Successful Succession - Providing for Tomorrow’s Saints Today (Part 2)

Previously, Rev. Wendy Poch, pastor of Spirit of Hope Lutheran Church in Parker, Colorado, began a series on successful pastoral succession using the example of the succession experience at Spirit of Hope (SOH). In this article, as the founding and predecessor pastor of the congregation, I will share with you my perspective about the process.

In 2019, God began working in the congregation to prepare it for a future leadership change. None of us at SOH knew it at the time. Our governing board was reading and discussing a book about pastoral succession that our congregational president had recommended. In the context of those discussions, the president and I had further private conversation where he asked me if I had any thoughts about retirement and who would succeed me. Wendy Poch was, at that time, in her last year of seminary and was serving as a contract pastor having completed her seminary internship with us. The congregational president and I both agreed that she would be an excellent successor if I was considering retirement.

In August of 2019, our congregation reached a significant milestone: the completion of our first permanent worship facility. Up to this point, I had been undecided about retirement. A change in my personal life in the spring of 2020 caused me to consider it more. After prayer and conversation with my wife, I felt the Lord prompting me to retire. It seemed that God aligned my ministry and my personal life to make it the right time to retire.

When God made this clear to me, I realized the situation called for action. We needed to move quickly as a congregation, as Wendy was already in a call process with another congregation and her graduation from seminary was only weeks away. I informed the congregational president of my decision to retire. I also informed Wendy and asked her if she would pray and consider accepting the pastoral call to SOH upon my retirement (if a call was offered by the congregation). After spending time in prayer, she said she was willing. Within the next six weeks, the necessary prayer, discussions, meetings, negotiations, and congregational votes occurred to extend her the call. Upon her acceptance of the call, Wendy and I entered into a ten-month transition process. Wendy has already started to share her perspective on that process and why it went so well (and there will be more articles coming in the future). Here are my observations, not only of our succession process, but of succession in general.

  1. Wendy was well known in the congregation, accepted, trusted, and loved. All of that did not happen overnight. A succession process needs a period of time for a congregation to build a relationship with the successor and assure the needed character, heart and skills are in place. If a successor were to come from outside the congregation, a significantly longer succession period could be helpful.

  2. The formal succession had a fixed timeline. While the preparation for transition (grooming it is sometimes called) can be open ended and take as much time as needed, once the decision is made to transition, a timeline and target date need to be respected. At SOH it was.

  3. The intentional transfer of responsibilities and leadership were mapped out and adhered to. Milestones were set where Wendy shared vision with leadership and a formal installation service marked the transfer of pastoral leadership from me to her.

  4. Intentional opportunities for me to say “thank you” and “good-bye” to the congregation and receive the same from them were arranged.

  5. We negotiated and respected boundaries after the succession was complete. As the founding pastor of the congregation, I was very conscious of the need to stay at some distance so Wendy could lead as God guided her. However, we are blessed with an excellent collegial relationship. We meet periodically and I visit the congregation for worship and events when appropriate.

In summary, not all congregations can implement a formal succession plan. However, informal succession planning should be a part of a pastor’s thinking (who could step in if I am suddenly not here?). For those congregations who can implement a succession plan, they have an incredible opportunity to be blessed by the Lord in ways that can mitigate the anxiety and uncertainty that can come when a pastor retires or leaves for another call and a future pastor is needed. The departing pastor, whether retiring or not, can leave with a sense of peace from God, knowing that the congregation has safely transitioned and is in good hands.

Rev. David R. Fisher is a retired LCMC pastor living in Greenwood Village, Colorado.

To read the previous article in this series, click here

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