Among transitioning mortals, need for change of leadership is inevitable. Promotion, realignment, relocation, demotion, resignation, dismissal,
incapacitation, or death may trigger need for change of leadership in the church. By church leadership, I have in mind ministry leadership at all levels. Additionally, vocational ministry obviously has special relevance as well. It is desirable that leadership transitions are harmonious. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. This has much to do with the absence of succession contingencies and this is so for a variety of reasons.
First, there is the thinking that the task of raising leaders is God’s sovereign work, in which humans must not meddle. Second, the responsibility of grooming leaders is neglected due to the ignorance of its importance. Third,
well-meaning leaders fail here because they are afraid of the enormity of the task. Fourth, sadly, there is also the love of power that makes some disinclined to share power. Such individuals see themselves as exclusively and indispensably entitled to their positions. Turbulence ensuing after their
departure, owing to the absence of capable successors, is delighted in by such leaders as vindication of their indispensability.
Articles in this issue of Reformation Zambia show that good leaders
prepare good leaders to succeed them. Prominent biblical models of leadership transition such as Moses to Joshua, Elijah to Elisha, Jesus to his apostles and Paul to Timothy and Titus, offer the churches of all generations practical indicators of what is involved in leadership transitions.
Appreciation of the importance of the duty Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, underscored the value of deputation in Exodus 18.
Paul took it to another level when he gave the training aspect of deputation
interminable perpetuity: “What you [Timothy] have heard from me in the
presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). The faithful continuity of institutions depends in large part on their uninterrupted supply of quality leaders. And yet, leaders are the best guides in the selection of potential leaders. Leaving this task to the led can be unsafe, as the case in selecting the first king of Israel demonstrated.
Therefore, all responsible leaders must see the need to groom successors. But this starts with full appreciation of the necessity of the task.
Recognition of talent The greatest misfortune any organisation can suffer is to have incompetent leaders. To have leaders like Saul, Jezebel, Herod and Diotrephes is to be consigned to sure disaster. The basic requirement in prospective leaders is “faithfulness,” according to Paul. This means that serious consideration must be given to natural and spiritual gifts. The reason for this is because these (the gifts) ease the ability with which tasks are performed.
Mere availability and industry are inadequate criteria for the selection
of understudies. Added to these must be latent ethical and technical
competences. An elder, for instance, must be “able to teach.” Jethro was acutely aware of the importance of rudimental capabilities suited to the task when he said, “Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe” (Exodus 18:21).
Talent search may start with healthy Christian fellowship crafted out of
formal and informal gatherings. But it must never be embarked upon without much prayer. Our Lord spent a whole night praying, prior to selecting his disciples. Not all that glitters is gold!
Pious apprenticeship The whole purpose of having deputies is to offer them ample exposure to the operations of the positions being understudied. Paul calls it the act of “entrusting to faithful men” all knowledge acquired. This entails spending time with understudies as they receive instruction, observe how the work is done and are given the opportunity to try out their learning over time. This is the kind of exposure Joshua received from Moses, the disciples received from Christ, and Timothy and Titus received from Paul. Even the profoundly intense and vital activity of engaging God directly, was part of what the learners needed to be exposed to (Joshua in Ex. 24:13–14 and Jesus’ disciples in Matt. 26:36–46).
Apprenticeship is the old term used to describe this process of magnetising the youthful raw metal.
Part of the process of learning to lead involves grabbing the bull by its
horns. This means that the calculated risk of allowing trainees to lead the way is an integral part of their exposure. Mistakes will be made in the process. Uncharitable criticism of their performance is to be expected. Christ’s disciples were a bunch of embarrassing bunglers during much of their internship period. They failed to cast out demons, exposed egoism in their pursuit of eminence, and expressed awful theological ignorance. Yet, Christ still allowed them the opportunity to do field work. Freedom with accountability is a splendid leadership training mix. This means that leaders must risk thrusting themselves to the fore as exemplifiers of what they seek to replicate in their understudies.
