The Looming Pastoral Succession Crisis and Why It’s Already Bad


Of all the issues the church needs to deal with in the next ten years, succession is near the top of the list.

So many of the churches started in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s are led by (now) older leaders.  A similar reality is also facing established churches who have had a leader in place for decades.

And while the succession wave has begun, it hasn’t nearly peaked. Even so, where the transitions have started, I’m talking to a growing number of young leaders in their 20s and 30s and 40s who tell me privately that for the most part, the successions that are happening toggle between bad and disastrous. It’s just not going well.

Usually, the leader stayed too long, lost passion years before they left, left things in far worse shape than he or she admits, inflated numbers to make themselves feel good, or is meddling and intervening constantly or all of the above. I know that’s ugly and actually rather unChristian…but that’s what I’m hearing.

As someone who navigated my own succession a few years ago when I turned 50, this issue is close to my heart. Many people told me I was stepping out of the Lead Pastor role into a Founding and Teaching Pastor role really early…that I had years left in the tank.

And yet the question that I began to obsess over (and I think every leader has to ask) is this: Is what started with me going to end with me?

The answer to that has to be a resounding no. What started with you should never end with you. Not when it comes to the church.

The mission is way bigger than you. And your goal should be to help it thrive long after you’re gone.

An effective succession is so vital.

Ultimately, there’s no success without succession. Your leadership isn’t really that effective if things go downhill, collapse or become miserable when you leave.

In our case, I’m so grateful for the job that Jeff Brodie is doing as Lead Pastor of Connexus. The church was at its strongest yet when I handed things over to Jeff in 2015. It’s even stronger and larger now under his leadership. We’re experiencing significant growth again this year, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and I couldn’t be happier.

Leaders, don’t let what started with you end with you.

So why is it succession going so poorly for so many churches? Here’s what I’m seeing, hearing and learning.

Many Leaders Stay Too Long…Way Too Long

Far too many pastors today are staying two seasons (or ten seasons) too long.

Their passion has faded. Their zeal has diminished. There are few fresh ideas, if any.

But they just keep hanging on.

Often, everyone can see their need to leave but them. And sadly, it’s harming the mission.

The church isn’t growing anymore. And they invent reasons as to why it’s not—culture’s changed. People are watching online. Things aren’t the same anymore.

But they ignore the fact that there’s a church across town that’s blowing up with fresh, young leadership and a new approach.

I outline 7 signs you’ve peaked as a leader here, and 7 signs it’s time to move on in this post.

I promise you if you’ve overstayed, the team around you are either leaving one by one or growing more frustrated daily.

Everyone’s afraid to address the elephant in the room. No one has the courage to say;

I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’ve stayed past your expiry date. The bread is stale and the crust’s getting moldy. It seems like everyone can see it except you. For the sake of the mission, will you move on?

After all, pastor, you’re not the mission. The mission is so much bigger than you.”

I know I’m being a bit harsh, but as someone who has sat in that seat, I speak with a lot of conviction. And from what I’m seeing, many pastors are hanging on too long.

The church isn’t your personal kingdom; it’s God’s. Steward it that way.

So why do too many church leaders stay too long? There are many reasons, but there are two reasons that seem to be surfacing again and again.

Too Many Pastors Stay Because They Can’t Afford to Leave…

I’ve had dozens of conversations with staff, successors and board members who tell me that one of the main reason their pastor has stayed 5, 10 or 15 years too long is financial.

That’s heartbreaking, both for the pastor and for the church. Sure, sometimes mismanagement has been involved by the pastor. He or she made enough but just didn’t save enough.

But often the financial crisis arose because the church honestly didn’t pay that well and didn’t set up a pension plan. Too few churches pay a living wage. I have empathy for that.

But does that mean you should hang on long after the thrill is gone to just collect a paycheck or wait for a modest pension to kick in? Absolutely not.

Look leaders: a money issue is a money issue.  It doesn’t need to become a succession issue.

Treat the financial issue as a financial issue. If that pastor needs more money for the future, negotiate a settlement. Create a pay-out or a pension and get on with things, or get the pastor financial counseling that will create an alternate plan.

