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Exit Right: Navigating a successful succession

We dedicate years to exploring and refining our earthly assignments and executing them with tenacity and boldness. But what happens when that assignment is over? How does one respond when the sun is setting, the curtain falls and it is truly time to move on? Leaders may be able to usher an organization to the pinnacle of success. Yet those same leaders can run an organization into the ground if they lack the necessary skills to recognize when and how and when to pass the baton. 

UNDERSTANDING THE TIMES

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.
— Ecclesiastes 3:1

Part of discerning the times is knowing when it’s time to go. History is filled with ordinary men and women who rose to the occasion and became prominent and respected leaders in their era because someone was willing to pass the baton.

If there is anyone who serves as the perfect example of succession done well, it is John the Baptist. John embodied someone who knew his time, embraced his season and relinquished his position when the time was ripe. In so doing, John the Baptist provides an excellent blueprint of someone succeeding through succession.

As the prophetic forerunner to the Messiah, John approached his ministry with a keen awareness that his ministerial success hinged on his ability to prepare the way for someone else who would be greater than himself. His entire purpose was to set the stage for a time when he would no longer be the main attraction, but must abdicate much of his prominence, influence and following to another.

THERE IS A RIGHT TIME

He must increase, but I must decrease. 
—John 3:30

At the height of John the Baptist’s ministry, few rivaled his popularity and ability to attract the crowds. His powerful preaching and ascetic ways attracted curious witnesses, credible disciples and critical pharisees. He was that prominent man of God committed to leading, advancing and developing what God had called him to do faithfully.

John discovered his time and embraced his time. Have you? John provided only what John could have provided because it was his assignment in the earth at that time. John’s purpose was not any less significant because it had an appointed end, and neither is yours. Earthly ministries are not eternal. John the Baptist set the stage for Jesus, and Jesus sets the stage for us. Choose to be a leader who sets the stage for someone else’s greatness.

DON’T OVERSTAY

Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?
—Matthew 11:3(b)

On the surface, the transition from John the Baptist to Jesus may appear seamless, but it was not without its internal struggles. Despite a visual representation of the Holy Spirit and the audible voice of God, John nevertheless questioned that truth that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Could it be possible that he had entrusted his entire ministry and life’s work to a fraud? Did he put his faith in the right person?

These questions are not unique to John the Baptist. One of the reasons that leaders refuse to relinquish control is that they simply doubt that anyone can fill their shoes. Having toiled, labored and tirelessly invested into a ministry, it is understandable that someone may struggle to simply hand it over to the next man or woman in line. For so many, these are more than just programs, pews or parishioners, these transitions mean handing over their life’s work. It means entrusting their blood, sweat and tears to someone else. It means accepting the painful truth that someone else may now be better positioned than you to take the ministry to the next level.

It takes supernatural maturity to embrace that your season has come to an end, and humility to encourage those who will follow. The reasons that leaders give to justify their prolonged tenures are ample. They question the competency and effectiveness of perspective successors. They worry that no one else is as committed to the ministry. They fear that their entire existence has grown obsolete. But if we probe each one of these justifications, we will likely discover that the ministry may be resting upon self-preservation instead of Christ’s elevation. When we overstay our season, the ministry becomes more about us than it does God.

Successful leaders offer superior service while simultaneously being sensitive to the next generation of leaders that follow them. They understand that it isn’t about them or what they have built, but about God. Instead of focusing on themselves, these leaders elevate the overall gospel mission above their personal ministry. So, when that time arrives, they willingly submit to the next generation of leadership.

HOW TO KNOW WHEN YOU’RE NOT DONE

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
—Matthew 11:11

Succession must neither be delayed nor accelerated but should occur at its appointed time. John the Baptist willingly acquiesced to the superiority of Christ but not before he arrived on the scene. Until then, John dutifully prepared the way for the Lord.

Like John, you were created for such a time as this, and succession must not become an excuse to prematurely abandon your ministry post. To the contrary, succession is truly about optimizing God’s plan for your life while keeping one eye on those who will ultimately assume that role. Those who have mastered succession don’t see their successors as threats, but as a part of their own legacy.

Leaders should continue leading with excellence until the time of transition becomes apparent. They must stay the course and never settle for mediocrity. No matter your age, position or title, you must remember that your service is unto the Lord. If you are still effective, you’re not done. If you still have a compelling vision for your ministry, you’re not done. If your numbers reflect growth, progress and development, then you’re not done.

NO ONE IS FOREVER

This is the one I mean when I said, “A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.”
—John 1:30

When his time came, John the Baptist did not hesitate to elevate Jesus. He didn’t even bat an eyelash when his disciples abandoned ship and switched to “Team Jesus.” We all must learn to recognize when our season of leadership has concluded and celebrate the successors that follow. Instead of erecting shrines to themselves, succession-minded leaders facilitate the passage of their teams and organizations to the new leadership.

Imagine the advancement of the kingdom of God if leaders would be just as strategic in advocating for their successors as they were in retaining their own influence. All leaders will succumb—one way or another—to the passage of time. However, those leaders that choose to pass the baton with humility and grace are of much better value to their organizations. For them, the transition is about legacy. For them, the transition is about the continued effectiveness of the ministry. For them, the mantle of leadership is based on the election of Christ, and not the preference of man.

Transitioning leadership is not a sign of failure or defeat. Rather, it represents an amazing opportunity to set the table for the next season of leadership. Be a leader who is not intimidated by successors. Be a leader who embraces the next generation of leadership with open arms and encouraging words. Be a leader who serves with excellence until it is your turn to pass the baton. Be a leader that succeeds through succession.

Seven Signs of Succession

If we are going to implement a biblical model of succession, then we must recognize the signs that precede the moment of transition. Here are seven signs that it may be time to achieve success through succession:

  1. God revealed it to you. If you sense the Lord is moving in another direction, then you would be well-served to be obedient to it.
  2. When you are no longer teachable. If you find yourself unwilling to invest in learning, continuous improvement or innovative ideas, it may be time to yield to those who do.
  3. Your effectiveness has waned. If your ministry is deemed obsolete, stodgy and irrelevant by the ones you intend to serve, then it may be an indication that transition is warranted.
  4. You are constantly threatened by newcomers. If you seem to always despise the newcomers and the change they bring, you should evaluate whether you are still right for the position.
  5. You are no longer adaptable. Change is inevitable. If you lack motivation to keep pace with the latest trends, innovations or technology, then it may be time to retire.
  6. You have outgrown the position. If the previous excitement and challenge has given way to coasting along in the status quo, it may mean that you need to invite a new protégé to step into the role.
  7. You are neglecting the new call. If your passion has shifted in an entirely new direction, then you may very well be neglecting the new ministry that God is calling you to by clinging to an old one.

 

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