5 Steps for a Successful Succession

By Jason Zellmer

How do you leave your role well as a church planter? Here are five steps to implement in a healthy succession plan as you consider how God may lead you into new kingdom efforts for His glory.

Succeeding Well

One day, the church you plant will have a different pastor. Even if you live to be a hundred years old, you must hand over the reins at some point. The goal of this article is to help you plan how that transition will happen because succession plans can be tricky. Just like two sprinters running in a relay race, the risk of dropping the baton or crashing into your fellow runner can always happen.

So, how do you make the handoff as smooth as possible? How can you set a future pastor up for success while retaining members and honoring your congregation’s past? Here are five important steps to consider when creating your succession plan.

1. Plan to leave

This may sound counterintuitive, but even before your first core team gathering or public service, you should think about leaving. Why? Because one day you will. Be it from age, life circumstance, death, or disqualification, you’re not always going to be “the guy.” Life is fragile. James even says that “you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes” (James 4:14). Because of this reality, you should begin with the end in mind. 

Don’t build the church around your personality. Refrain from raising up ministries around your charisma or gifting. If you do so, your leadership will become like a ceiling to the future potential of your plant. Instead, empower your people quickly. Create a culture of trust. Allow others to preach and teach. Give away leadership often and resist the urge to micromanage. Paul told Titus that the churches in Crete weren’t properly established until elders were appointed (Titus 1:5). Likewise, the early apostles appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23). By surrounding yourself with strong leaders, you will ensure the future success of your church, even if you must leave unexpectedly. 

2. Identify a leader

In the most recent church we planted, I anticipated my departure to be within three to five years of our launch. Because I had this awareness, I took time in our first year to begin the search for a prospective leader who exhibited the traits of our next lead pastor. He needed to be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, and able to teach, just to name a few traits (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Additionally, he needed to be a visionary and leader of leaders, the kind of guy who could continue our mission of making disciples and multiplying new churches. 

The young man who came to mind was Brandon, whom I had led to Christ in our youth ministry years before. He was a highly relational and charismatic leader. I saw within him the gifting to be a lead pastor. So, we sat down, and I shared my plan. After many meetings and dinners with our spouses, he agreed to join our team. Brandon went through the elder process and became our evangelism pastor. We didn’t announce anything to the church. We were only a year old at the time, and doing so might have freaked people out. However, we both knew the ultimate goal we had in mind for our church’s leadership.

Though the track was set and the runners were on their mark, a successful handoff would take time. 

3. Slowly give away leadership

Once Brandon came on the team, I gradually began to give him more responsibilities. He would lead a service project, preach on a Sunday morning, and even take a turn leading our covenant members class. After each opportunity, we would talk about what went well and where Brandon could grow. Thankfully, I had found a humble leader who eagerly desired growth, which is key to working a succession plan. We tell new planters in our Send Network training, Experience is not the best teacher. Evaluated experience is.It isn’t enough to throw someone into a job and hope it works out. You need to keep watching, talking, and evaluating. That way, if the person is not the right fit, you and your elders can come to the same conclusion. 

To this point, you should hold your plan loosely. Maybe you discover a difference in vision or theology that becomes a deal breaker. Maybe you realize your candidate doesn’t possess the leadership ability you first surmised. The good news is that it’s not too late to hit the eject button. Beyond your elders (and possibly their wives), nobody else should be aware of your potential transition. Hit reset and go back to step one. Worst case scenario, you’ve helped a future leader develop. As long as you were clear and didn’t overpromise on the front end, you can help him transition into a better fit for ministry. Chances are that he will see the same truth and agree.

4. Communicate your succession plan

Now, if you’ve picked the right guy and allowed your people the opportunity to watch him lead, this next step should be the easy part! Little by little, you’ve been stepping away as you’ve given your future leader more reps and responsibilities. Maybe you intentionally took a summer sabbatical. Or maybe you eased off from preaching to work on a writing project. Whatever the case may be, your people are comfortable with this candidate in your absence. I say this next part half-joking yet half-serious, but hopefully, they like him more than they like you. Remember, it was never about you in the first place. God used you in this role for a season, and ultimately, you want to set your church family up to win!

So now, tell them about your succession plan. I recommend first doing this in a covenant members meeting where you disclose the leadership change and reveal the timeline. You could say, “In _____ months, I will be stepping down as lead pastor, and _____ will be stepping into my place. I have prayed for this and have slowly tried working myself out of a job because I believe _____ is the man to lead our church into the future.” Then, celebrate it! Talk about it on Sunday morning. Share testimonies at a special dinner. Post it on your church’s social media accounts. For this to work, you need to be the biggest cheerleader. Your church plant was never the goal; the kingdom is the goal. Remember: This is a kingdom win because a healthy leader has been raised and you’ve been freed up for new kingdom work. 

However, remember this, too: You don’t get the credit. As we learn in Proverbs 16:9, “A person’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps.” You might have developed the plan, but God gave you the brains and brought the plan to fruition. So, praise Him, worship Him, and rejoice in His kindness toward both yourself and your church plant!

5. Stick around

Typically, when a pastor steps down, we treat him like we’re in corporate America. You’ve got two weeks to pack up the parsonage and say your goodbyes. Maybe you get a severance. What’s worse, we are now in the business of signing non-disclosure agreements. Yuck. However, what if you did it voluntarily? And what if every step was taken systematically—in love and with humility? The good news is that you can stick around for a bit and help the church stabilize. This is truly the sign of a well-executed succession plan.

After Brandon stepped into the lead role, I wanted to be his biggest cheerleader. If I could submit to his leadership, I knew the church could, too. I gave him full permission to create his own plan, and he let me stay on the elder team. I would help out by preaching every few months and planning community events. Brandon knew he could confide in me and that I would give him counsel in difficult decisions. We weren’t just co-pastors serving on the same team; we were friends. And a year later when it was finally time for me to take on a new ministry calling, Brandon and our other elders honored my family’s work by celebrating and sending us off into our next mission.

Trust God’s Growth

So, to close, I want to remind you that succession plans are nothing new. We aren’t talking about a novel concept or a catchy new trend.

Paul, the quintessential planter, said it best: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So, then, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).

Published July 5, 2023

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Jason Zellmer

Jason Zellmer serves as the director of Send Network Missouri. He spends most of his time helping churches multiply across the state. Prior to working for Send Network, Jason planted three churches around Saint Louis. He currently serves in the local church as the lead residency pastor at Northroad Church. He and his wife Heather have five kids: Benjamin, Olivia, Julia, Isaac and Jayda.