Church boards, create an arrangement that honors a leader who has had a long tenure and contributed extensively to the mission over the years. But don’t make them stay long after the passion is gone just because otherwise they can’t buy groceries.

Solution? Make the money issue about money: don’t make it about tenure.  Solve the financial tension with a financial plan.

Then get a new leader in place and plan for the future.

And Many Pastors Stay Because Their Identity is In What They Do, Not Who They Are

One of the other reasons pastors hang on too long is because their identity is wrapped up what they do.

When they look to the future, it’s not nearly as exciting as the present or the past, so they hang on. Besides, what else can they do? They’ve been in ministry for decades.

Pastors, regardless of your age, your identity is not in what you do. It’s found in who you are (in Christ).

Ironically, pastors who hang on to their job too long because they’re afraid of the future will have less of a future than if they let go.

This tendency to vest your identity in what you do rather than in who you are also explains why so many pastors, even after they retire, often meddle and interfere in the new leader’s ministry and end up becoming toxic. They can’t let go of the steering wheel, and they make life miserable or even impossible for their successor.

God doesn’t love you for what you do; he loves you for who you are. What you do isn’t who you are.

This is where a board can step in, have an honest conversation with the leader and talk about all the options he or she faces for the future.

By making the financial conversation a financial one, and creating clear boundaries around the former pastor’s role, church leadership teams can help leaders who need to go…go. Do it well and with dignity, and everyone wins.

If You’re That Leader…

What do you do if you’re a senior leader who’s sensing that maybe you’ve stayed too long?

Here’s what you do: initiate the conversation.

Pray about your future, but show the courage to tap your board chair or exec pastor on the shoulder one day and say “I think it’s time for us to have the conversation about me stepping aside. I’m not sure I can afford to, I’m not sure I’m excited about it…but I think it’s time.”

Trust me, if it’s not time, they’ll tell you. But most often, they’ll be so relieved you started the dialogue.

If it goes well, everyone wins.

What if it doesn’t? Well, ask yourself: Would I rather face God and tell him, “God I tried to do the right thing.” Or would you rather face God and tell him you were afraid and did the easy thing—you hung on way too long.

Leaders, God has a habit of catching us when we jump, and your future belongs to him.

Run into it with joy and enthusiasm. Together with Christ and some friends, you’ll figure it out.

Is it scary? Sure!

Even when I stepped into the founding pastor a few years ago, it was a risk. We still had two kids in university. I took a pay cut. I had no idea what was on the other side. And sure, while I speak and write books and all that, I’m very aware that one day all of that could go away. It was faith and calling that moved me into the future. And I’m incredibly amazed that God has provided, more than I could ask or imagine.

If You’re the Board or the Team

I know what some of you are thinking: we could leave this on our leader’s desk and he would think it’s about somebody else.

Yep. I know.

None of us wants to be the person who gets tapped on the shoulder one day. But especially in the church, the mission is too important to just let passionless or now-ineffective leaders lead.

So, start with prayer. Maybe then discuss this discretely with one or two other board members/senior leaders and see if they agree. (Make those short, helpful and honoring conversations. Don’t get toxic…)

Talk about creating a financial plan and commit to letting your senior leader leave with his or her dignity in hand. Move them into the future by honouring the past.

Address the issue, but look for the image of God inside your leader and treat it with respect and honour. Attack the problem, but never attack the person.

If you want to explore more of the conditions we set up at Connexus to create a healthy relationship between the church and me after my move to the Founding Pastor role, where it worked out great and where the tension points have been, listen to this interview Jeff Brodie and I did with Jeff Henderson on my leadership podcast  (listen and read via the show notes or Episode 110 on iTunes).

How to To Avoid Irrelevance

So how do you make sure you never become that leader who just hangs on too long and that no one listens to?

My new book, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges Everyone Experiences But No One Expects, which is available now, covers the subject of irrelevance in detail.

