Boomer Succession Planning

(Especially in large churches)


Keith Drury


About one fourth of today’s pastors are boomers and almost all mega-church pastors fit that description. However, the boomer reign is coming to an end over the next 17 years. Boomers are thinking about replacing themselves—succession planning. In large churches “succession planning” is even more important.  The pastor of an average church might figure the District Superintendent will worry about who will follow, but larger church pastors almost all think they need to play a central role in who gets the handoff.


When will these boomer pastors retire? Pretty soon they’ll be starting in the larger churches. Why? Because the demands of a sprawling mega church exhausts a 60something faster. An aging boomer pastor of 50 congregants can last longer than a pastor of a church running 2200. Thus, many pastors of larger churches are already poking around asking others about succession planning. And where they aren’t asking, their board members are quietly emailing behind their backs to get advice on succession. Which is why I am writing this paper.


There is a solid field of literature on succession planning. Amazon lists about 40 good books—we can expect many more in the coming decade.  Though most of these books are business focused (or some for educational institutions) still some wisdom applies to the church (though not all—most pastors should beware of the business person on the board who “knows all about succession planning”).  


Here are some thoughts on succession planning for churches—especially in larger churches where the need is most pressing. While these descriptions do not apply to every single boomer, they are common enough to offer as generalizations.


Boomer succession planning “inclinations”


1. Boomers want to pick their own successor. Few boomers have developed their local board enough so that the board can be trusted to pick a new pastor. Boomers want to pick their own successors and get the church to ratify their choice.  A boomer senior pastor thinking about retiring in the next five years usually has privately already named themselves as a one-person search committee for their successor. Or, at least a preliminary search committee.


2. Boomers expect to “train” their successor. Boomers want their successor to “learn the ropes” from them. They want to help the new candidate network and teach them the intricacies of running their church. Most expect to do this over a year or two by “bringing in a candidate” and “training them” to run this church properly, before handing off the church to the candidate at some future unspecified date. Lots of initial contacts with these “pastor-anointed successors” is privately going on now.


3. Boomers want someone like they are now, not like they were when they built their church. Pastors seldom seek the attitude, style, vigor and rambunctious drive they had themselves when they built the church. Instead, they prefer someone more like… well, like them now—someone who will conservatively protect what the church is now, not lead some radical revolution to change things completely. One put it this way,  “I built this thing and I don’t intend to see it squandered by some guy who tries to change everything we’ve worked for.” A pastor in his 60s thinks about leadership like he thinks about his pension--low risk to preserve legacy. I pastor in her 30s/40s thinks about leadership like her pension, “I’ve got enough time to take risks and see how they pan out.”


4. Boomers plan to stay in town and attend their church. Not all, but most do, or hope to, though they say something vague like “We want to travel around and do some other things but if we eventually attended here we’d certainly stay out of the hair of the new pastor.” Sometimes this works out.


While these are generalizations, they do reflect where most boomer senior pastors are now—“generally.” However boomers don’t have their minds made up yet on succession. They’re still inquiring. That’s why they are asking so many questions of their friends, mentors, and retired college professors. What are some of the other considerations boomers might look at before sealing in their approach to succession?


A few other thoughts to consider


1. Someone weak enough to work for you might not be strong enough to follow you. Leading a giant church takes a giant pastor—most giant pastors don’t want to work for 1-2 years “in training” to someone else before taking over.  The longer the “in training” period the weaker the candidate. A really strong successor might be willing to be “trained” for a summer, but the best leaders already know how to lead and think they don’t need “trained” by older folk. Every month added in “training” eliminates that many more strong leaders.  Besides, anyone who would take several years to learn the ropes is certainly too dim-witted to follow you, eh?  From the candidate’s view, the “Junior-Pastor-in-Waiting” scheme basically is a year long trial sermon with no guarantees.  However…. it is true that there are scores of ministers in their 40s who want your church and would be willing to follow you around for several years like a puppy to get it. These may be the most willing but not the most able candidates.


2. The best pastors in their 40s aren’t much excited about taking over someone else’s monument. They wonder if your church has plateaued, if it has had its best days, if you really only want someone to maintain what you did, and not be the revolutionary change-agent you were to build this church. They wonder if they changed things the way they think it should change… and then 15% of the people walked out, if you’d think they were a success or failure. Though they’d never say this to you, some fear the larger churches are headed toward becoming “baby boomer nursing homes.” They know that to avoid that destiny will require painful changes they’re not sure most boomer congregations really want—or the former pastor would approve. The best future leaders won’t be keepers of the past’s monument, but pioneers and builders of the future. Many pastors in their 40s want to imprint a church with their own DNA and not maintain the DNA of the previous pastor. This nowhere becomes more glaring than when today’s popular attractional model comes face to face with the missional model of so many ministers in their 40s. Many of these pastors are not even convinced that attractional churches can be changed into becoming missional churches—ever. And when they explain their missional passion most boomers assuredly brag about their existing food pantries and Christmas turkey programs as if programs makes a church missional.


