Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

“Every pastor is an interim pastor.” That reminder from William Vanderbloemen, founder of the Vanderbloemen Search Group (which specializes in staffing churches and other faith-based organizations) and author of Next: Pastoral Succession That WorksI interviewed William a while back and have since been sent a copy of his book which, as I wrote yesterday, I think is a very valuable resource for all churches and ministries that seek to continue serving God for more than a single generation. It’s also a pretty good read for people who are simply interested in how churches and other groups handle issues such as succession.

From a media point of view, the stories about the transitions involving televangelists Robert H. Schuller (to his son Robert A.) and John Osteen (to his son Joel) are particularly interesting. Both stories are among the church succession stories recounted in Next. Naturally, when I had the opportunity to speak with William again I had to ask him why one handover remains a huge success story and the other went so poorly.  Some interesting videos related to those transitions follow our conversation.

JWK: What drove you to write Next: Pastoral Succession That Works?

WILLIAM VANDERBLOEMEN: We tried to set out to solve a problem that’s a really large one in churches all over the world. The problem is churches don’t do a very good job with following one leader after another — or succession. That applies to succession where you have a longtime pastor who is retiring or a succession where you have a pastor who’s been forced to leave after they’ve disqualified themselves somehow or another. So, it really doesn’t matter whether the circumstances are good or bad or just normal. There tends to be a pretty large history of failed successions.

So, we’ve studied about 500 successions and then we took a look at 200 of them much, much more closely. We tried to find the trend lines with things that went well, things that went poorly and what the churches learned…If I could have people understand one core truth from the book it’s this. Every pastor is an interim pastor. What I mean by that is you go into a church (leadership position) and think you’ll be there forever…So, no one really talks about happens when you’re gone.

There are really only three ways your time at your church ends. One way would be that you run your church into the ground and it closes. That’s not cool. Another way would be that you happen to be the pastor on the day that Jesus returns. That would be very cool but it’s very hard to plan for. So, the bulk of everybody will fall into the third bucket. And that is your time is going to end at your church and someone is going to come after you. So, every pastor is an interim pastor. The conversation about succession within a church has been sort of off limits. Church pastors don’t want to talk about it. It makes the pastor sound like a lame duck. Church boards don’t want to talk about it. It sounds like they’re trying to run the pastor off. Everybody’s just sort of seeing it as a taboo conversation. If the reality that (the idea that) every (pastor) is an interim pastor can be conveyed to people — which I think is the first sentence of the book — (that) would be a win.

The second win for us would be if the book would just legitimize among church boards, with pastors of any age, that we need to thinking about the long-term (plan) to secure the future of the church after the current pastor is gone. If that could become a normal conversation instead of a taboo one, then that would be wonderful.

Every succession is different than the next. There’s not one cookie-cutter solution but…there has to be permission to have conversations about it.

JWK: Probably one of the most spectacular example of a church succession that went awry involved the Schuller family and the Crystal Cathedral. Could you talk about what happened there?

WV: Sure. We got a good look at what went on there — and have known that church and the Schullers for a while…Robert Schuller is the grandfather of all of the church-growth movement that happened in the ’90’s and 2000’s. Pastors owe a lot to him.

When it came time for his successor to be named, (there were) a couple of things I saw that went awry. The church really didn’t plan very well for the day that he was going to be stepping down. They assumed he was going to be there forever.

Two, when they did try to hand things over to his son, it didn’t work. So, why didn’t it work? There’s a combination of things but one very clear circumstance that happened was there was some difference of opinion — or you might even say infighting — among the Schuller family about how things ought to go. I don’t know who’s right or wrong in the equation but I know that infighting — whether it’s among siblings, parents or spouses — when that takes center stage (the situation) almost always blows up.

JWK: It was a shame because I liked him and I liked his son — but the situation just seemed to spiral out of control. Did the issues stem from the television program or from general church issues?

WV: I think if you asked each family member you’d get a different answer and I don’t know who’s the right person in that equation — but I know that it was just a lot of family drama and a lot of family fighting about how decisions were going to be made and who was going to be making them. If they had a better plan for how that was going to go things might have gone a little bit better. If you have a family drama in the middle of succession, you’re going to have a problem.