Irrelevance has a sting to it that catches many people off guard. It’s not just pastors that struggle. The once-sharp leader is out of work at fifty and almost unemployable. The film-maker everybody watched a decade ago shows his reels to an audience that grows smaller and older with every passing year. The entrepreneur who had several thriving businesses in his thirties now peddles ideas that just get blank stares—or, worse, looks of pity.

But you can stave it off. In Didn’t See It Coming, I show you how you can see irrelevance (as well as cynicism, compromise, disconnectedness, pride, burnout and emptiness) coming and how you guard against them or battle back.

Here’s what top leaders are saying about Didn’t See It Coming:

“Seriously, this may be the most important book you read this year.” Jud Wilhite, Lead Pastor, Central Church

“Powerful, personal, and highly readable. ” Brian Houston, Global Senior Pastor, Hillsong

“Whatever challenge you’re facing, whatever obstacle you’re hoping to overcome, whatever future you dream or imagine, there is something powerful for you here.” Andy Stanley, Founder, North Point Ministries

“Uncommonly perceptive and generous…You have to read this book.” Ann Voskamp, NYT bestselling author

“Masterful.” Reggie Joiner, CEO Orange

“Deep biblical insight, straightforward truth, and practical wisdom to help you grow.” Craig Groeschel, Pastor and NYT bestselling author

“This book is sure to help you.” Daniel H. Pink, NYT bestselling author

Over the years, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about being a public speaker is having opportunities to hang out with Carey…It’s not a matter of if you’ll run into these challenges; it’s a matter of when. Be prepared by spending a little time with a leader who has already been there.” Jon Acuff, NYT best-selling author

“Nieuwhof’s book provides expert guidance…with an accuracy that pierces the heart.” Nancy Duarte, CEO Duarte Inc.

“A refreshingly transparent guide for all leaders in a wide variety of industries.” Bryan Miles, Co-Founder and CEO, BELAY

You can learn more and get your copy of Didn’t See It Coming here.

So Have the Conversation

I’m a little nervous about the conversations this post may trigger. But I think it’s critical.

Imagine a day when every leader thinks about succession long before it’s needed. That goes for you too, leaders in their 20s and 30s…you won’t be in your role forever.

The church goes on forever. But your role won’t.

Humility pushes other people into the spotlight. And the leader who raises up other leaders, ironically, makes themselves more valuable. So begin today with the end in mind.

There’s no success without succession. So start working on your succession now.

And for every leader who senses that maybe they’ve overstayed their leadership, just know that doing the right thing is never the easy thing. Just do the right thing.

I can’t imagine how much stronger the church will be in a decade if we get this succession thing right. So let’s get it right.

Got any thoughts?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

The Looming Pastoral Succession Crisis and Why It’s Already Bad


  1. Rev. WM Clarkson, PhD on January 6, 2020 at 6:39 pm

    Founder Syndrome is well documented in the secular nonprofit world, and exists in the church world as well: 1) the focus of organizational attention is on the PASTOR not the mission of the church; 2) board members are selected or “suggested” by the pastor so leadership is susceptible to group think; 3) key employees and other pastors are hired by the lead pastor and loyal to that person not whether the mission is being fulfilled or corrected along the way; 4) fundraising is tied to the charismatic leader (or lack thereof) and is impacted by loyalty factors not vision.

    Many churches (and their boards) would be better off finding an interim pastor before seeking the successor to the founder. During that time, the board and key congregation members should examine the vision and mission of the church – is it serving the needs of the community in which it exists? If the church closed their doors, would anyone (other than attendees) notice? With new or recommitted vision clear for the future and not controlled by the founder, then and only then should a new lead pastor be recruited.

  2. Melissa on May 6, 2019 at 10:16 pm

    Thank you, this article nails so much of what we’re working through. Some things we don’t even know where to start, it’s so messy. Is it perhaps the founding pastor is embarrassed and is attempting to cover up the mess by withholding details? It appears deceptive. We’ve also faced comments like “over my dead body”, “disastrous change”, “moving too fast”, “would be suicide if”, “called to (specific neighborhood). The church name itself is limiting to a neighborhood and doesn’t allow us to reach the city. We’re not sure what the next step may look like. We’ve considered resigning and starting a new church plant, but not sure how ethical that will appear to the organization we’re with. We feel called to the city. God has literally moved us there. We believe God will show us the next step as we move forward. Pray, pray, pray!!

