Successful Succession Isn’t an Oxymoron

We were flying high. Our church had grown every year for over twenty years, and our attendance average topped 4500. On Easter, we’d minister to 8,000.

That was early in this decade. I was in my early fifties, and we began talking about a ten year transition plan, including things like debt reduction, completing our campus master plan, developing young leaders, and generally moving the church away from its dependence on me

Seven years later our carefully crafted strategy for the future looked like the game plan of football team losing by twenty-four points at half time. Several of our best young leaders left, and for myriad reasons (no moral failures or financial improprieties, thank God!), our attendance began to decline. I was exhausted, close to burnout. So in the summer of 2006—several years sooner than we had planned, I submitted a senior pastor transition plan to our Board. The new guy, Terry Crist, became our co-pastor in the fall of 2007, senior pastor January 1, 2008.

The pain of it…

I could not bend the attendance curve back up. All the studies show that a church like ours needed new leadership. I didn’t have the energy I had in my forties, either. Somewhere I heard that, as you get older, you soften. Become more gentle. More flexible. Um, maybe I’m the exception, but as I’ve gotten older my old soccer knees–and my emotions–are less elastic.

I bet you haven’t heard this Bible passage: “This is the rule the Levites must follow: They must begin serving in the Tabernacle at the age of twenty-five, and they must retire at the age of fifty. After retirement they may assist their fellow Levites by serving as guards at the Tabernacle, but they may not officiate in the service. This is how you must assign duties to the Levites” (Numbers 8:24-26, NLT)

In 2007, I “celebrated” twenty-five years as the Senior Pastor of our church, and if anyone tells you it’s easy to let go, don’t believe it. I loved the place. The people. The energy. The changed lives.

And can I be honest? I loved what the megachurch did for my self-image. As a younger man, I never dreamed of leading a significant ministry, but we were just in the right place at the right time. It was a beautiful blend of grace and obedience. Now, though, I realize how much Word of Grace has defined my life, and the thought of living without her, my beloved church, made me feel naked.

I was on an emotional roller coaster. Hope up. Angst down. No more staff meetings! Up. Personal income? Down? Yet in the fog of change, one thing was clear: God was calling for new leadership at our church, and he wanted me to do something else.

One part of me clutched obsessively to the past. Another longed for the future. Henri Nouen writes about how “the old country … has become a part of your very bones. Now you have come to realize that you must leave it and enter the new country, where your Beloved dwells. You know that what helped and guided you in the old country no longer works, but what else do you have to go by? You are being asked to trust that you will find what you need in the new country. That requires the death of what has become so precious to you: influence, success, yes, even affection and praise.”

Reading books by Nouen and people like him—and having a professional coach and a spiritual director have been lifelines for me. It kept telling myself: If I’m not healthy, the transition won’t be healthy. If I crash and burn, it’ll a start a wildfire in the church.” For me, the challenge was to stay steady and faithful in a time in my life when, inside, I felt unsteady and uncertain.

Paul wrote famously: “I I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Bet you don’t know what’s in the next verse: “Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.” Godly, honest friends are essential, especially when you feel pain.

The plan of it…

In the summer of 2006, I submitted to our Board a “transition resolution,” including a plan for my future and a request to search for a co-pastor who would become the lead pastor of Word of Grace. The “resolution” kicked things into motion. Slow motion. Large organizations are more like aircraft carriers than skateboards. Our Board set up a search process that would, unlike many other churches, involve my input. We decided early on that we would not be “old pastor out, new pastor in.” We believed there should be a “passing of the mantle.” Sometimes, I think, our churches are generally corporate and democratic when, in fact, in the Bible they were generally theocratic. Not that checks and balances and accountability and large teams are bad things! Yet many churches downplay the call and anointing of God on the lives of his pastors and leaders and see them more as “employees.”

Yes, our formal search process included a specially-selected committee and “help wanted” notices in magazines and on-line, but we also stayed open to the informal side of the process, recognizing that as we searched and prayed, God might bring someone to us we weren’t exactly looking for. And he did.

A long-time acquaintance of mine, Terry Crist, senior pastor of CitiChurch, a multi-site church in Scottsdale, heard we were in transition and shared with me that he had some interest in the position. That initial conversation developed into a prayerful, nine-month, intense interaction between the senior leadership teams of the two congregations. It culminated in a unanimous decision of our Governing Board to become one church in two locations under one vision. Unlike many churches, we did not have congregational vote for the new pastor.

We announced the “merger” first to our leadership teams, then to our leadership communities, and finally to our respective congregations in the weekend services. We used our websites to keep people updated, too, and we assembled a transition team of people from both churches, including “outsiders” like Jim Tomberlin, who led the multi-site effort at Willow Creek in Chicago and is now serving great churches across the country as they adopt a multi-site approach to ministry.

How is everything going to work out? We don’t know! But everyone in key positions of leadership is committed to what we believe is the clear direction of God. Both Terry and worked intensely together–and with our teams–to make this transition happen well and, more importantly, to lead and disciple the people in our care through our season of extraordinary change and opportunity.

As for me, I’ve put a boulder in my brain: I will do everything I can to get out of the way and to make Terry successful. I’m a leader. That’s the upside of being a control freak. So I learned about dying daily. The beauty of this, as Paul says, is that when death works in us, like Jesus, it releases life to others, like Terry.

Right after we agreed that Terry would become our new senior pastor, I happened to watch a Larry King Live program about Elvis Presley. Interviewing Priscilla Presley at Graceland, the Presley home and estate, Larry King asked her, “Do you feel Elvis’ presence here in this home?”

“Oh, yes!” she replied. “In every room.” Elvis is buried right there, in the garden, too.

It was a spiritual moment. God spoke to me: Elvis needs to leave the building.

My good friend and colleague Cal Jernigan, Senior Pastor of Central Christian Church probably the second largest church in Arizona, told our Board that a key to their successful transition, which took place over a couple years, was the affirmation and blessing of the outgoing senior pastor, Roy Lawson.

This is the narrow gate. The broader gate, maybe the easier way, would have been for me to step aside entirely, like an outgoing president and his cabinet, and just let the new guy take over. Amazingly, however, Terry has asked me to be available to him. To help him as needed. He recognizes that I’m not just an employee, but that I’ve invested my life in this ministry and that I have deep relationships with so many people.

The church will support us financially for several years, and Terry has graciously invited me to speak a number of times since I left. Word of Grace (now City of Grace) continues to be my “home” church, where my wife and I attend on the few weekends I’m not speaking somewhere else. It’s where we send out tithes and offerings, too.

The fundamental question is not: Why did you leave your church? It’s: How did you leave your church. What you do in a leadership transition strategically is never as important as what you do personally. As a good friend of mine has said, “You can’t always plan for what happens, but you can always prepare. So I’ve committed myself to do everything I can to help and to get out of the way, so my successor Terry Crist can be successful.

My legacy will be Terry’s success.

It’s been two years, now, since I stepped aside. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Bless him. And bless Terry and Judith. They’ve done an extraordinary job leading our church into a new, God-ordained future, and they’ve done right through the middle of the shadowy valley of a dreadful economy.


In my last e-news I wrote about Hollywood’s blatant hypocrisy. How about Hollywood personalities as a helpful guide for your spiritual life:

“I’m still very sexual, but I’m sexual in a much more energetic, spiritual sense, which is deeper and more fun.”

~ Dana Delaney of “Desperate Housewives”

What the …. ???

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