Succession is a hot topic, with a growing amount of literature addressing this topic, whether in the business world1 or within Christian ministries and organizations.2 What exactly is succession, and why is it becoming a topic of increasing focus in our world today?

 

Succession Can Go Really Well

Leadership succession is about the replacement of one or more leaders with others who will continue directing an organization into its vital mission and purpose. Clearly, for any organization to have longevity, succession must take place. We find examples of succession in the Scriptures, such as Elijah and the desire for his prophetic ministry to continue after him. We see the powerful possibilities of succession when Elijah’s successor, Elisha, continues and multiplies the ministry (2 Kings 1-8). Indeed, much of Jesus’ earthly ministry was focused on who would continue His ministry on earth and how they could best be prepared.

 

Succession Can Go Really Wrong

There are multiple examples in business, however, where succession does not go well, even with the former leader returning to resume leadership responsibilities.3 Sadly, we also see examples of problematic successions within Christian ministries. Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Ministries, has been public about how he aborted the succession plan of his father, Charles Stanley, and refused to lead his father’s ministry.4 We also think with sadness of the many difficulties in seeking to provide proper succession for the Crystal Cathedral and associated ministries founded by Robert H. Schuller.5

As this matter of succession is thus of profound significance for the future flourishing of a business or ministry, it causes us to reflect on the complexities of the issue. Who should start the succession process? How can a former leader relinquish authority in a healthy way? Should we appoint people from within our ministry or from without? How do we prepare someone to assume leadership responsibility? Is there a normative model of succession, that is, a model to which we have to subscribe?

 

Who Starts the Process?

Having spent some years engaged in empirical research in this matter,6 here are a few thoughts to help us reflect on this topic. First, it is usually better if the existing leader raises the matter. This circumvents awkwardness and embarrassment where others feel they cannot raise the issue as they see the existing leader aging. The leader should raise the matter for discussion and begin to articulate what he or she may do post-succession. People will find the topic easier to process knowing the leader has a plan for their life. The leader should plan for succession, speak openly about it, but also importantly, have people speaking into their life, helping them navigate transition. Many leaders, especially founders, find relinquishing responsibility difficult. They can even enter a period of grief and loss of direction. To assist them, as well as for the peace of mind of all around them, some kind of independent advisor, coach, or pastor can be very helpful.

 

Successor Origins – Internal or External?

One of the most widely researched aspects of succession in the business world is that of successor origins, whether to appoint new leadership from within or from outside of the organization. There is some literature which points to the benefits of external appointments, such as bringing in totally fresh perspectives. However, some of the studies seem to indicate that this approach may be the best when the organization is in severe crisis.7 The majority of the literature indicates the importance of internal succession, where the culture, values, and ethos of the organization are already embedded in the future leaders. This approach was particularly popularized by Collins and Porras with their findings that extraordinary, visionary companies make internal leadership appointments six times more often than average companies.8 In Christian ministries, it seems ubiquitous that internal succession is preferred, where leaders already have the same theology and values of the ministry.9

 

Transference of Knowledge

Clearly, the preparation of a successor is important, including training and understanding the vision and values of the organization. It has been found10 that leaders often have a large quantity of tacit knowledge, meaning the many things they just intuitively or through habit do in leading the organization. With their departure, this corporate history and understanding can dissipate. Peet11 found it crucial to engage exiting leaders in “generative interviewing,” whereby their tacit knowledge is intentionally articulated and documented for future guidance for successors.

 

Should the Successor Be Like the Predecessor?

