Succession Planning: How to Choose a Leader

Our family moved to Virginia Water, nineteen years ago today. At my induction here, Bishop John Gladwin preached from Luke 5. It’s the story of how Jesus delivered the man called Legion. He was possessed by many evil spirits and Jesus cast them out into a herd of pigs who drowned in the Sea of Galilee. Bishop John tried to make a joke about Virginia Water and its association with the Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park). The sanatorium was made famous by Bill Bryson in his book, Notes from a Small Island.  He worked at the Sanatorium in the 1970s and met his wife there. Bishop John said “Many of you will think Stephen is mad, but he will be at home here.” Some laughed but others were not so sure. With hindsight you may think he was being rather prophetic. How do you choose a church leader? This Summer Joanna and I will have been serving in full-time Christian ministry for forty years. My ministry has been shaped by the Lord’s mandate:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

This is where our three-fold strategy of ‘win – build – send’ comes from. That is why I have prioritised being an evangelist (win), a pastor teacher (build) and a trainer (send), hence the willingness to accept opportunities to teach and train beyond the parish. How do you choose a church leader? I recently recorded two programmes for Premier Christian Radio with Andy Peck on succession planning.  In the interview, I said that from the day I arrived in Virginia Water, I was planning my departure.  That is because at the heart of biblical discipleship is the assumption of making oneself redundant. Why?  Because we never know when the Lord will move us on or take us home. The Apostle Paul realised this and instructed his disciple Timothy to reproduce himself.

“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.” (2 Timothy 2:2)

If we become more indispensable over the years we are not making disciples but setting a church up for a crash.

In my experience too many Christian leaders (whether its clergy, home group leaders or Sunday school teachers) fail to take discipleship seriously and are not intentional in their own succession planning. They may have a blessed and fruitful ministry, but if they step down or leave suddenly, the church is ill-prepared and suffers as a consequence. One way I have sought to reproduce myself has been to ensure Christ Church became a training parish again.  When we came to Virginia Water 19 years ago, there was one other staff person. I inherited the lovely Margaret Duckworth as a part-time secretary. And that was it.  Before we came there had been a gap of ten years or so since Chris Green served his curacy here. When we were offered a curate I wrote to all the previous incumbents and curates and asked them for a sentence on how valuable it had been. I used their quotations to convince the PCC to invest in 6 Beechmont Avenue so that we could have a curate again. Since then we have helped several young men, fresh from theological college get their first experience of parish ministry – David Gibbs, James Hughes, Francis Blight and Ro Mody all to become incumbents of other parishes.

We also assisted church members, Richard Coleman and Glen Mansfield, discern God’s call, train at theological college, get ordained, serve curacies and become incumbents of other parishes. Andy Bruins, Tim Martin and Paul Dutton all joined the staff team here and left to become pastors of free churches. In a small way we helped Tim Sudworth with temporary accommodation and ministry opportunities to give him time to find the right parish in Acton. This Summer, Peter Nevins will, God-willing, be ordained and serve his curacy in Dorking.
And Will Bissett will know shortly where Bishop Andrew would have him serve after his curacy here. I make that twelve. A very biblical number. Succession planning.

How do you choose a church leader? A great deal depends on how we understand the Church and Christian leadership. Clearly leadership is much broader than ordination, or indeed, paid or full-time ministry. At Christ Church we are presently seeking two apprentices, a Children’s and Family Pastor and two people to stand for the Church Council. They are very different leadership roles. Please pray that the Lord guides us to the people of his choice, bearing in mind it may be you.

Please turn with me to Acts 1:12-26 as we consider succession planning and how to choose church leaders.

  1. How is the Church Defined?
  2. How is Leadership Failure Understood?
  3. How is Succession Implemented?
  1. How the Church is Defined

“Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters…” (Acts 1:12-16)

1.1 Their Name 

” Brothers and sisters” This is the very first time the church is defined. They saw themselves as a family, not an organisation and certainly not a denomination. Notice also they were on first name terms. We are a family. You may choose your friends but not your family.. Their Name.

1.2 Their Number 

They were already a group numbering about 120. That was the minimum number required by Jewish law to establish a new community with its own council. This represented the entire Christian community in Jerusalem. There were others in Galilee, but at that moment in time, out of 4 million Jews living in Palestine, the Christians were a tiny, insignificant minority. If you ever feel you can identify with them, remember what God has done, observe what God is doing and pray expectantly for what God promises to do. Their name. Their number.

1.3 Their Nature

They looked not to the smallness of their number, nor at the size of their mission, but to the greatness of their God.

They gathered together
They had just witnessed the ascension of their Lord.  They awaited the promised Holy Spirit. What did they do?

They prayed together
Why do we place such an emphasis on our home groups and small groups, on prayer in and after our services?  Yes, we invest time in worship. Yes, most certainly in fellowship. Yes, most emphatically in studying God’s word. But supremely we meet together to pray with, and for, one another. Prayer is simply talking to God.  Prayerlessness is a sign of independence. That is what sparked the fall of Satan, the betrayal of Judas and the denials of Peter. They gathered together and they prayed together.

They prayed together constantly
This was probably the first 24 hour chain of prayer. Constancy in prayer is a discipline. If you don’t already do so may I encourage you to use our monthly prayer diary. Please see our home groups as essential to your spiritual growth and our First Wednesday prayer and mission focus evening as a priority? This Wednesday there will be news of Christianity Explored globally and a new Christian charity we are launching soon, Peacemaker Mediators.

How is the church defined? As a family. A family that met and prayed. That prayed collectively and prayed constantly. And as a consequence they decided that a successor must be found for Judas.

