The governing board of a Christian organization has the lead role in the drama of succession planning. On center stage at the beginning of transition, the board has primary responsibility for the continuity of mission through the formal authority entrusted to it. Tacit in this statement is the reality that executive leaders come and go. Even though membership on the board may change, it is the board that is the most stable unit of governance in the Christian organization. Therefore, it is up to the governing board to have a clear sense of purpose backed up by consistent policies and practices in order to assure continuity of mission, development of leaders and advancement of ministry in the succession drama.
As the first line of action in support of its primary responsibility, a governing board must maintain the authority entrusted to it in policy and in practice. Sole authority for the destiny of the Christian organization rests with the governing board. The policies adopted by the board and put into practice either enhance or erode the authority that is its trust. Studies of the defection of Christian colleges from the faith begin with policies that compromise the mission or default on the authority for which the board is ultimately responsible.
Close behind the governing board’s responsibility for assuring organizational stability during the succession process is the obligation to steward the leadership resources entrusted to it. Governing boards tend to have high scores on the selection of leaders, average scores on the development of leaders, and low scores on the succession of leaders. High expectations are written into the profiles for selection of CEOs in Christian organization. After one board member reviewed the idealistic expectations for the new president, he remarked, “I have only one question to ask. ‘Can the candidate walk on water?’” Once the selection is made, however, boards tend to relax as if to say, “Now, you are on your own.”
Many boards also assume that the leader they chose will serve forever. In such cases, the thought of succession can turn into the charge of betrayal. Governing boards must swallow their institutional ego and accept the fact that leaders who serve and grow may also come and go. The need is for governing boards to see themselves as stewards of a full-orbed process involving the selection, development and succession of leaders, both within and between Christian organizations. Furthermore, to assure continuity of the mission and advancement of the ministry in a Christian organization, the governing board must take seriously its duty to be the primary agent for accountability in the succession process.
In my book Stewards of a Sacred Trust (ECFA Press, 2010), I outline the responsibilities of the governing board for accountability in the succession process, beginning with the board itself. I explain that concurrent with the announcement of a change in leadership, the governing board must:
1. Take charge by letting go of the past and firming up the organization for the future
2. Hold steady though the anxiety and ambiguity that is inevitable in transition
3. Make ready the organization for its incoming leader
These are functions of succession that only the governing board can enact and for which it is ultimately accountable. They cannot be defaulted, deferred or delegated. Succession begins and ends with the governing board.
Dr. David L. McKenna served as president at Spring Arbor University, Seattle Pacific University and Asbury Theological Seminary, as well as board chair at Spring Arbor University and Bakke Graduate University. As an author and consultant, he brings the perspective of experience to the subject of succession. His newest book is The Succession Principle: How Leaders Make Leaders (Cascade Books, 2015). This is part one of a three-part except from the 2015 Summer edition of Outcomes Magazine.