Succession Planning


On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley Jr in Washington D.C. Vice President George H. W. Bush was in Texas at the time. During the chaos which ensued at the White House, Reagan’s Secretary of State, Al Haig, went on TV to try and calm the country. However, he committed a serious PR faux pas by saying, “I, Al Haig, am in control here at the White House.” While Haig was just trying to calm a worried country, some people thought he was either ignorant of, or trying to go around the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which already established a succession to the Presidency in case of death.

What has been your experience with succession planning? Chances are, you have not thought much about it in the course of your day-to-day leadership. We are going to look at two sides to succession planning, and my hope is that you will find value in this discussion. . . no matter what the size or type of church or organization you find yourself.

First, let’s look at a definition of the term from Wikipedia:

  • Succession planning is a process for identifying and developing new leaders who can replace old leaders when they leave, retire or die. Succession planning increases the availability of experienced and capable employees that are prepared to assume these roles as they become available.

The first type of succession planning we are going to look at is based on the definition above from Wikipedia. We are going to expand it to include not just leaders in the church, but everyone who performs anything you consider an essential role or position. (paid staff, un-paid ministry leaders, other key leaders, other vital roles, etc.) Try to make this as real as possible, by actually writing down the names of everyone on your staff, team, or area of responsibility.

There are several factors to consider when thinking about succession planning. Census data shows over three million people turn 66 each year in our country. And this number is growing each year as the Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement age. The days of people working for one company their whole life is likely a thing of the past. In fact, some research shows that people in the U.S. tend to stay with a single employer for just over four years. And then there is the popular, “hit by a bus” part of the equation. (Not sure why it is always a bus.)

No matter how you slice it, chances are good that if you have a team of six or more people, at least one of them will need to be replaced in the next 12 months. You have two choices, you can choose to ignore that until it actually happens. This is the most popular route for too many leaders. We wait until someone turns in their two-week notice, and then start scrambling to replace them. Or, you can invest some time now in preparation and planning.

Here is what this first level of succession planning might look like in a typical church:

  1. List out all of the people in the team who are in a position of leadership, or are performing some type of essential role in your area of responsibility.
  2. Identify their potential back-up. Who has the potential to step into each person’s role?
  3. What training and/or other type of preparation will each back-up person require in order to be successful in their new role?
  4. Where do you have gaps? In other words, where is there no logical back-up person for a key position?
  5. What action needs to take place in order to fill all of our gaps?

As stated before, this is really just one side of the succession planning process. However, just completing the steps listed above will put you in a small group of leaders who are not waiting for situations to happen to them, but are preparing now to get ahead of the inevitable. So congratulations to you if you are willing to complete those five important steps!

The other side of a successful succession planning process is missed by most churches and organizations. This is where we look at the people side, and not focus solely on the positions. Remember that listing of your team you wrote out before? Now look at each name. Try to set aside for the time being your need to fill positions or the needs of the church, and focus just on each person. What are their strengths? What are their gifts? What potential do they have beyond their current position? What are their wants and desires in relationship to their career? This side of succession planning can and should connect with the other side, but it is too often left out of the equation. Schedule time, outside of any performance review conversation, to sit down with each person on your team to better understand where they see themselves going in their career path. This investment of time and energy will pay off with huge dividends in the total succession planning process.

While you and your church or organization will never need to have anything as formal as our 25th Amendment in place to deal with succession planning, smart leaders are proactive in preparing for open positions AND growing those on their team.

Here are a few suggested next steps:

  1. Schedule an off-site retreat with your leadership team to put together a succession plan for your organization. Working with an outside facilitator will free you up to be more involved in the process.
  2. Read the book, Leaders Made Here by Mark Miller.
  3. Work with a professional coach who can provide encouragement, resources, and accountability.

Contact me if you are interested in learning more or want me to work with you and your team.

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