Some in church and Christian ministries have looked for authoritative and normative models of succession.12 This raises the question of whether there is one right or even biblically prescribed approach. While there may be certain truths, as even indicated above, it is possible that differing organizations in different times need different and creative approaches. The Elijah/Elisha model emphasizes continuance of the ministry in much the same way. However, there have been examples in church history where the successor to the founder was very different to the founder, and this proved helpful. The founder of the Moravian church, Zinzendorf (1700-1760), was followed by Spangenberg (1704-1792). Zinzendorf was a passionate follower of Christ and highly intuitive and visionary. However, he seemed rather hopeless at administration, often incurring debts, which almost put him in jail. A more systematic theologian and competent organizer—Spangenberg—was actually helpful at that phase of the development of the church’s ministry. With these things in mind, it could be that a good question for any organization facing succession is that posited by contingency leadership theory,13 which suggests appointment based on the exigencies of the time: “What are the issues the organization faces, and what are the best gifts and style of leadership to lead the organization in that context?” Thus, the successor may be rather different from the founder. Furthermore, cultural factors may be significant where, due to a changing constituency of support or client base, a different cultural approach to leadership may be helpful. While there are godly principles of leadership, there is also much diversity in God’s world, including within businesses and Christian ministries. An approach to succession that suits the values of one ministry may be different from a different type of ministry.

 

Hearing God

Empirical research is, of course, important. We should not, however, overlook the work of God’s spirit in leading and guiding us. Within a Christian organization, a sense of God calling someone who is, in turn, acknowledged by others is also important. However, I suggest it is not simply enough to say, “God spoke and showed us the new leader.” It is at the same time wise to engage in thinking through many of the issues raised in this article, as those issues themselves help us determine the word of God to us on this matter.

 

 

  1. Hutzschenreuter,T., Kleindienst, I. and Greger, C. (2012). ‘How new leaders affect strategic change following a succession event: A critical review of the literature’, The Leadership Quarterly, 23(5), pp.729-755.
  2. Lavietes, S. (2015). ‘Rev. Robert Schuller, 88, dies; built an empire preaching self-belief’, New York Times, April 2. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/03/us/rev-robert-h-schuller-hour-of-power-evangelist-dies-at-88.html?_r=0
  3. Dyck, B., Mauws, M., Starke, F.A. and Mischke, G.A. (2002). ‘Passing the baton: The importance of sequence, timing, technique and communication in executive succession’, Journal of Business Venturing, 17, pp.143-162.
  4. Mullins, T. (2015). Passing the leadership baton: A winning transition plan for your ministry. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
  5. Lavietes, S. (2015). ‘Rev. Robert Schuller, 88, dies; built an empire preaching self-belief’, New York Times, April 2. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/03/us/rev-robert-h-schuller-hour-of-power-evangelist-dies-at-88.html?_r=0
  6. Bunton, P. (2019). ‘Reflexivity in practical theology: reflections from studies of founders’ succession in Christian organizations’, Practical Theology, 12(1), pp.81-96; Bunton, P. (2020). Founder succession in international Christian networks and organizations: A narrative case-study approach. Doctor of Philosophy Dissertation, University of Manchester, UK.
  7. Wiersema, M.F. (1992). ‘Strategic consequences of executive succession within diversified firms’, Journal of Management Studies, 29, pp.73-94.
  8. Collins, J. and Porras, J.I. (2002). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. 3rd edn. New York: Harper Business.
  9. Ministries which have enacted internal succession include:
  1. Kikoski, C. and Kikoski, J. (2004). The Inquiring organization: Tacit knowledge, conversation, and knowledge creation: Skills for 21st-century organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  2. Peet, M. (2012). ‘Leadership transitions, tacit knowledge sharing and organization generativity’, Journal of Knowledge Management, 16(1), pp.45-60.
  3. Fountain, A.K. (2004). ‘An Investigation into successful leadership transitions in the Old Testament’, Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies, 7(2), pp.187-204; Pugh, B. (2016). ‘Succession Plans: Is there a biblical template?’, Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association, 36(2), pp.117-130.
  4. Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice. 6th edn. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Larry Kreider Leadership Podcast EP10 - Dr. Peter Bunton on Healthy Leadership Succession

 


About Peter Bunton

Peter, originally from Great Britain, lives in Pennsylvania. He serves on the DOVE International Apostolic Council and is a member of the DOVE Europe apostolic team. His main responsibility is the director of DOVE Mission International, where he helps develop and send missionaries from the USA. He has received a PhD in missiology from the University of Manchester, England, for his research in founders’ succession in international Christian movements and organizations. Read more about Peter.