William Vanderbloemen on Pastoral Succession That Works.
William has been able to combine over 15 years of ministry experience as a Senior Pastor with the best practices of Executive Search to provide churches with a unique offering: a deep understanding of local church work with the very best knowledge and practices of professional executive search. In this interview he dives deep into a discussion about succession planning for church leaders … he reinforces that all pastors are interim pastors … we’re all stewarding our ministries for a while before we hand it off to someone else. This interview provides some fascinating insights for church leaders regardless if they are wrestling with succession planning or not!
Interview Highlights //
00:44 // Rich introduces William Vanderbloemen.
01:30 // William introduces himself.
03:10 // William talks about how his past experiences led him to building an executive search practice for churches.
04:25 // Rich talks about how the Presbyterian Church influenced himself and his family.
05:45 // William talks about the research for his book on pastoral transition co-written with Warren Bird. 09:08 // Rich remembers his first pastorate.
09:45 // William offers a link to a chapter of his book.
10:33 // William talks about the importance of planning succession as early as possible and highlights a point that prevents good succession.
12:20 // William talks about the how smart churches support pastors to transition and the importance of supporting spouses.
14:25 // William talks about First Baptist Dallas, having only two pastors in almost 200 years and the influence of the spouses.
15:16 // Rich questions whether pastors over 40 become less innovative and risk taking.
16:00 // William talks about his study which enables him to pinpoint specific pastor ages related to growth.
17:40 // William talks about the mention of retirement in the Bible.
19:28 // William talks about the importance of the church setting metrics in place for when plateaus occur.
Lightning Round Highlights
Helpful Tech Tools // YouVersion
Influential Book // The New Gold Standard written by the management team at Ritz-Carlton
Ministries Following // Dave Ramsey
Inspiring Leader // Tony Robbins
What does he do for fun? // Family!
Interview Transcript //
Rich – Alright, well welcome to the unSeminary podcast. My name’s Rich, the host around these parts. Thanks so much for tuning in today, for giving us a slice of your time. I know as a pastor you’re super busy, you’ve got a lot going on in your world, so I just really value the fact that you take some time to listen in on this conversation today and you’re not going to be disappointed. I have really been looking forward to this conversation for a few weeks now. We’ve got William Vanderbloemen on the phone, super excited to have him. If you don’t know William, I hope by the end of this call you’ll want to get to know him a little bit more and everything his organization does. So William welcome to the show.
William – Thanks Rich. It’s an honor to be here, I’m really glad to see what you’re doing with unSeminary, I think it’s a need that’s going to be filled. I’ve got a kid, our oldest is a rising junior in college, he wants to go into ministry and I’m like, well the last thing you need to do is go [unclear 00:01:12]. So he’s probably listening today and probably will be for a while. I think it’s an awesome idea and I’m really glad to see it working.
Rich – It’s so great, I really appreciate that. Thanks so much for the encouragement there William. Well for people that don’t know you, why don’t you kind of introduce yourself, give us a sense of who you are.
William – Sure, I tell people I am a recovering pastor which means, this is probably going to be a little long winded but you told me four hours right?
Rich – Yeah something like that. Yeah until the computer runs out.
William – Right, so I’ve pastored churches for about 15 years and was in the mainline in the Presbyterian Church, that’s just where I grew up. I was in a pretty evangelical sort of Kingdom Advancing church and just went into what I grew up in, didn’t know any better, I’d never heard anything like the Willow Creeks or Liquid Churches or anything in the world and really was kind of, I think probably a little bit of a misfit. If you looked at my contact list or friend list while I was pastoring, if you were nice you would say. “He has a diverse set of friends,” and if you were not nice you’d say, “He’s schizophrenic.”
So I’ve just developed this really crazy networker friend, left ministry in the wake of a divorce, which is not something I’d recommend but you don’t always get to choose everything in life. I went into the corporate world, I worked for a Fortune 200 oil and gas company and helped them with succession planning, talent retention. They were all great men that were leading the company, I made great money and it was the first year I had every maxed out my vacation time. I didn’t know what Hump Day was until I went into that job, it was just awful.
So long story short, God brought those two streams of experience together and I got to training under an executive search consultant that had been at Russell Reynolds, which is sort of one of the best ones in the world, with the crazy idea of trying to build an executive search practice for churches.