3. Once succession planning starts, momentum is often lost.  Once it is known (and it always leaks out) that succession planning is under way, a church often goes into a waiting mode. Building plans get put on hold. Massive revolutionary programs are delayed and staff members start thinking about jumping ship. The church shifts into neutral and tends toward a holding pattern. This isn’t all bad because it lets the outgoing senior pastor serve his/her own interim pastor but the risk is that sometimes the momentum is never recovered. The shorter the period of succession planning, the better for momentum.


Emerging models of Succession Planning


Since so many boomers are thinking about succession, we can expect new ideas and fresh models to emerge. Here are just a few new models boomers are already exploring:


1. Regular guest-preacher. If a church does not already have on staff an obvious successor, an increasing number of larger churches will rotate speakers in who are not officially candidates but to just expose their people to possible candidates—not just once a year but every month or so for a few years. This model gives the church, the senior pastor and the potential candidates all a chance for exposure to each other over an elongated period. Since there are several speakers coming in, the speaker is not “candidating”  but merely preaching a sermon and getting to know the staff and key laity, maybe at more than one church.  Once the church has narrowed down the choice they can expand the model to include multi-day involvement with staff and laity so that by year end the new chosen speaker is ready to become an official candidate and face election. This emerging model is already in process among boomer churches with pastors in their 60s.


2. Equip-the-board model. Instead of focusing on training a new pastor, this model focuses on equipping the board to make wise decisions regarding the next pastor. It is something like the strategic planning process. In this model the board goes through a year-long process of defining the future of the church and what they need in a new pastor. However, few retiring senior pastors have the guts to lead this process, since it involves things like analyzing the strengths, weaknesses and omissions of the present senior pastor and conceiving a new direction for the church. Most large churches with strong pastors have weak boards so this is a challenge for large church boards. Besides, if the board has too much clarity of vision for the future, some of the strongest candidates self-select out because they would rather implement their own vision for a church, thank you very much. This method is popular among Presbyterians with strong lay leadership and doesn’t fit most booming boomer churches.


3. Pastor-Elect model. This model tries to eliminate the problem of the 1-2 yearlong “trial sermon with no guarantees” for a candidate.  Here the church elects their new pastor and issues a contract but does not install the new pastor until after 6-12 months working under the retiring pastor. In this model the candidate has something sure at the end of the year. The Pastor-elect is already sure of being the new pastor—they just work for a while under the outgoing senior pastor until they are installed.


4. Pastor Emeritus-Advisor model.  This model flips the above plan by electing the new pastor with full power (usually after being a regular guest speaker for a while). But instead of the outgoing pastor still being in charge, the new pastor takes over from day one… and the former pastor serves as an official advisor for a year or two—like colleges retiring Presidents into “Chancellors.”  (In a church this might mean “Pastor Emeritus.”)  This model attracts stronger candidates since they avoid a long trial “training period” and still have the final say if they disagree with the retiring pastor.



Other models will emerge. The challenge is great and the risk is high.  In the next decade or so most of the mega church pastorates will change hands. When a large church changes senior pastors attendance is at risk. In smaller churches people tend to stick with the ship because of “relationships and relatives.” Larger church loyalty is about as good as the last sermon series. A lot is at risk locally.  Denominations have a big stake here too. During the boomer reign the proportion of the US population attending church declined. However those still attending church flocked to bigger and bigger churches.  In my own denomination of more than 1600 churches 29% of my entire denomination attends 25 local churches, and almost 20% attend just ten churches.  So, local churches won’t be alone in succession matters. Denominations have too much at stake in the attendance figures and the gigantic loans they’ve backed up for these churches.  Where a DS isn’t strong enough to play a helpful role, denominational officials will step up. There is simply too much at risk to stand by and let a mega church bite the dust. (And, in addition, denominations and districts have plenty of boomer leaders who themselves are thinking about succession in the next decade.) But boomers can do this. Faced with a difficult challenges like this, boomers have almost always “found a way.” I suspect they will rise to this challenge too. Which is why so many are asking about succession. And why I wrote this paper.


Keith Drury is Associate Professor Emeritus Indiana Wesleyan University 

and is an ordained minister of The Wesleyan Church