William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird. Next: Pastoral Succession that Works. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014). 224 pp. $15.68 on Amazon
When approaching delicate and important topics, Christian authors must be careful to present a healthy balance between accurate observation of a problem while providing a robust and clear biblical answer. By no means are Christian authors expected to come up with every answer to every problem related to the problem, nor are any other authors. But I always look for two things when reading the work of a pastor or Christian leader. (1) Does this person understand the reality of the situation and has he engaged it with adequate research and understanding? (2) Does this person approach this situation from a Christian worldview carried along by biblical truth?
In the case of Next: Pastoral Succession that Works, it seems that the authors understand the problem, but the basis for their solution does not in fact work with the biblical witness.
Helpful Principles, Healthy Practices
Vanderbloemen and Bird have undertaken a topic that most if not all pastors and churches either are or should be concerned about. How do we healthily, helpfully, and successfully transition from one pastor to the next? Many churches are blind to the hardships and difficulties that come with pastoral succession because they are content with the comfort of their current pastor. Many of us are drifting away in Margaritaville while just around the bend a hurricane is brewing. Most of us are not ready for pastoral succession, and the authors do a great job of awakening readers to this reality. They seem to understand the seriousness of the problem and what an unhealthy pastoral change can do to a church.
This is made evident in the extensiveness of their research (12). Their intentions are good and their clear and vast understanding and experiences with the problem lead to careful calling for succession plans in all churches. Their primary example at the close of the Preface proved prophetic as they explained Mark Driscoll’s desire to pastor Mars Hill Church until he is 75, yet his initiative to put in an “emergency succession” plan “should an unforeseen situation arise” (15). While what happened with Driscoll and Mars Hill was more tragic than typical pastoral successions, the point is well made: be ready for change, it could happen at any moment.
Next provides helpful and practical ways to implement a succession plan. At the close of each chapter, the authors even offer specific steps to take for pastors and church boards. They also offer helpful principles for succession, especially in chapter two with the exposition of the “ten commandments of succession planning” (32-35). The authors all but exhaust the many ways succession can happen and explain what others are doing and have done in each of these scenarios while offering excellent leadership principles to prepare for and weather the storms of change.
For example, they discuss some of the most complex issues in succession like “founder’s syndrome,” which is the problem with the passing of the baton from not just the pastor of the church, but also the founding pastor. He also approaches touchy topics like “unintentional interims” (130-138) and “forced farewells” (139-144).
After chapters of explanation of the deep problems involved with pastoral succession, the authors move to pointed and clear guidance in how to create successful succession. They provide a helpful discussion of where to find a successor where they promote “internal candidates” as the best candidates for healthy and smooth transition (149). The authors also discuss the financial side of succession giving helpful insight into the cost of pastoral transition.
Swing and a Miss
Despite all of these strengths, there is a weakness that stands out like the proverbial elephant in the room. It was honestly upsetting and caused this reader to all but discount all the authors had previously written. At minimum, the author’s principles must be seen in light of a great erroneous and unbiblical idea of pastoral success. This weakness goes to the heart of the book. Next is all about successful pastoral succession. And while they thread many helpful principles throughout the book, their idea of success is trepid and shallow.
Success to these authors is viewed in terms of attendance and giving. More people, more money, more success. This has been my longstanding criticism of leadership pastoral models promoted by guys like Andy Stanley, Craig Groeschel, and Bill Hybels. What is success to these guys? And while the authors are not necessarily identified with Stanley and company, their idea of success is almost exclusively measured by the number of people in the seats and the amount of money in the plate.
One example of a successful pastoral succession given in the book was that of Lakewood Church. The authors give the details of younger Osteen (Joel) succeeding older Osteen (John). Then, they conclude,
The rarity of the success is only further compounded by John’s death in office, a circumstance where most successions fail. Yet Joel Osteen made headlines and history books. He demonstrates powerfully that sometimes even the unlikeliest candidates can become pastoral successors with amazing results. His favor in the city of Houston and the church at large is unprecedented. Despite Joel drawing critics from many corners, nearly everyone would agree that the transition from John Osteen to Joel Osteen as pastor of Lakewood has been nothing short of remarkable (91).
Lakewood’s transition is a model for successful transition in the minds of these authors. The reason? Lakewood boasts their numbers in the tens of thousands. It is astonishing how the authors define success solely in terms of attendance and “favor” among members. Based on any biblical scale whatsoever, Osteen and Lakewood are not success stories; they are disastrous bastions of a false gospel. Thousands of people gather in the name of Christ at Lakewood and under Osteen to hear false teaching. Does that sound like a success story? Osteen may have “found a heart in his home” for preaching (90), but somewhere along the way he lost the gospel.
One thing we can learn from this unfortunate and upsetting conclusion by the authors is that churches can grow and appear successful while totally missing the gospel. I feared this was where the authors were heading as I was reading, but hoped they would remain faithful to biblical definitions for pastoral and ministry success. They claim pastoral succession must be Spirit-led and believe God uses “people and systems in conjunction with the Holy Spirit to help build leadership teams in the church” (26).
Great intentions are meaningless when they lack substance. What is truly remarkable is the authors’ ability to see “Spirit-led” succession in places that reject the sword of the Spirit. This was a tragic and deep error in an otherwise helpful book.
Readers should approach Next with trepidation. I would recommend the authors’ description and discussion of the various situations involved in pastoral succession along with their premise that churches need to prepare for succession even when it is not in sight. I agree, “Every pastor is an interim pastor” (9). But readers must look elsewhere for the definition of success in ministry. Pastoral and ministry success aren’t defined by numbers, either in the pew or the plate. Pastoral and ministry success are defined by Christ, the Chief Shepherd all pastors will ultimately answer to (1 Peter 5:4).
Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggershttp://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.