What are the common concerns people have when planning succession?

by Peter Bunton

In recent years I have engaged in field research on Christian organizations and movements as they have undergone leadership succession, particularly founder succession. In the process, it became clear that there are some widely shared concerns when Christian organizations considered how to proceed with their succession goals. In this article I will focus on three concerns which seem to be among the most common, if not the most common. The first is the fear of the loss of distinctive vision and values—particularly uniquely Christian vision and values. The second is fear of the loss of organizational vibrancy as the ministry becomes more bureaucratic, a concept well-known in sociology as “routinization of charisma.” The third concern is that founders and long-term leaders might remain in post too long and thereby impede the organization’s opportunities for an optimal succession. Let’s take a closer look.

Loss of Distinctive Vision and Values

“Mission drift” is a term which describes the process when a group that begins with a specific vision and purpose finds itself, over time, doing other things which detract from or even dissipate the founding vision. Mission drift is a common concern in evangelical organizations, especially applied to the feared dynamic of a Christian ministry experiencing greater secularization. This is described by Greer and Horst as follows: “Functional atheism is the path of least resistance.”1 This analysis was also echoed by Christopher Crane, founder of the Christian ministry Edify, when he says, “It’s the exception that an organization stays true to its mission. The natural course—the unfortunate natural evolution of many originally Christ-centered missions—is to drift.”2 This fear tends to bring continuity of values and ethos into focus when considering whom to appoint as a successor.

This phenomenon was confirmed in the succession of Life Impact Ministries, where the successor, David Knauss, noted that the founders had a “strong desire that the core values of the mission be carried on. Those values are often not seen in mission agencies and are one of the reasons Life Impact Ministries exists in the first place.”3 This same concern was evident in the movement of churches called Grace Network, and their desire that succession not “eviscerate the culture of Grace Network.”4 One of Grace Network’s founders explained this concern when he recommended, “Turn it over to somebody with similar DNA who has similar values and mode of operation,”5 because if an organization tries to change the DNA, “you mutate into something.”6

In Christian organizations, this fear commonly leads to the selecting of internal rather than external successors in an attempt to keep the organization on track with its original vision.

Loss of Charisma

A second concern is that the charisma of the founder will be lost in the shuffle of increased structure. Economist and sociologist Max Weber specifically used the term “routinization of charisma” to describe this phenomenon.

The term “charisma” will be applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, super­human, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.7

In Weber’s understanding, routinization is the establishment of rules and structures of a new religious group or community. Thus, according to this theory, a pioneering leader with charismatic authority is often succeeded by others who formalize and bureaucratize. This fear, of course, is related to the first fear mentioned above, namely, to avert any loss of distinctive vision and values and resultant mission drift. This fear relates to the belief that a pioneering organization or ministry might move into a phase of greater bureaucratization where decisions are made according to policies, written procedures, and the like, rather than through following a spiritual vision whereby leadership stems from the charisma of the leader. As you might expect, greater documentation and decision-making accord­ing to written polices can actually be anathema to a visionary founder of a new movement who emphasizes obtaining guidance from God and collaborating on the basis of similar vision and relationships rather than hierarchical structures.

A strong dislike of the possibility of loss of charisma was seen in the case of Newfrontiers, a network of hundreds of churches around the world. They did not use the term “routiniza­tion,” but instead spoke of the fear of “institutionalization.” There was, for example, a negative view of hierarchical structures. Referring to new apostolic networks, Devenish, one of the successors to Newfrontier’s founder, writes, “The last thing that the founding fathers of these move­ments would want is to see their living, relational leadership structures be­ing institutionalized into something more rigid and hierarchical by a second generation of leaders.”8 The prevention of such institutionalization would be by means of maintaining “the biblical emphasis on family relationship, particularly the continuing need for fathers.”9 In choosing a successor, Christian organizations tend to seek a person of charismatic authority who might continue and even enhance the vision and spiritual nature of the organization and who will not lead the ministry into over-bureaucratization.

Long-Term Leader Stays in too Long

Failed cases of leadership succession have caused many to be anxious about the exiting leader subverting the succession plan by remaining in post too long. This was so in the well-documented case of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas. At the time of an intended pastoral succession (early 1990s), this church was the largest congregation in the United States.10 W. A. Criswell had been the senior pastor for some forty-six years. A new pastor, Joel Gregory, was appointed in January 1991 with the understanding that, after some months of transition, Criswell would resign. The latter remained involved in many church issues and continually decided to remain in office, making various delays to his departure. Gregory felt he was in a difficult position, believing that Criswell’s presence and actions, such as public criticism of his named successor, were undermining him. In mid-1992, Criswell stated that he would remain for a further two years. In September 1992, Gregory announced his resignation from the pulpit and thereafter published a can­did account of his experiences and frus­trations as a designated successor who found that the predecessor was not willing to relinquish authority. In this case, after Gregory’s resignation, Criswell resumed responsibilities and remained in office for an additional ten years.

This case, more widely known due to the publication of Gregory’s account, became a negative example of succession for others who were motivated not to find themselves in a similar position.11 Indeed, it was the reading of Gregory’s account of the disastrous succession that motivated one senior leader, not wanting to become another Criswell, to begin succession planning. This leader was “really convicted” upon reading about Criswell and determined not to be like him.12

Given common concerns over these three succession fears, it would seem advisable for those considering succession to

  • adopt a plan to restate and reinforce values
  • make deliberate attempts to ensure a continuation of dynamic spirituality rather than over-bureaucracy
  • have a stated timeline for succession, possibly determined by an independent body, that will not change mid-process.

It is my encouragement that with appropriate input, prayer, and planning, these potential succession pitfalls can indeed be avoided.

1. Greer and Horst, Mission Drift, 42–43.
2. Interview with Greer, February 2013, in Greer and Horst, Mission Drift, 19.
3. Correspondence from David Knauss, Oct 29, 2018 (cited with permission).
4. Interview I with Jack Groblewski, 2018.
5. Interview II with Dick Blackwell, 2018.
6. Interview with Dick Blackwell, 2018.
7. Weber, Theory of Social and Economic Organization, 358–59.
8. Devenish, Fathering Leaders, 12.
9. Devenish, Fathering Leaders, 12–13.
10. Described in Gregory, Too Great a Temptation.
11. See Wheeler, “Leadership Succession Process,” 123.
12. Wheeler, “Leadership Succession Process,” 174.

Works cited

Devenish, D. (2011). Fathering Leaders – Motivating mission: Restoring the role of the apostle in today’s church. Bletchley: Authentic.
Greer, P. and Horst, C. (2014). Mission drift: The unspoken crisis facing leaders, charities, and churches. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers.
Gregory, J. (1994) Too great a temptation: The seductive power of America’s super church. Fort Worth: The Summit Group.
Weber, M. (1964). The theory of social and economic organization (Translated by Henderson, A.M. and Parson, T.). New York: The Free Press.
Wheeler, M.E. (2008). The leadership succession process in mega churches. Ph.D. Temple University, Philadelphia. Available at: http://digital.library.temple.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p245801coll10/id/12832

LEARN MORE! Succeeding at Succession by Peter Bunton

This book studies founder and leadership successions within Christian organizations and networks. Based on interviews with the founders of such movements and their successors, it examines the leadership theories and theologies which shaped these successions by investigating matters such as succession planning, selection methods, gender implications, and the relationships between incoming and outgoing leaders. This work shows both the potential problems that could be faced but provides guidelines to facilitate a successful succession.