  3. Chris Cornette on May 24, 2018 at 11:10 am

    This cannot be an age thing and I am not saying the author believes that. Our Pastor is leading the church to buy property, renovate, build, grow, and thrive. Some people should leave early, some should stay late.

  4. Peter van Duinen on May 16, 2018 at 8:19 am

    I’m a pastor in a denomination that appoints its pastors. Long tenure is a rarity with the average length of appointment being five years. However, transitions are just as important in this kind of reality and some of the “unChristian” behaviours you describe early in your article are prevalent.

    My question to you would be around best practices for managing transitions in an appointment system, where there may or may not even be a church board to assist the process.


  5. Cecil Cogswell on May 15, 2018 at 10:14 am

    This is an excellent article for addressing the incredibly important topic of succession. I would challenge the underlying premise that succession is the answer to a common transition malady today. It is certainly one answer, but we would do well to address how we can mitigate the damage to the church at large. Churches are deposing their aging pastors at an alarming rate. Long tenures are the exception, and as soon as resistance builds up in the body through discontented people, their first inclination is to replace their pastor. We are entering an age where the career life expectancy of a pastor is being severely limited because he has to frequently jump from one opportunity to another, just to preserve his calling. Then at some point he may just have to “lay it down” and do a regular job. We know we are not perfect leaders, but most pastors take their job seriously and are in it for the right reasons. Churches will rarely use sound reason to face the issues of money (are you kidding) as described in this article, that is a pipe dream for sure, even if they have it to give. They rarely ever consider an alternate role because animosity has usually grown into bitterness which now blinds them to any rational course of action. I think we all agree that succession is a ticking time bomb for many churches. Perhaps a much more dangerous problem is when the younger generation of pastors realize their careers are most likely only going to last maybe two decades now because our consumer driven church members simply say “next.” Imagine the impact on the Church when this generation of faithful pastors face the fact that the people they have served for decades will have them out the door, say by the time they are 50. Sure, an effective transition is a great idea, but that does not work for most ( and I am really grateful for Carey’s assistance in helping pastors preserve their tenure through his fabulous leadership material). Even more work needs to be done on the problem with church leadership boards and their inability to navigate these waters. How this generation transitions from “out to pastor” to “out to pasture” is going to have a profound effect on the Church of God. May the Lord grant us wisdom to treat God’s servants as they deserve and guide our churches to grow in grace, mercy and love.

    • Janet Hubbard on June 18, 2018 at 7:09 am

      This is a great reply. Many denominations have what is called trained Transitional pastors who help churches navigate change.

  6. Michael Mallick on May 15, 2018 at 9:05 am

    Excellent article. Well done and well written.

  7. Philip mugabi on May 15, 2018 at 7:38 am

    This has really blessed me. A few months ago I stepped into the shoes of a lead pastor after my pastor( founding pastor) handed over to me. Successors also have pressures on them,if you could share with us about them,it would help,thanks.

  8. Harry Court on May 14, 2018 at 5:20 pm

    So what does a pastor with the calling of God still on their life do after they have been pushed out? Especially if they pioneered the church often putting unknown hours and their own finance into it.
    Mow the lawn once a week, then what? Is depression waiting for them?

    • Cecil Cogswell on May 31, 2018 at 11:00 am

      Dear brother I think that one possible answer may lie with our willingness to simply play our part in God’s building of His Church. When our part is finished in one particular church, it is certainly not finished in the much larger Kingdom of His Church. In reality we have many roles, but only one calling. When one role is finished we must focus on the next role. We must realize that our service to the previous role was offered to God as “sweet sacrifice” and no one has any obligation to reward us in any way for it. God still loves us and still wants to use us. Philippians 3:7-14 has helped me in a ministry transition that was very much like your own. I found great encouragement to “press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me (vs. 12 NIV). May every faithful servant of the Lord press on for His glory alone!