A measure of self-exposure is the risk. “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” Paul
challenged the believers at Corinth. Awareness of critical areas of need
A school that runs without a syllabus is a replayed picnic pretending to have academic credentials. Leadership development must have a compass. Essential themes will include those that lie at the root of the success of all Christian service. First among these must be a modicum of theology. Everything is influenced by Scripture. It is the nervous system of Christian living. Joshua was told, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth. You must meditate on it day and night” (Jos. 1:8). Timothy was urged to study to show himself approved and to watch his life and doctrine.
Added to this must be ample ethical exposure. Ethics are the sanctifiers
of all service. Leaders of children, youths, women, men, congregations and
projects only succeed in honouring God and blessing their group members when they have integrity. Put tangibly, leaders must be astute and reliable managers of their tongues, passions, time, commitments, money, material and human resources and power. Remember Jethro’s list? It is “men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe.” The early church’s first administrators were to be “men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). This is another way of saying that understudies must be practitioners of their faith.
Final word
Good leadership is a product of many years of development. Moses spent over forty years grooming Joshua. Of course, this is an extraordinary period that must take into account the longevity of the lives of the people at this time. Jesus spent about three years with his deputies. The apostle Paul spent around ten years with individuals he was pouring his life into.
The lessons are clear. First, avoid desperation or haste in the selection
or graduation of an understudy. Laying appointment hands hastily is a despised precarious act (1 Tim. 5:22). Second, it is of the utmost importance that qualifications are respected in the search for understudies. Nepotistic rationales for selection or any other grounds that suggest carnal bias are to be refrained from (cf. 1 Tim. 5:21). An interesting question may here stare us in the face, and it is, “Why did the Lord Jesus apparently compromise standards in selecting Judas Iscariot? Did he know him or did he not?”
It is not easy to be certain. Obviously, Jesus was not ignorant of who
the understudy was, nor did he choose him out of careless disregard for his
suitability. Jesus knew from the beginning everything about Judas and his
diabolic intentions. Whatever the reasons, in this choice we are solemnly
reminded that even the best of churches and leadership teams can be infiltrated by false brethren, whose true colours only show later (hence the parable of the wheat and the weeds).
In addition, Jesus’ handling of Judas instructs us how to coexist with
those whose sanctification is indiscernible. Some trainees can be wicked and difficult to lead. They specialise in undermining leaders. I wonder how we would react to discovering an Iscariot in our team. Would we patiently let him serve his term? Would we allow him the space to frustrate and pilfer till he fully crochets his suicide rope? In this strange choice, the Lord also gives us insights into the complex symphony of divine sovereignty and the freedom of man’s vile will in orchestrating his eternal purpose. In all this, the manifestation of God’s great grace in working through the most deplorable must not be lost sight of.
Third, a successor should not be imposed on a church that is not ready
for him or her. Where a recommended candidate is rejected, it means that either such a person is not as qualified as the trainer believes him or her to be, or the church has not been furnished sufficient basis for his or her suitability.
It is important to note that the power dynamics in the succession
mechanism of prophets and apostles differ from those involving a pastor. Unlike the field-apostle, the pastor serves in parity with other elders. Therefore, the elders and church members have a big say and the final word in the selection of a replacement pastor—whatever recommendations the outgoing pastor makes.
In the context of the post-apostolic New Testament church,
understudies are a pool of workmen and women constantly being equipped for the church to draw from as and when their services are required at any level.
They may not necessarily be groomed to take over particular offices or roles, unless this is sanctioned by the church. Fourth, proper communication of the leader’s intended exit is vital for a church’s eventual acceptance and support of both the exit and the proposed successor. Drama, shock and awe are the stuff of movies. They can cause lots of stumbling and pain. They should be avoided.
Great sensitivity to the wide-ranging feelings of the members of the church is needed.
Moses made it clear to both Joshua and the congregation that his tenure
was soon expiring (Deut. 31). Just as clear was the succession plan of Jesus
(Matt. 28:18–20; John 14:1–4, 18–19; 16:5–16). Paul’s approaching exit was
not ambiguous either (2 Tim. 4:1–8). The church must always be handled as
God’s property and not ours. The means that best serve God’s interests,
magnifies his honour and profits his people are to be preferred in handling it.