The guy that taught me he said, “You’re going to try and help churches find staff and they’re going to pay you based on what they pay their people.” I said, “Yeah,” he said, “You know you’re going to be like broke right?” and I said, “Let’s give it a try,” because I just love pastors, I love churches and gosh that seems like a lifetime ago when we started.
Now we’re working all over the world, internationally, mostly in the US and with churches big and small and now I do know why God put that diverse or skitzo network together. It’s kind of all been leading up to this chapter of life.
So it’s just a lot of fun, very humbling to get to help connect a church to their next pastor or key pastoral staff member.
Rich – Right. I didn’t know, I’d forgotten about the Presbyterian deal, that connects with my story. It was actually a Presbyterian Church that God got a hold of my life and my family’s life, it just totally turned up upside down. We ended up at this church and the guy at the church talked like he actually believed the Bible was true. I remember, I was an eighth grade kid and I’m like, “Wow, this is different, I think that guy actually believes that stuff,” which is the same kind of thing, Evangelical, Presbyterian Church, it had a huge influence on us and I owe a lot to those years for sure.
Well William you sit in a really unique place in the Kingdom. You have kind of insight into a lot of different churches, across a bunch of different streams. I am intrigued when I see, you know I follow you and your organization on Twitter and get your emails and whenever I just kind of dip in and see all the different streams, the kinds of churches that are coming to you, it really is a wide spectrum. All different kinds of organization which I think is great.
But what would you say, when you look to the next 15 years, would you say is kind of a big issue on the horizon that, as church leaders, we need to be thinking about?
William – Yeah I’ve got a book coming out right now and if anyone out there’s written a book before you know, I am the guy that just has a hammer so everything looks like a [unclear 00:05:42].
Rich – Right.
William – We wrote a book on pastoral transitions and really we set out to write it, I wrote it with co-author Warren Bird who is a researcher for Leadership Network and a researcher extraordinaire.
Rich – Yeah, Warren’s been on the show, he’s a fantastic guy, fantastic guy.
William – We studied about 500 churches, we did close to 200 in-person interviews with succession stories and we starting thinking, “What’s going to happen when Rick and Bill retire? When Saddleback and Willow have to face paying the light bill without having the founders. Those are both great guys and have been mentors to me, so not anything critical in saying that.
Rich – I get that.
William – They are sort of the pioneers of an era and that era’s got a lot of guys that are getting a little bit older and it’s like what happens next, 15 years from now. The average age for the senior pastor of a Megachurch is 51 years old. So 15 years from now, it’s not 51 anymore unless they’re not Megachurches.
So we really started to ask the question, what are the common denominators in successions that have gone well? What are the common denominators in the ones that haven’t gone well? We talked to everyone. We talked to the Schuller family from Crystal Cathedral, you know, they’re bankrupt now and gone. We talked to everyone who did not work out at First Baptist Dallas after Dr. Crystal retired. We talked to the Stockstill’s in Baton Rouge, who have now been father to son three times and it’s worked well.
So we really found some cool things happening, but one thing we realized was, pastors on average spend about eighteen years serving churches in their ministry and they have an average stay at their church of eight years, just across all senior pastors or head pastors or solo pastors, not student pastors, children pastors etc.
So on average a pastor is going to transition at least twice during their career, so it’s really not just about, “How do I prepare for when the guy who started the church and has been here forever, leaves,” it’s a book that we hope will prepare everybody and the big idea behind the book was something that dawned on me one day.
I was talking to a pastor and he said, “Well, I’m ready for a change,” and I said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “Man I’ll do youth ministry, I’ll do children’s ministry, I’ll do anything except one thing.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “I will not be an interim pastor,” you know the kind of intention of an interim. It just kind of came out of me, I said, “You know what, every pastor is an interim pastor.”
Rich – Well that’s true.
William – Unless you close the doors of your…
Rich – Unless you’re the church planner it grows up and then you close it.
William – You can shut it down, Jesus could return that’s another option right? But beyond those two, someone’s coming after you. So I think, it’s more than you wanted to hear but it’s…
Rich – No, no absolutely. I think that’s a great principle. I remember my very first pastorate, one of the things that my senior pastor said, I remember it was one of those things that resonates, he said, “You know what, this church belongs to the people that we’re serving, before we got here and he belongs to them after we leave, so our job is to steward it.”