I will say that one thing we learned in studying many, many successions is that, of all the successions that we studied, following a successful founding pastor after a long tenure is the hardest one to get right. So, I don’t know that you can blame a member of the Schuller family. It’s just a very difficult thing to follow a founder who did a great job for a long time. Sometimes it works.

JWK: Was the relationship between Robert A. Schuller and his son Robert H. Schuller — who was groomed to succeed him — okay? Or was that part of the problem?

WV: I don’t know and I wouldn’t be the right guy to comment on their family dynamics.

JWK: On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the Osteen family. When Pastor John Osteen died (in 1999), his son Joel was chosen to succeed him — and the church has actually grown to be even larger under his leadership.

WV: Yeah, that’s quite the opposite, huh? There you have a family that is very much in harmony. Joel’s brother works at the church, his brother-in-law works at the church, his mother has a prayer service at the church, his sister teaches from time to time at the church. They have a fully-engaged family that had a degree of harmony about how things ought to be done.

Those two stories get a lot of press but the reality is the average church in America is a couple of hundred people and it’s not run by one family and it’s not run by the founding pastor. So, while those are sort of the glamorous stories — for both good and bad — we really try to focus our efforts on how does this help the bulk of all churches across the country.

JWK: What are the top three or four things a church can do to facilitate a smooth transition and what are the top three or four mistakes that are made?

WV: Well, one thing we found is there are very few cardinal rules for succession. Every single (church) is different. There is no one cookie-cutter answer for succession that works. (Things) have to be sort of tailor-made for each situation. I wouldn’t want your readers to think that “Oh, this is the one thing that will help.” I think the book provides a little bit of a roadmap for people (and) hopefully gives them the right questions to ask (such as) how much are we paying our pastor on the way out?

One of the chapters of the book — one of my favorites — is called The “Ten Commandments” of Succession Planning…Most everything about a good succession happens because the outgoing pastor handled things well. I’ve yet to see a good succession where the outgoing pastor did not handle himself well. There are three big pressure points that I’ve noticed that enable an outgoing pastor to do well.

One, is financial. Some pastors stay too long because they can’t afford to retire. So, if churches will get smart about providing retirement planning for their pastor early on — and making sure they’re saving for retirement — it’s just (a good idea). Pastoral life is not a life of the rich and famous. A lot of times you’re asked to live at a standard of living that is beyond your salary so that you can deal with your people. Pastors end up living hand to mouth and when it comes time to retire they just don’t have enough…That’s a great step. Finding someone to do financial planning with your pastor (is) fantastic.

Second pressure point I’d say is pastors need to have something to do with their time. There is no vocation I know — maybe being President of the United States — that absolutely consumes you like pastoral ministry. You can’t put it down. The office is where you (have) your spiritual pilgrimage, it’s where you have your friendship network, it’s where you go do life, it’s where you…bury people and marry people. All that is, quote, “at the office.”  So, when you retire, you’re retiring from a whole lot more than a career as an accountant or a lawyer or a factory worker or whatever it is that you do.

And pastors end up having no roots anywhere — and a whole lot of time on their hands. Yeah, they might go chase a little white ball around the golf course for a few years but they’re gonna get tired of that. The best successions I’ve seen are where the outgoing pastor has an avocation that they feel is valuable to the world that they can sink some time into…It just makes it a whole lot easier for the pastor to step out gracefully and for the new pastor to step in.

The final of those three markers — and this is not in the book as much — is really lost to most people. Assuming you’re dealing with a male pastor — and that he’s married — smart churches make sure to take care of and honor the outgoing pastor’s wife — and also think about her as part of the equation of succession because pastors’ wives, the role that they play in a church, has a very wide variance. Some are highly involved,  some are not…Smart churches will A.) honor the pastor’s wife for the time that she put into church and gave up with her husband.

(Smart) churches will also, when they’re interviewing, will know what their previous pastor’s wife was like and interview the incoming pastor’s wife to say “How does this match-up or not” and, if it doesn’t match-up, then how are we as a church going to be ready for that gap (between) what was and what will now be?

JWK: And the three most prevalent mistakes?

WV: Just the opposite of those three (but) the biggest mistake is assuming that the pastor will be there forever. The biggest mistake is not having a conversation.


In his own words: Robert A. Schuller talks about his departure from the Crystal Cathedral (uploaded to YouTube in 2010).

The Osteen family’s 1999 tribute to John Osteen:

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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