Successful Succession

Now Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him, doing just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

Deuteronomy 34:9 NLT

Sunday was a wonderful day for us.  We handed the reins of our latest church, Faith Christian Fellowship of Tucson, over to the new Pastors.  They have served us faithfully for 18 years, 3 years longer than the church has existed.  We know them.  Our Pastor, Pastor Lonnie Hilton, presided over the service and it was powerful (You can see it here).

I’ve had time to decompress a bit, and I’ve had a few thoughts about handing off the baton.  My formula for starting a ministry and seeing it continue has developed over time, working both here and abroad. I think the paradigm applies in the transition of a church pastorate. You need to address 4 elements for a successful transition:

  1. The Right Man
    • Look for a good man, not a gifted man.  I thank God for gifted people, but I have known many gifted people who were not reliable and decent.  The Bible is quite clear: you need a man who is faithful.  That means faithful to you, to God, and to his own house. In fact, other than being able to teach, talent is never overtly mentioned in discussions of qualifications for ministry.
    • Look for a man who is motivated by God and His Word, not just building a ministry.  Power is a dangerous place.  A pastor possesses power, influence, over the lives of precious human beings.  There is always a temptation to manipulate to the end of building up the ministry instead of mentoring to the end of building up the heart.
    • Here’s the takeaway.  Gifting (talent) often allows people to be promoted without being required to deal with their character. Just remember, with every gift, you get the baggage.  Spend enough time and effort to find God’s man (or woman), examine their character, and recognize the baggage that comes with the gift.
  2. The Right Message.
    • This seemed especially important for our church.  It’s not that we have a unique message, but we do have a peculiar flavor. We honor the Word of God by taking great pains to interpret it honestly, appealing to recognized standards of Bible interpretation rather than simple individual inspiration.  We wanted it right, not just exciting.
    • We are also staunch advocates of the flow of the supernatural in the Church.  We are unapologetically Spirit-filled.  That takes some fortitude.  In order to honor the Word while allowing the freedom of the Spirit, the Pastor must know both and be willing to take responsibility for how they interact in the church.
    • One key characteristic of our message has been transparency.  The message must be something that applies to everyday life, and the presentation of it must be done is a way that is without artifice. Life is hard, people fail.  It is no crime to fall, get sick, or have any other battle in life.  We are broken people serving a perfect God.  Any implication that as ministers we belong to some higher class of always chipper Christian looking down on the struggling masses is simply show business. I want a man who knows he can’t do this without God.
    • Here’s the takeaway: Be sure you can sleep at night with the message your man is going to preach.  That means teaching him, listening to him, and watching him. Does he rightly divide the Word? Does he know the move of the Spirit?  It’s the message that changes people’s lives.  Getting it right is important.
  3. The Right Mission.
    • What did God tell you to do? God gives every church a reason to exist.  Some call it vision, some call it mission, no matter. If you don’t know yours, then you can’t possibly pass it on.  Take the time to pray, write, talk with other leaders until you know what your commission is.  Having done that, conform your practice to your purpose.  Do things that further the mission.
    • Your successor will have things in his own heart, but those things must share missional DNA with the purposes of God for this ministry.  Otherwise the transition will be a new plant, not a continuation.  DNA is passed from the fathers to the sons.  That is your job. 
    • Here’s the takeaway: Spend time doing ministry together.  Don’t just bark orders, discuss reasons, viewpoints, and principles. Words explain, but actions demonstrate the real “why” of the ministry. Imparting that “why” is essential to a transition that is glory to glory, not just a reboot.
  4. The Right Methods.
    • Character is a non-negotiable. The Message is eternal. The mission is a direction from God. The way we get the mission done is subject to constant re-evaluation.  Times change, people change technology changes.  All these things determine methods. The goal is to be effective, not to be traditional.  It is no disrespect to me to change a method.
    • Principles and core values are constant. Preferences are fluid. I like red, therefore my office wall is painted a nice Sedona red.  When the new pastor comes in, he can paint it whatever hue he likes.  God doesn’t care, and neither should I.  The same goes for service length, music choice, organizational structures, etc. 
    • Here’s the takeaway: I want my successor to do things differently.  He is a different man, form a different time, ministering to a different culture.  My job is to release him to be him, and trust God to use him.  On matters of method and preferences, I have no opinion.

If you’re a pastor who is AARP-eligible, then it is time to seriously think about finding a successor.  Start praying about it today.  Not all churches are supposed to survive forever, that’s OK.  If you believe God wants yours to go on beyond you, then take steps of faith – pray, seek counsel, talk to your elders, invest in younger ministers. If we can be of help, contact us at fcftoffice@fcftucson.org.

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