Leno and Church Leadership Succession

Today’s post is going to be part of series called “Stuff I have no idea about”.  It’s really a collection of questions and concerns that I have for church leadership stuff that I don’t have any answers . . . just questions.  I would love your thoughts and input.

Did you see this picture of Jay Leno on from this past weekend?  My first thought was . . . wow – the editors at CNN are trying to throw Jay under a bus with this pic – making him look pretty old.  A standard google image search turns up way better photos of Jay.

My second thought about this whole “put Jay back in his normal time slot” was about succession planning at churches.  (really)

It’s really hard to do succession planning in church.  In the next 10 years it’s going to be interesting to see what the churches who have asked us to watch them do with this.  Growing, thriving churches are often led by charismatic speaking/leading individuals who are both the “management” and the “product” of the organization. There is the normal complexities of allowing new leaders to lead while most of the people who love the church also love the lead person teaching on a regular basis.

Passing the torch to the next generation(s) in these scenarios is kinda like Starbucks knowing that sometime in the next few years it’s going to have to stop selling the Caramel Macchiato and move to the Carmel Apple Spice. (or the less sexy . . . McDonald’s convincing people to stop buying Big Macs and like the snazzy Arch Deluxe.)

Conan O’Brien is great but growing the audience in the timeslot that Leno lived in for years is proving tough.  Moving churches to the next generation of leaders is going to be when people just prefer the teacher/leader that’s been there for years.

Who is doing this well?  What are some best practices?


  1. Tough question. It will take a humble leader to train and place new faces so that when his time to leave arrives the transition is smooth. The leader needs to know its not about him even at the cost of losing attendees.

  2. Rich,

    Thanks for the KillerChurch blog.

    i’m afraid you may be right in your assessment of what generally drives large, ‘thriving’ churches, and the obvious problem of sustainability through succession that extends from that.

    i live in a denominational context that uses a system that itinerates clergy. That pretty much eases the ‘cult of personality’ problem. Of course, itinerancy has its own set of problems.

    Frankly, i think that there’s a common fix for most of the problems raised here. i would argue that what makes any faith community sustainably ‘sticky’ is its ability to shepherd folks into Christian small-group contexts.

    Helping folks build solid, genuine, Christian relationships with others [not clergy or staff] in small, covenant-group contexts that are passionately centered on Christ [clearly focused on discipleship, i.e., knowing and serving Christ] produces retention independent of clergy.

    In church done well, i would suggest, having a charismatic leader is just a bonus if it happens to be the case.


    people are funny, love them anyway,,

  3. Rich,
    I’ll share some examples from industries that I’ve studied as a management consultant and tie them back into your question.

    Proctor and Gamble – Late last year Bob McDonald took over the reins from A.G. Lafley who served as the captain of that ship and grew it to the phenomenal mega-brand company that it is today. In a letter to shareholders last fall Lafley describes a multi-year process that is aimed at continually developing leaders and preparing multiple candidates for succession. The day Bob took over, it was business as usual, no grand exit/entrance, just a continuation.

    General Electric – Jack Welch, whose name is still synonymous with GE, stepped down in 2001 after serving as Chairman and CEO for 20 years. Jeff Immelt took over on Sept 7th 2001 (talk about bad timing), after a well publicized succession process that had several candidates in the running.

    Intel – Paul Otellini took over from Andy Grove who took over from Gordon Moore (who founded Intel and authored the infamous “Moore’s Law”.) All these leaders came from within the company and were part of a succession plan that was well understood and documented.

    In all these examples the words “Process” and “Well Publicized” are what jump out at me. Churches (both modern and post modern) treat replacing a pastor as an “Event”. A search committee is commissioned, it goes and finds candidates and interviews them, in a congregational led church the finalist is put in front of the church for a vote which is part “American Idol” and part “Spanish Inquisition”…the worst part of both, then the “Event” is when the new person takes over. The teams are decommissioned until the next staff member is needed. The companies I referenced above have integrated Leadership Development and Succession Planning together and treat this as a continual process. Churches don’t. So to answer your question directly the best practice in my mind is to make sure churches are focused on Leadership Development and Succession Planning as a process not an event.

    Apple – I saved Apple to the end of my thoughts because it is the one company that I liken to the successful post-modern churches today who have energetic and charismatic leaders whose DNA is on everything the church does. It is well known that Steve Jobs has his hands in everything and his attention to detail is seen in the product. During the rumors of his weight loss and subsequently confirmed cancer diagnosis, Apple stock dipped on each announcement. Steve is Apple and Apple is Steve. It will be interesting to see how this corporate CEO transition happens, the chapter isn’t written yet, but when it is I think churches should take some notes.

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