Imagine you stepped into heaven today — without warning and sooner than expected. Now imagine you’re asked for suggestions about who can assume your ministry responsibilities. After all, you know best what those responsibilities are and who is prepared to perform them.
Will you say, “That’s a no brainer! I’ve mentored several people. They know my heart and worked alongside me, so they have our ministry’s DNA. During the transition to the next minister, they could easily step in as interim leader while the board searches for my successor. In fact, they could even be my successor.”
Or will you say, “Yikes! I’m the only person who knows what I do, and I haven’t prepared to pass the baton of leadership to anyone.”
This hypothetical makes a simple point: We are all interim ministers. Whatever our role, our tenure begins and ends. This is true for all pastors, from lead pastor throughout the organizational chart. It’s true for missionaries, evangelists and chaplains, too. Sooner or later, planned or not, our time is up.
Have we prepared others to lead well after us? Three factors to consider are these:
1. Redefine the win. Often, we define winning as what we accomplish in our present role. I’ve seen churches write governance documents around the ministry of the current pastor. They give no thought to whether those documents will develop other leaders within the organization, provide accountability and structure, or serve the organization in times of difficulty and transition.
We need to redefine the win as how well our successors do with the systems we’ve established, the advancements we’ve made, the values we’ve ingrained in the organization, and the opportunities we’ve given others to grow while we were there to mentor them.
To do this, we need to develop a decade-leaping mindset. We might think we have plenty of time to count single years. But life moves so quickly it seems like we’re counting in tens, leaping through the decades. The day we begin a new ministry assignment is the right time to start thinking about the day we will leave it.
We need to ask questions such as these: How have we mentored our teams for improvement, exposed them to tasks beyond their present assignment, and helped cross train them for every activity? What policies, systems, and structures need to be updated, refreshed or even eliminated? What difficult decisions should we make to set up the next leader for success?
We also need to manage our time well. Sometimes, we feel like we’re just outrunning the steamroller of this week’s calendar and to-do list. We barely make it through a weekend of ministry. It can seem like a luxury to set aside the urgent to work on policies, systems and structures. And who has time for mentoring?
But here’s the thing: Governance tools and systems are like the skeleton of a body. They are unseen and not that attractive by themselves, but they provide the structure upon which all other parts of the ministry depend. Without the skeleton, there is no stability or cohesiveness.
2. Invest in others. The Bible provides examples of mentoring relationships. Think of Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, and Paul and Timothy. They understood the importance of mentors preparing successors to lead.
In fact, the Bible commands us to prepare others for ministry. Consider 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Notice four generations of leadership in this verse: Paul, Timothy, Timothy’s mentees, and Timothy’s mentee’s mentees. Each succeeds its predecessor and mentors its successors.
The way to extend our influence is to imitate Jesus’ example of leadership.
The moment we start a new ministry assignment — or even today! — is the right time to mentor others. In a relay race, it doesn’t matter how fast runners are if they drop the baton. In the same way, we need to train for transition and give attention to succession.
I can hear three objections: “I don’t know where to find a mentee!” “I don’t have time for mentoring!” “I’m not comfortable mentoring!”
The easiest way to find a mentee is simply to look at our existing team members. Who among our staff and key volunteers shows promise? Start cross-training them on areas of ministry outside their role’s responsibilities.
I learned the importance of doing this one Friday afternoon when a team member clocked out at day’s end and never returned. She was diagnosed with cancer and died several weeks later. She was an excellent worker, and her home going caused us to ask tough questions: Do we understand the scope of her work? What are her passwords? Can another team member step into her role immediately?
Regarding time, the best way to mentor others is simply to include them in items already on our calendar and to-do list. Invite a junior staffer to audit a board meeting. Have another person shadow you through a task — sermon preparation, hospital visitation, filling out the ACMR. We might be able to do these tasks more quickly solo, but sharing the process with another person can prepare him or her to do the task or step into a new role.
Finally, we might not feel comfortable mentoring others because we are still in learning mode ourselves. Paradoxically, though, the best way to learn and continue to grow is to have a mentee alongside us, asking questions, challenging the status quo, and causing us to pay attention to what we’re doing, not to mention how and why.
Investing in others pays dividends both now and in the future. Our mentees share the load of ministry. And when exposed to responsibilities outside their current roles, they become confident, proactive team members rather than remaining dependent on us.
3. Check your heart. The importance of redefining the win and investing in others seems obvious, so why do we find these things difficult? Often, resistance comes from within.
We worry that we will become less valuable if others know what we know and can do what we do. This is understandable, but we are called by God to ministry. Advancing God’s kingdom is more important than job security or personal agendas. We are here to empower others; we multiply our gifts by teaching the next generation (2 Timothy 2:2, cf. Ephesians 4:12–13).
We are threatened by the thought of providing opportunities to staff members, only to have them leave or be courted by other ministries that notice their potential. But isn’t that a huge compliment to our leadership? Won’t investing in growth and development attract others to our team?
Finally, we worry that our spiritual sons and daughters will develop minds of their own and do things differently than we would. In parenting, though, the win is raising children who become responsible adults on their own terms, not imposing our dreams on them or making them permanent dependents on us.
It’s been said that days are long but years are short. One day, and it will seem to come too quickly, we will find ourselves approaching the end of our leadership tenure. The way to extend our influence is to imitate Jesus’ example of leadership. He “appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). Christ’s earthly interim was only three years, but He mentored by being with and sending out.
That’s still the only way to prepare the next generation today to lead tomorrow.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Called to Serve, the Assemblies of God Ministers Letter.