William – That’s right.
Rich – I was like, “Yeah that’s an interesting thought,” but I think the idea there of stewarding this, we have a time a generation, our job is to hold it well, even if that’s a long time, but we’re going to pass it on.
Were there a few kind of nuggets? Now obviously, ultimately we want people to buy the book, so don’t give away everything. You obviously can’t in a few minute interview, but what were those few things, first on the person transitioning, the kind of individual transitioning, what were some of those things that you learned through this process?
William – I don’t know if you want to send this out to your readers but I can send you a link to one of the chapters of the book.
Rich – Oh perfect.
William – Frankly I think it’s the best chapter in the book. It’s The Ten Commandments of Succession Planning. One thing we found out is, there is no cookie cover. So if you’re talking to a consultant or denominational leader or whoever this is, “Here’s the seven steps to success,” well it’s just not that way because you’re dealing with people and people are living changing organisms and you’re dealing with a body of people in the church and pastors so there is no one thing.
We did learn a few things that came out kind of as cardinal rules. One is the earlier you start planning the better. In the corporate world we found that a lot of our public trading regulations, Sarbanes-Oxley is an act that went through and a lot of companies had said, “Okay, it is now a requirement that we have a succession plan for public trust.” Several companies we studied had, when the new CEO arrives and has its first board meeting, the first agenda item is the succession plan.
Rich – Wow.
William – Like, “Welcome to town, what are we going to do when you’re gone?” So it’s not exactly the old church pounding that we used to get. The pastor arrived to town and everybody filled the house with goods but a church that’s willing to have that conversation early, is a smart church. They are rare but they’re out there.
A couple of nuggets that we found that prevent good successions is, one is just money.
Rich – Okay.
William – That’s on both sides of the equation that churches don’t pay pastors enough and pastors don’t manage their funds well. So we feel like we’ve put some good pointers in the book about how a church ward can provide financial planning for their pastor, how they can make sure they are paying the right amount. Because you know, the kind of steward, their offerings are out of the window’s cupboard. At the same time, you’ve got to pay him well enough that they can retire right?
Rich – Right.
William – Then the other thing that we found was, really smart churches, somewhere around 50 or 55, more like 55 for most pastors, there tends to be a common theme that they develop sort of an avocation or an area of passion. Maybe it’s a mission cause abroad somewhere that they’ve been working with for a while, or a children’s home or teaching at a seminary or something like that. Lots of churches’ normal response is, “You don’t need to do that, we need to have all of your attention.” Smart churches let that grow and create more and more time for it so that when it’s time to transition, they’ve got somewhere to go.
Rich – Right.
William – They’ve got an identity because there’s no profession I know that consumes your identity like a pastor.
Rich – Absolutely.
William – It’s where you do social networking, it’s where you have friendships, it’s where you do your spiritual life, it’s all in, right?
Rich – Right.
William – A loss of identity is a big problem for guys that leave and it tempts them to come back and micromanage. But the real secret, that we probably could have gotten in a lot of trouble if we had written more about, so no Tweeting this right? But really smart churches take great care of the outgoing pastor’s spouse.
Rich – Oh that’s great.
William – I could tell you horror stories of successions and there’s a direct line from all the wreckage, back to the outgoing pastor’s spouse. Either wasn’t treated well or didn’t feel right.
Rich – Or wasn’t honored, they didn’t do anything on the way out. Yeah I can identify with that. I know in my life I’ve joked that, the voice of the Lord sounds very similar to the voice of my wife. You know, there’s a strong correlation between those two and I think that’s true, I can see that for sure.
William – First Baptist Dallas had Dr. Crystal forever, like nearly 50 years, some crazy number like that. Before him was Dr. Truett, of Truett Seminary and he was there about the same amount of time.
Rich – Two pastors in a hundred years?
William – Something like that, it’s like ninety years, it’s long, whatever it is. So I didn’t know, we found some research that showed that when Dr. Crystal got there, he almost didn’t make it. He was pretty rocky for a while and one of the key turning points, and you might have some people that disagree, but one of the key turning points was Miss Truett reached out to Miss Crystal and said, “Let’s make this work.”
