Every church, every mission, every ministry is one leadership generation (and that is not a long time) away from decline if we are not deeply intentional about raising up the generation who come behind us. In fact, I believe that our leadership stewardship is not primarily about what happens when we are in leadership, but when we are gone and the long term fruit of our work is either evident or not. And that means that we have paid attention to the sucession to the next generation of leaders in our ministry.
For church boards this often means taking the risk (in the eyes of current board members) to mentor and bring on young leaders who think differently and come with a different perspective than older leaders. And, making them welcome at the leadership table.
For churches with long term pastors who are now in their late fifties or early sixties, it may mean bringing on the next senior pastor and making a transition over a period of years so that the pastoral transition is planned and smooth. The larger the congregation the more helpful this is. It is a change in paradigm from simply waiting until the present senior pastor retires and then hiring someone completely new to the church. That obviously takes a selfless and unthreatened current senior pastor who is willing to share leadership for a period of time and then transition to the new leader as he transitions to either retirement or a different position in the church.
The issue of next generation leadership is particularly critical in mission organizations where my observation is that there is an aging leadership group and where leadership is often given to those who have long experience regardless of whether they have leadership skills or not. Mission organizations today are in a vulnerable position as the world is changing rapidly around them and unless they also change many current missions are going to find themselves in serious decline. I was surprised recently when one large and well known mission replaced its retiring CEO with an individual who was almost his age - as if it needed to guard the status quo rather than embrace the future.
Raising up the next generation of leaders in ministry does not happen without a passion to pass the torch well, to see the ministries we lead flourish and do even better when we are gone and a plan to bring new, younger leaders into key positions with the requisite mentoring and training to help them succeed. Any current leader over fifty ought to be thinking succession even as they continue to lead. Boards of ministries ought to be talking about this issue as well on an ongoing basis as they are stewards of the ministry.
This does not apply only to senior leaders but the the leadership bench throughout an organization. I know, for instance, a new senior pastor of a large church who inherited almost an entire staff of fifty five plus pastors who are locked into two decade old ministry paradigms. He must go through the painful process of bringing on a whole new set of leaders because the board and past senior pastor did not address the issue of leadership succession, or even keep their current staff growing and changing as the ministry grew.
The question for leaders is three fold: What are we doing to raise up the next generation of leaders througout the organization?; Who will replace us? and what are we doing to keep our current leadership staff on the cutting edge and not allowing them to coast toward retirement?