  1. How is Leadership Failure Understood?

“Peter said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.” … “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms: “‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, “‘May another take his place of leadership.” (Acts 1:16-20)

The ‘Iscariots’ were a band of violent nationalists, prepared to undertake assassination and murder to liberate Israel. Perhaps Judas saw Jesus as the one to lead Israel to independence, but turned against Jesus when he disowned an earthly kingdom and repudiated their means.

They discerned in Scripture, God’s sovereign rule

Peter perceived the Sovereign hand of God. He probably remembered how Jesus had insisted he must be crucified and rise from the dead according to the scriptures.

They observed from experience, God’s justice swift

What ever the reason, when Judas saw his plan to force Jesus go tragically wrong, he committed suicide in the very field he had bought with the 30 pieces of silver.

They discerned in Scripture, the need for succession

The same scriptures that convinced Peter and the others that Judas needed to be replaced.

  1. Succession Planning: How to Choose a Leader

“Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.” (Acts 1:21-26)

First let us observe what is unique about this event and then the abiding timeless principles to succession planning.

3.1 The Essential Purpose of an Apostle

Why choose a successor?  The number twelve had always been very significant paralleling the twelve tribes of Israel. The twelve Apostles were appointed to bear witness to Jesus as the Messiah, from His baptism to His ascension. Jesus had also promised that the twelve Apostles would rule over the twelve tribes of Israel in the coming age, a theme developed in Revelation 21.

This is why they discerned from scripture the need for a successor to Judas. Not everyone could be an apostle. In their choice of a successor they looked for someone “beginning from John’s baptism who had been with Jesus until his ascension” (1:22). Someone who had known Jesus personally, someone who had heard his teaching first hand.  On this criteria there are no Apostles today. Apart from Judas, the other Apostles were never replaced or succeeded by other Apostles.

3.2 The Unique Signs of an Apostle

It is noticeable that the Apostles were a clearly defined group of leaders endued with authority and supernatural power just like Jesus. In Acts 2:43, 4:33, 5:12 Luke insists that ‘signs and wonders’ were associated with the Apostles. The terms is not used of believers. Paul writing in 1 Corinthians 9, and 2 Corinthians 12 sees himself as an Apostle chosen by Jesus, although one “untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8). The Apostles were clearly marked men. Paul insists, “The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders, and miracles were done among you with great perseverance”. (2 Corinthians 12:12). He speaks critically of their own self appointed “super apostles”.

As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:20, together with the Prophets the Apostles were the “Foundation of the Church”.  A foundation that was laid only once. While there is clearly a succession in the apostolic gospel there is no apostolic position. Judas was replaced not because he had died but because he had disowned Jesus. In Acts 12 when James was martyred there is no attempt to replace him with another Apostle to make up the number.

3.3 The Unusual Selection of an Apostle 

Notice the church did not simply pick a man, nor did they ask for volunteers. The Church proposed two men. Both had been nominated and approved.  The choice of twelfth man was left to the Lord.  Their method of choosing may appear a little unusual, but in actual fact this was the normal Jewish method of appointing leaders.  All the offices and duties in the temple were settled in this way.  The names of the candidates were written on stones, the stones were put in a vessel which was shaken until one stone fell out. The name of the person on that stone was appointed. This is what Acts tells us about the role, uniqueness, sign and selection of an Apostle.  So what of succession planning today?

What are the abiding criteria that we should apply?

  1. The Universal Principles for Selecting Leaders

We don’t have time to study Paul’s Epistles to Timothy and Titus, or Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians Which all speak of some of the distinguishing features of spiritual leaders. In Acts,

4.1 An established relationship with the Lord Jesus

Joseph and Matthais were identified from among those who had been with the Lord from his baptism to his ascension. The scriptures warn against appointing new believers to leadership roles irrespective of their age or secular experience (1 Timothy 3:6) or in making hasty appointments (1 Timothy 5:22).

4.2 Known to be filled with the Spirit and wisdom

As the church began to grow, the Apostles found it difficult to fulfil all the roles required.

“So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4)

4.3 Approved by all and commissioned by the leaders

As we have already observed, the church family did not simply pick someone randomly, nor did they ask for volunteers. The Church proposed two men. Both were nominated and approved. Similarly, in Acts 6, while the initiative was taken by the Apostles, the whole church family assisted in the process.

“This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” (Acts 6:5-6)

As I mentioned earlier, we are presently seeking two apprentices and a Children’s Pastor. The roles are very different but we are seeking people who meet these three essential criteria. The person spec for both roles is, or will be, on the church website soon.  And for the two vacancies for our Church Council? The same criteria apply. Elaborating on the criteria found in Acts, to stand for election to the Church Council a person needs to be :-

  • on the Electoral Roll.
  • at least 16 years old.
  • an actual communicant – taking communion regularly.

In addition it is desirable that they be :-

  • a committed Christian.
  • known to church members.
  • endorse the 2020 Vision and Five Year Plan
  • committed to the central features of Christ Church.
  • available to attend the majority of P.C.C. meetings.

Please pray that the Lord guides us to the people of his choice, and be ready to accept nomination if invited. Succession Planning: How to Choose Church Leaders.

We have observed,

  1. How the Church is defined
  2. How leadership failure was understood
  3. How succession is implemented

And that is where we leave them. The brothers and sisters, 120 in number, meeting and praying together, praying constantly, as they waited for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Mindful of the tragic fall of Judas, they interpreted events in the light of scripture and took succession planning seriously in order to fulfil Christ’s commission to go and make disciples of all nations. We are here because they were faithful. What about us? Will you take your own succession as seriously? Lets pray.