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Pastoral Succession, Staff Selection, and Church Culture

There are no more challenging tasks for the church than pastoral succession and key staff selection. Church leaders would rarely underestimate the importance of these decisions, but it’s difficult to fully understand the critical dynamics behind them. And the most crucial issue of all, I believe, is that of organizational culture.

Your culture is how things get done, how people treat each other, and what is most important in your organization. John Kotter defines it as “group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place.”

For more on what exactly organizational culture is, where it comes from, and how to identify it, see my article titled Understanding Organizational Culture. For a discussion on how to change it, see the companion article titled Changing Organizational Culture. In those discussions I point out that your Real Core Values (which aren’t necessarily the ones you have put on your website!) most embody your culture.

Four approaches based on four assumptions

So, then, how exactly does organizational culture impact the issue of pastoral succession? My experience is that a church chooses to travel one of four paths when its pastor leaves or announces his retirement. These are in turn based on four very different assumptions they are subconsciously making about the church.

  1. We are doing just fine and need to find a pastor just like the one who left or who will soon retire

  2. We have issues that we need to fix, so we need to find a pastor very different from the last one to help us get those fixed

  3. Cultural fit is absolutely critical, so we must find out who we are and what we must protect before we can know who our new pastor should be

  4. This is a critical opportunity to reevaluate where God wants us to go as a church and what we must change before we can know who our new leader should be who can help take us there

You may have heard that the two greatest mistakes a church can make in pastoral succession are to try to find a pastor who’s just like the last one and to try to find a pastor who’s the opposite of the last one. These are obviously based on the first two assumptions above. The first approach is problematic for two reasons. First, there is no exact clone out there, and you will probably overlook the impact of the differences that are there. Secondly, your pastor may have been a uniquely right person for the church during a specific time in its history when God utilized his strengths in a sovereign way. So, you could be living in an attempt to preserve the past and missing a great opportunity to move the church forward into God’s best future.

The second approach is problematic because you aren’t taking into account the culture of the church, the real impact of the changes you will undergo, and what you will find that you “miss” in the old pastor’s characteristics. A lack of cultural alignment will not only sink the new pastor but it will sink your church, because the key leaders must embody and model the key aspects of the culture.

The first two assumptions are similar to the last two but differ in two crucial ways. First of all, the first two are just “moving on” without assessing where you are and where God wants you to go. Secondly, the first two are mutually exclusive, while the last two can work together, ideally, to give you the best of both worlds of today and tomorrow.

I have talked to multiple churches facing the pastoral transition stage that realized that they didn’t have strong agreement among the leaders about who they were as a church, much less where they wanted to go in the future. They realized that they needed to develop that clarity of vision, so their temptation was to quickly begin searching for a new pastor who would be a strong leader, bring his vision for the church, and lead them to have vision and mission focus and drive. This approach does have a lot that sounds compelling about it, including the perspective that a real leader will not want to be “boxed” into someone else’s vision. The problem is that this is ignoring the issue of culture and the horror stories of bringing in a leader who doesn’t fit that culture. Even when the church leaders think they have a good handle on the differences in strengths, personality, and vision, when the pastor is on board and reality hits, a common quote from church leaders and members is, “I didn’t realize that THIS is what it was going to be like!”

The best alternative to these very risky approaches is to adopt the third and fourth assumptions, that cultural fit is absolutely critical and that this is a great opportunity to evaluate and choose what God’s best is for our church in the next season. So, having decided on that approach, how do we do it?

Two crucial assessments

First of all, take the time, even if you are without a pastor right now, to reassess exactly who you are and where you are as a church. If you have what I call a “Ministry Plan,” consisting of Purpose, Vision, Core Values, and Mission, assess whether those are real and owned overwhelmingly by your leadership. I have worked with leaders from numerous churches who, when their pastor left, had to honestly admit that they didn’t own the Ministry Plan for whatever reason. If you don’t have a Ministry Plan, if yours is missing any of the key elements, or if you don’t truly own your plan, then this is the time to develop one that your leaders FULLY endorse and can align with.

And the most critical part of this exercise is to assess your Values, because this will give you the greatest insight into your organizational culture. The Changing Organizational Culture article discusses the identification of your Real Core Values, which are absolutely true of you today, and your Unintentional Values, which are also true and define your culture, but which you may want to be intentional about changing. And you should also identify whether there are any Aspirational Values that define changes in your culture that you desire. So the Real and Unintentional define your current culture and the Aspirational and perhaps some of the Unintentional as well define what you want to change.

But how does all of this relate to your new pastor? The key questions are these:

  • How must the new leader align with the current values of the church?

  • How should the new leader align with the desired values of the church?

We can take your Real Core Values, your Aspirational Values, and your Unintentional Values and develop a list of “Critical Position Requirements” (CPR’s) for your new pastor. What character traits, skills, and personality temperament would be desirable in aligning with these? Which ones must actually be non-negotiable? Which ones would be nice to have? These will be the lists you give to your Search Committee to work with.

In Changing Organizational Culture I discuss the concept of WHO SOMEONE IS vs. WHAT SOMEONE DOES when it comes to key leaders aligning with values. Your key leaders must BE people who exemplify some types of values. For example, if “love” is truly a Core Value for your church, hiring a pastor who is not naturally warm and easy with all kinds of people may be a misfit. But there are other types of values in which a leader can grow. If “transformation” is a Core Value, a key leader can be discipled and coached to grow in that area by learning to disciple and mentor others, for example. However, you may not want to select a Sr. Pastor who doesn’t already have a strength and track record in discipling others if it’s truly core to your church’s culture or if it’s an aspirational area where you need someone to lead you into that culture.

I’m suggesting that cultural alignment must be foundational in your selection and vetting process. Should there be other criteria in selecting the CPR’s? Yes, and these obviously include alignment with your vision and mission. In addition, it will be important to seek the right fit to work with and lead your leadership teams (Board and Staff teams), which can be discovered by doing a good personality profile assessment on the individuals on the teams, which then roll into a “team profile” and then assess the strengths and struggles of the temperament of your candidates and how his leadership will likely work in leading those teams.

How about selection of key staff other than the Lead Pastor? How about key lay leaders, such as elders, deacons, etc.? The short answer is that EVERY leader should align with the Core Values. Where BEING is involved, those areas should be more non-negotiable than where DOING can be learned unless the doing is to be led by that key leader. For instance, for that church example above where “transformation” is core, you might want every elder or deacon to already be a discipling leader before selecting them as officers. And certainly a staff role of Pastor of Discipleship should BE a person who already exemplifies that value.

If Core Values are truly CORE, your leaders should be selected based on them, evaluated based on them, coached and corrected based on them, and, yes, even dismissed based on them. Leaders exemplifying and modeling the Core Values are the first step in how you make them core, maintain the core, and strengthen the core.

This is all hard work, takes time, and requires “healthy conflict” and collaboration to get there. But ultimately hiring the right person will be truly worth every ounce of effort and every additional week (or month) that you put into it. Ending up with cultural misalignment isn’t very pretty. Ending up with a pastor or other key leader who helps to strengthen the culture that you’re convinced God wants for you, well that’s just kingdom-building and God-glorifying!

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