • Visioning/Planning
  • Staffing
  • Funding

Universally the pastors interviewed found that there was much more expected of them in these four ministry areas than they had ever experienced before. No matter how effective they had been, they had to do better in these areas.

The most immediate personal issues were:

  • Transition itself
  • New way of thinking (different role, priorities, credibility criteria)
  • Need for a mentor (which they did not have)
  • Maintaining spiritual grounding and life balance

One or more cohorts could be formed among new large church pastors to provide learning and support in these critical areas. There are lead pastors and recently retired large church pastors within or near the conference who could provide precisely the help and encouragement these transitioning pastors need during their first year. And putting the new lead pastors together in a learning cohort would provide them with a group of colleagues for the journey.

As we were reminded at the beginning of this conversation, all appointments work best when everyone remembers that the itinerant system began as a missional strategy, not a clergy placement system. These appointments to large churches, as with all appointments, need the care that befits the sacred mission to which God has called the Church.


About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.