Why Churches Struggle Finding A New Pastor

My son loves to fish. A couple summers ago he caught a great fish (see picture) in a pretty small pond. He and his friends even landed a huge snapping turtle! The thing is, Ben has a somewhat unique fishing method. His primary fishing hole is at a pond near our home that has a bridge spanning the middle. He and his friends simply “pick their fish” while looking down over the bridge, and then focus on that catch. They’ve been pretty successful too!

I was talking with a leader the other day about succession planning for the local church. I told him there’s a big difference between Succession Planning and Replacement Planning. It’s a crude illustration, but I found myself sharing about my son’s fishing strategy.

I likened Succession Planning to what my son does at that bridge on the pond. Pick your fish, then focus on that fish until you’ve successfully hooked and brought it in.

Replacement Planning is going to be a lot more like the traditional fishing methods most of us use. Bait, cast, catch a bunch of green stuff. Try again, set the hook, pull in something small and ineffective, try again and again and again, until we catch something close to what we’re looking or hoping for. 

Every pastor wants to find the right person to replace him when it’s time to pass the baton. The problem is, most don’t think to look for that person until it’s too late. Sometimes I’ll receive a call from a pastor who is ready to resign or move on. They ask me, “Can you help me develop a succession plan?” After a few questions I have occasionally answered with, “No. But I’ll help you work on a replacement plan.” 

Succession is about finding one or more candidates for pastoral leadership and then mentoring them until one has shown him or herself ready for leadership. By then, it’s usually obvious to the senior leadership of the church, if not the congregation as well, that the new pastor is in the house. The transition usually goes a lot smoother for everyone.

Replacement is about finding one or more candidates who hopefully fit the bill, and putting them in the saddle, with a prayer that they were the right one. Too often, it turns out they aren’t. By the time you find that out, it’s too late and the church is often sidetracked for months or even years dealing with the repercussions.

Here are a few more differences between succession and replacement planning.



  • Is a process.
  • Is an event.
  • Begins 2-3 years before the transition.
  • Begins 3-6 months before the transition.
  • Is proactive.
  • Is reactive.
  • Prepares the congregation for change.
  • Surprises the congregation with change.
  • Yields expected results.
  • Yields mixed results.
  • Values are embedded into the new leader before succession happens.
  • Values are discovered in the new leader after replacement happens.
  • The new leader holds a high degree of trust by the congregation.
  • The new leader holds a mixed degree of trust by the congregation.

You get the idea. It’s wise to begin developing a succession plan for your church sooner than later. You can begin this process at any time and build it into your overall leadership strategy. It doesn’t matter if the Lead Pastor is 35 years old or 65 years old, it’s worth starting now.

Which plan will your church implement when it’s time to find a new leader?

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