How to Keep Your Leadership Pipeline Full

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How can you make sure your church will have the new leaders it needs? Ken Willard and Kelly Brown consider how succession planning, a process common in the business world, can be adapted to help your church maintain a strong pipeline of leaders.


Have you ever found yourself struggling to fill a key leadership position in your church?  Most of us have been there, some of us more times than we care to remember. There is no magic process or secret solution which will suddenly provide us all with a group of well-trained leaders sitting on the bench waiting for the perfect opportunity to fill our open positions. However, there are steps we can take to be better prepared for the leadership openings we will have in the future.

What is succession planning?

In the business world, there is a process often known as succession planning. The Society of Human Resource Management define succession planning as “a focused process for keeping talent in the pipeline. It is generally a 12- to 36-month process of preparation, not pre-selection.”  An organization engaged in succession planning is typically working to be proactive about who in their company can fill key leadership openings before those openings occur by providing training, mentoring, coaching, and new experiences to the appropriate individuals.

The process will look much different in our churches than it does in business organizations. However, there are some things we would be wise to take note of and adapt to our environments.

1. Be intentional

Leaders will leave, retire, rotate off, or be called to their heavenly home. It has happened before and will happen again. We need to anticipate and prepare for openings in our key leadership positions. Too often we in the church are being reactive instead of being proactive. We fill a key leadership position and then forget all about it until it is suddenly open again. Even if that “suddenly” was three years or more, and we knew the day it was going to come open again. In some cases, we may feel like planning for someone’s replacement is somehow being disloyal or disrespectful to the leader who is currently filling that position. We must focus at least as much on the importance of the leadership role as we do on the person who is currently filling that role. Our mission is too important for us to allow any transitions in leadership to slow us down or cause us to stumble in our ministry. Certainly, we should honor the leader themselves, but we need to also honor the mission Christ gave us to do in our mission field. Be intentional in your ministry about creating a leadership replenishment system for key leadership roles.

2. Review key roles

The second learning of succession planning we should adapt to our ministry is to review annually each key leadership position and identify who in the church has the potential to fill each role. In many churches there is already an annual process of some type to name who is currently filling each key leadership position and to nominate people to fill any open positions. We would challenge you and your church to take the process you already have in place up to the next level by getting ahead of where you are now. In other words, don’t just focus on the positions that are open. Review each key leadership position each year. Ask the following questions:

  • How is the person who is filling this role doing now? Are there things we can do to help them improve and grow as a leader?
  • If this person were to suddenly leave, who would fill this role? What do we need to do in order to prepare them for that situation?
  • When this person rotates off or steps down at some future date, who will fill this role? What do we need to do now in order to prepare them for that situation?

3. Look beyond the obvious choices

Too often a church will only look at people who are already on a team or committee when they are looking to replace the chairperson. The right person to chair your trustee committee might currently be serving in the children’s ministry, finance, or as a greeter. We have worked with many churches where everyone on the finance team is either a banker, a CPA, or an accountant. Those are great professionals, but what is most important in church finances is a leader who understands the spiritual practice of generosity. It is usually better to find a leader who is tithing and either teach them what they need to know or surround them with experts than to have a leader who is a financial expert and try to teach them about spiritual giving.

Getting started

One way to gain support for this process of leadership replenishment in your ministry is to involve each of the leaders who are filling those key positions. Be up front with them and challenge them to play an active role in the process. For example, when someone in your church accepts a nomination for a key position explain to them that one of their responsibilities is to identify and prepare their replacement. This is in no way intended to work around the church’s current nominations team process, but is intended to support it. Identifying and preparing someone for a position in the church should never be a guarantee that they will be offered that role. The intent is to be able to provide the nominations team with options to be included in their discernment process. We believe most nominations teams would welcome having additional options, especially when they have been trained and prepared for those key leadership positions.

This need not be overwhelming. Think clearly about where your ministry is now in the whole process of leadership replenishment. Now picture a future where the process is in place 100 percent and running like a well-oiled machine. What would be ONE step you could take in that direction this year? Just take that step. Too often we encounter a process like this and see the value, but never put it into place because we are trying to go from 1 to 100 in a week. Just take a first step.


Excerpted from Church Ecology: Creating a Leadership Pathway for Your Church (Market Square Books, 2020) by Ken Willard and Kelly Brown. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

picture of Ken Willard

Ken Willard (kwillard@wvumc.org) is the director of discipleship, leadership, and congregational vitality for the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown (kbrown@eocumc.com) is the director of congregational vitality for the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church and an associate certified coach with the International Coaching Federation.


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