Rich – Really, wow that’s fascinating. Well you can see that right, that just practically makes sense, that’s like one of those, yeah you can see that, that makes sense.
One other question. I’m in my 40s, I’m a 40 something and I look around and my peers, a lot of them are 40 something folks and one of the things I’ve noticed is, it seems like a lot of churches that are led by people, particularly in that timeframe, folks come into their 40s and their churches are super innovative, they’re doing all kinds of stuff and then they leave their 40s and they’re not doing that anymore. There’s a bit more atrophy set in. Whether we becomes less risk taking, I don’t know why that is. But what would you say to a church leader, even in their 40s, which is still a couple of decades off from that kind of transition, are there things that they could be doing to prepare, even now, for that kind of transition?
William – Well that is so insightful Rich. We did a study a while back, we need to do it again with a much bigger sampling but we asked a question; Knowing God can use a man or woman in whatever way God chooses to, what are the normal times that he lays his hand on a pastor and says, “This is the sweet spot,” right?
Rich – Right.
William – Josiah was eight when he was King, Abraham was a bajillion when he started with Israel but what’s the [problem with audio 00:16:28 – 00:16:39] growth charts and pastor’s ages. When you see the spike in growth, I can show you the pastor’s 40th birthday.
Rich – Really?
William – It’s like predictable, it’s like they’re young enough, they’ve got fire in the belly but they’re not 25. I took a big church when I was 31 and the advantage of doing that when you’re 31 is you know everything, right? So at 31 you think you know everything but by the time you’re 40, you’ve gotten knocked around enough that’s it’s a nice combination. So 40 is a great start point. So I if you keep going down that study I can show you the pastor’s 55th birthday every time.
Rich – Wow, that’s fascinating.
William – Some of them go longer. I mean Ed Young turns 80, I think this year maybe next and he’s still taking steps two at a time and killing it. Steve Furtick’s just over 30 and he’s killing it. So there are anomalies but there’s this coast thing that happens.
I don’t want to go all super spiritual but if you look in the Bible, you tell your volunteers as a pastor, “Retirement isn’t biblical,” right? Well it is. Retirement is mentioned one time in the Bible and it was mandatory. It was for the priests and it was at 55 and David, that quit wondering around the wilderness, David changed it to 60. The reason behind it was, of course they were carrying the tabernacle, but if you think of it spiritually, the weight of carrying the things of God becomes too much for a man after a certain age.
Rich – Right, that’s fascinating. It’s interesting because that whole 40 thing has been something that has been resonating and you can see that right? At some point, like those guys you mentioned, when I look at a guy like Bill Hybels, we all stand on his shoulders in one way or another and I’m looking forward to the day he gets to retire. Because at some point it’s like, “Do you really want to get up and teach one more sermon? Do you really want to put on another service?”
William – The other thing we found is the biggest fear people have in life is public speaking right? You know, the old Seinfeld joke, higher than death, they’d rather be the subject of the funeral than the funeral speaker, right?
Rich – Yes, yes.
William – Well for a man to have the ability to get up and speak every week and say, “God says this for your life,” that’s big.
Rich – It’s huge.
William – The shadow side of that is the voice that whispers in your ear saying, “You’ve got one more season.” In the book we named it Brett [unclear 00:19:23] syndrome.
I think what you can do to prevent that is, have an honest annual conversation with your board. Set metrics. What are the things we’re going to do so that when plateau hits, we’ve all said this is a plateau and what are we going to do about it?
Rich – Oh gosh that’s huge. Repeat what you just said there because I think that’s huge for all of us.
William – Well I think the smart board, if you’re a young pastor and the pastor’s going to have to lead the conversation, the board’s not going to do it unless you’re in like a toxic situation. Smart pastors in the 40s will say, “Alright guys, let’s get together, let’s set some metrics,” and it might be spiritual growth, it might be baptisms, whatever the metrics are. Set those metrics now to say; when these stop growing, we know we’re in that plateau, where I’m at the spot where we need to either, undergird the staff with some younger people or I need to move into a different role, but let’s name it ahead of time so it’s not a surprise when it happens.