History tells sad stories of good churches that calcified as monuments to former pastors. Few churches we closely associate with prominent ministers maintained their influence when the pastor left. Fire twice destroyed London's famed Metropolitan Tabernacle, once in 1898 and again when the Luftwaffe dropped an incendiary bomb during the Blitz of 1941. But these tragedies did not inflict so much damage as that caused when long-time pastor Charles Spurgeon departed in 1891 and died in 1892. 

The “last of the Puritans,” Spurgeon reached millions through his sermons, both spoken and published. But he did not train willing leaders capable of carrying on his theological legacy in his absence. Cleanup crews sifting through the bombing rubble in 1941 discovered the church's 1680 confession of faith, which Spurgeon had symbolically buried beneath the foundation in 1860. Writing in The Forgotten Spurgeon, Iain Murray found in this recovery a metaphor for the state of Metropolitan Tabernacle and the evangelical movement in England.

“There was in 1941 no influential congregation in England known to stand for the theology which that document contained; nor was there any college preparing men to preach that faith,” Murray wrote.

Notable exceptions to this worrisome pattern merely prove the rule. Martyn Lloyd-Jones thrived at Westminster Chapel in London following G. Campbell Morgan's distinguished tenure, which ended in 1945. Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia has enjoyed the leadership of Donald Grey Barnhouse, James Montgomery Boice, and Phil Ryken. But even a track record that defies the trend offers no guarantees the next search to replace Ryken, now president of Wheaton College, will identify a worthy heir to the Tenth pulpit.

Perhaps God isn't so concerned that churches should pass from glory to glory, if history is any indication. Or is it we who become so enamored with star preachers that we don't share responsibility for the ministry and plan for the future in their absence? Many large, thriving churches today have been blessed by God with gifted preachers whose ministry spans the globe. As those preachers approach the end of their pulpit ministry, however, local churches face difficult questions about how they should prepare for life after their leader leaves.

Succession Without a Successor

Working with a small Bible study group, Tim Keller planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan in 1989. The transition from a church's first to second senior pastor is particularly difficult for a thriving congregation. So Redeemer isn't even bothering to try. Instead, Redeemer revealed in June that it plans to eventually divide into four distinct but networked congregations, each of which will try to plant another church. Redeemer leaders selected four pastors—David Bisgrove, John Lin, Scott Sauls, and Leo Schuster—to lead these neighborhood-based congregations. But for now these men will share preaching and leadership responsibilities with Keller, who will mentor them closely.

“My 'successors' are a new generation of a half-dozen to a dozen pastors,” Keller said. “The difficulty is that to even talk of this as a 'succession plan' gives the impression I'm stepping out of my job and retiring soon, but I'm not. I'm 59, and we expect the transition to take eight to ten years. So we don't call it a succession plan, but that's what it ultimately is, among other things.”

Indeed, the succession plan corresponds with a larger ministry reorientation for Redeemer. For about 20 years, Redeemer grew as members invited their friends to hear the exceptional music and Keller's compelling sermons. Without Keller as a draw, however, the church's strategy will need to change. Church leaders and members will need to become more missional.  

“Now, however, we enter a new season, that, God-willing, will last much longer than 20 years,” Keller wrote to the Redeemer congregation. “Our ministry will now be 'Go and Tell.' Redeemer is going to systematically impart what theological and ministry wisdom we have to its people and empower them so that, instead of only inviting people in to hear teaching, they will in the power of the Spirit go out into the neighborhoods to love and winsomely share the biblical gospel themselves. It means a culture of training such as we have never seen before at Redeemer. It means coming to grips with one of the most radical aspects of biblical teaching, that every single believer is a prophet, a priest, and a king, not just a bringer and attendee. According to Jesus, 'the least' Christian is endowed with the Spirit and is 'greater than John the Baptist' (Matt 11:9-11). It also means raising up a new generation of pastor-leaders. The vision is for a family of eight to twelve sister churches-covering Manhattan—ministering in their communities.”

Divesting Power to Empower Others

Pastoral succession looks different depending on a church's size, personality, and convictions. But Sovereign Grace Ministries has won widespread acclaim for modeling gospel-centered succession. Many are familiar with how C. J. Mahaney, founding pastor of Covenant Life Church, invited the young Joshua Harris to live in his home and learn from him. Mahaney eventually resigned as senior pastor so Harris could take over. Another Sovereign Grace pastor, Dave Harvey, writes in his book Rescuing Ambition about stepping down in 2008 as senior pastor of Covenant Fellowship Church in suburban Philadelphia, the body he led for 19 years. Like Mahaney, Harvey gave way to a much younger leader, the 28-year-old Jared Mellinger. Showing just how deeply succession was ingrained in church culture, Harvey led Mellinger by asking him to respond to this ordination vow the day he was installed:

“Do you promise to begin praying for your ultimate replacement in ministry, with the hope of one day identifying, training, and transferring your responsibilities to him, so that this church may continue to grow and mature in future generations, for the glory and honor of God?”

Jim Collins writes in Good to Great that an organization becomes a monument to the leader's outsized ego when it falls apart in his absence. Mindful of this problem, Harvey sought to put subsequent generations' interests ahead of his own by setting up the church for success after he stepped down to take a leadership role in the Sovereign Grace network. But this wasn't simply a matter of organizational success. Indeed, Harvey contends that succession testifies to what a church believes about the gospel. 

“A true test of gospel application is seen in succession—in the health of what we leave behind,” Harvey says. “It's a biblical way to measure success. If we simply build a church that fragments upon transfer, how does that glorify God or really serve the next generation? It doesn't. Transfer isn't about merely protecting programs or salvaging a legacy. It's about preserving the gospel and passing it on to others.”

And yet few pastors seem to view succession this way. Human nature makes succession plans like those plotted by Keller and Harvey difficult to pull off. Senior leaders don't want to let go. They realize too late that they're slowing down, a process that begins in many cases around age 60. Various aspects of the church's vision become neglected, and the church stagnates. The senior leader's gifting and experience mask underlying structural weaknesses, as in the case of Spurgeon. Meanwhile, younger leaders don't want to wait around to take charge. Many capable young leaders know the long odds of a successful succession. So they prefer to plant their own churches or invest in smaller ones they can grow by God's grace.

Even before the senior pastor steps down, generational tension may be evident as a warning sign that succession will be a struggle. The senior pastor with a long tenure may surround himself with leaders around his same age. Preaching load, administrative tasks, writing commitments, and even personality traits may inhibit him and his colleagues from investing in younger leaders who can eventually take their place. Conscious or not, Hezekiah syndrome sets in, and older leaders leave major problems for the next generation to tackle. “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?” (2 Kings 20:19)

To avoid this problem and foster continuity, healthy churches incorporate leaders from several different generations. They also rely on a plurality of leaders together seeking the Lord's leading for the church and sharing the burden of responsibility. In this model, trusted peers can persuade a reluctant senior pastor to take tangible, self-denying actions to divest his power so he can empower others to act in his absence. For example, a senior pastor might return from vacation on Sunday instead of Monday so he can sit among the congregation during the sermon, limiting himself to announcements or prayer. With this simple gesture, the pastor shows he can share authority and recognizes another leader's preaching gift.

Succession isn't simple. It isn't smooth. It's not often successful. Yet it's a matter of gospel integrity. God doesn't promise our churches will evermore yield wide influence through a preacher's exceptional leadership. Surely, however, we can testify to his steadfast love by making more of Jesus Christ than ourselves. And that means planning ahead for generations who will never hear the great preacher's voice.