Nathan Kirkpatrick: Identifying and preparing tomorrow's leaders today

Bigstock / Digitalista

How can we identify and equip lay and ordained leaders for future roles in Christian organizations and institutions? Are we willing to even discuss succession planning?

“Republicans … have been very systematic at building from the ground up and communicating to state legislators and financing school board races and public utility commission races.” That was then-President Barack Obama’s analysis of Republican victories in the 2016 elections.

Obama was observing that Republicans for a number of years had played a long game. They had invested in and trained a significant number of candidates to compete and win in local elections. Then, as those candidates succeeded and performed in office according to party priorities, they were backed for more prominent -- even national -- races. Over decades, the Republicans had built considerable bench strength that served them well.

Democrats, in contrast, had focused their party’s attention on national issues and running candidates in national elections. In doing so, Obama suggested, they had failed to form comparable local credibility and capacity. Their bench was decidedly weaker, and election night losses proved it.

It’s an interesting commentary that the former president offered. Even if he might now amend some of this analysis after the 2018 midterm elections, his point has applicability well beyond the world of politics.

How are our organizations intentionally identifying and preparing tomorrow’s leaders today?

When we think about religious organizations, particularly congregations, often this question becomes framed as, “How do we recruit younger priests?” or, “Where will the next generation of pastors come from?” These are not insignificant questions.

I would encourage us, though, to hear Obama’s commentary as an invitation to think about the broader landscape of religious leadership -- lay and ordained.

How are we identifying and equipping leaders for every level of Christian organizational life and for a diversity of Christian institutions? In our organizations, what is the equivalent of encouraging people to run for the public utility commission or the school board today so they might be prepared to lead as mayor or senator tomorrow?

Part of what I appreciate about Obama’s understanding of the Republican model is its recognition that their success, in some measure, was built on recruiting a volume of potential leaders across the nation and giving them real opportunities to lead in order to hone their skills. Not all of those leaders enjoyed the work. When the time came, not all of those leaders chose to run again or run for other offices. But enough did, and enough won.

Identifying and preparing future leaders for our organizations, including our congregations, should not be imagined as naming and training lone heirs. Organizations are not well-served if all our future hopes rest in the cultivated charisms of one individual. I am persuaded that healthy organizations and movements are best served by intentionally forming diverse groups of leaders, any and all of whom could step into senior leadership roles as needed.

Yet before we can become intentional about this kind of leadership development, we have to normalize the reality that our organizations will need new leaders. Whatever the role -- dean or president, senior pastor or lay leader, member of the board or church council or vestry -- our organizations will need new leadership at some point in the future.

It sounds obvious. But in my experience, Christian institutions (and especially congregations) that talk about succession planning for lay and ordained leadership roles are the exception rather than the norm. To be sure, in some denominations, our reluctance to engage in this kind of planning is complicated because of denominational structures or policies, which may proscribe such conversations. In failing to have the conversations, though, we are doing a disservice to our organizations.

Recently, I was with a group of new congregational leaders. Three had been called as senior pastors in churches whose previous leaders had served for multiple decades. Yet none of those congregations had ever developed intentional succession or transition plans. It was as if they were caught off-guard that a senior clergyperson might retire after 20 years of leadership.

One would be hard-pressed to name a healthy company that did not have occasional -- if not regular -- conversations about succession for its senior leadership. These conversations are understood to be part of the board’s and the leaders’ responsibilities for ensuring the long-term, ongoing health of the organization.

Gary Dollar, a Baptist pastor and former CEO of the United Way in St. Louis, told me recently that he started talking with his board six months into his tenure as CEO about their plan for his departure.

“I told them, ‘It’s not that I’m not happy; it’s not that I’m going to leave tomorrow,’” he said. “‘But one day I will leave, and you need to be ready for that day. And it’s my job to help you prepare for it.’”

With that in mind, the board, with his leadership, developed a robust plan that included the intentional development of several potential successors. When Dollar did retire, one of those people stepped into his role, well-prepared to follow him.

Christian organizations and congregations can do the same thing. If we normalize a conversation about succession planning, perhaps by discussing it as early as six months into our tenures as leaders, we create the conditions in which we can prepare teams of leaders to be ready to assume responsibility when they are most needed.

For the life and vitality of our organizations, it’s necessary to play the long game -- preparing people today to lead well into the future.