  9. Bob on May 14, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    On point! Praying this reaches far and wide and for the grace of God to make provisions for necessary changes to facilitate healthy transitions.

  10. Dale Pratt on May 14, 2018 at 12:57 pm

    P.S. – The problems of succession mostly stem from not having a plan – as intimated above – and not understanding that while the longer tenure of a pastor is more healthy for the local church, it also sets up the new pastor for a higher likelihood of failure, because the new man is not the old guy, and it requires grace and tons of support to make sure the new pastor succeeds in his succession. Yes! It is an important conversation! And, let’s not forget the greater underlying problem that usually guys don’t stay long enough!

  11. Dale Pratt on May 14, 2018 at 12:48 pm

    Quite honestly, the stats tell us that the far greater problem is that pastors don’t stay long enough – they tend to run too soon, in the face of pressure. And, the old saw, “You’ve overstayed your welcome – it’s time for you to leave.” is the battle-hymn of the disgruntled, not the subtle voice of the Holy Spirt. While I don’t doubt this is problem somewhere, and while I have seen older pastors relinquish the reigns and then meddle in the process they should leave alone, what I’ve mostly seen – in my 48 years of pastoring in the smaller church setting – is the meddling outsider and insider that thinks they know the voice of the Holy Spirit better than some man of integrity and his trusted accountability circle of friends and elders. It seems somehow disingenuous to say, out one side of our mouth, that the Church belongs to Jesus, and that the Pastor is called and anointed and assigned by the Holy Spirit, and that the local Eldership is guided by that same Holy Spirit, yet, out of the other side of our mouth, we profess that an outsider is needed to agree with the dissenters that the one-time trusted Pastor has outlived his usefulness here. In further honesty, while there must be some problem someplace, the discussion seems highly disproportionate to actual reality in the current Church of Jesus Christ.

  12. Glenn Garvin on May 14, 2018 at 12:34 pm

    I spent a year invested in a church trying to follow a founding pastor succession plan…. and it failed miserably! Its definitely risky for the successor. I never even made it up to bat.

  13. Valencia Webber Montgomery on May 14, 2018 at 11:00 am

    Great!!!!!! Post was on Point. We’re going throughout this as we speak and Yes, it is very difficult to talk about and it is affecting our church in such a incredible Toxic way. I pray for Gods Wisdom how to handle this and not make it personal.
    Blessings and Peace

  14. Jeff on May 14, 2018 at 10:26 am

    In my experience, denominations (mine especially) are awol when it comes to providing guidance and support for pastoral transition. There should be a natural career path where a 55-60 year old pastor can begin to transition to a different role…….a needed role, a necessary role – but there isn’t. To me, a 60-70 year old former senior pastor would be a natural for a pastoral care or seniors support role – but pastoral care is on life support in most churches anyhow. And a 60 year old senior pastor isn’t going to be able to get a job in the business world……and so they hang on.

    To me, this could be and should be one of the greatest strengths of a denominational fellowship – and it’s not.

  15. Marvin R Brubacher on May 14, 2018 at 8:07 am

    As a person who talks with many church leaders, I affirm that what you said in this blog is true. I would add a third reason for the lack of healthy succession planning which you mentioned at the end in your summary comments. Most leaders are not investing intentionally in younger leaders who could be an answer to their succesion plan. This seems to be because younger leaders are a threat to older leaders. We need to have a change of heart on this reality.

  16. Doug Bartlett on May 14, 2018 at 8:03 am

    Very timely article! I was able to lead a successful succession process after serving 17 years in the Lead Pastor role, but I had another ministry assignment to step into. Helping that leader who needs to leave to find another ministry assignment I see as the greatest challenge for successful succession.

  17. Bill Fikes on May 14, 2018 at 7:33 am

    Great post, especially at the end about humility. If we believe that Jesus is the head of the Church, then we should listen to all that Holy Spirit says, even if we don’t like what we’re hearing. I think that’s what being Spirit-filled means.

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