Finding the next T.D. Jakes or Joel Osteen: Keys to a successful pastoral CEO search

“Well you know the whole legend of St. Patrick, right? St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland, and then they came here to the United States and became NBC executives.”
–Jay Leno

Jay Leno’s two-decade reign as the host of “The Tonight Show” is hardly a textbook example of how to handle major corporate transitions.

NBC’s indecisiveness in 1992 placed Leno from day one in the midst of a feud with David Letterman, an insider candidate to replace the legendary Johnny Carson. In 2009, the network eased the younger comic Conan O’Brien into the role of Tonight Show host, then reversed course a few months later, and brought back Leno. This week, Leno will fall on NBC’s sword, and be replaced by Jimmy Fallon.

But not without some pointed humor from Leno over the last few months: “Doctors in Canada were shocked after pulling a three-inch knife blade from the back of a 32-year old man. The knife had been in there for three years! Imagine that, the guy had a knife in his back for three years. He must’ve worked at NBC, too.”

Religious communities calling a new pastor, rabbi or imam do not get the same public attention focused on the choice of the next king of late-night TV. But saying goodbye to a longtime leader and deciding on a new spiritual CEO pose special challenges for congregations, where clergy and members bond through some of the most difficult and joyous moments of the life cycle.

And megachurches searching for the next T.D. Jakes or Joel Osteen may find the process particularly difficult. Prominent pastors of large churches serve an average of 30 years, with some finding it difficult to let go of power and control, Leadership Network Research Director Warren Bird discovered in his work on pastoral successions.

So it is not surprising that many religious groups replacing clergy will encounter conflict, and in some cases membership decline, in the short run. But research is also finding that these short-term losses dissipate after a few years.

The key to a successful transition, analysts state, is to develop a long-term plan for the congregation that identifies its strengths and weaknesses, and moves houses of worship into a future where they are open to change.

A congregation’s best prospects for long-term survival and growth are to “find somebody more in line with where they want to go, rather than where they are now,” Erica Dollhopf of Pennsylvania State University found in her research on leadership transitions.

Pastors matter

Replacing a congregational leader is never going to be easy. The uncertainty of change, attachments formed with the outgoing cleric and the need to adjust to a new leadership style all challenge congregational harmony.

A study analyzing data from the 2006-2007 National Congregations Study found that 15 percent of congregations that had recently changed leaders reported a membership decline of more than 10 percent in the previous two years. In contrast, just 3 percent of congregations with more established leaders reported such a large drop during the same time period.

Researchers Dollhopf and Christopher Scheitle of the College of Saint Benedict-Saint John’s University also found the odds of a congregation having had a conflict over leadership issues in the past two years were greater in congregations that went through recent leadership changes.

There were some variations. For example, growth was more likely to decline if the community chose a candidate from within the congregation, as opposing to hiring an outside leader. However, hiring someone from outside was more likely to predict leadership conflict.

What was not highly significant was religious tradition, or whether pastoral leaders were hired by congregations or appointed by denominational hierarchies.

“Pretty much, conflict is experienced across all types of congregations,” Dollhopf said. “It seems to be something normal within the process.”

Dollhopf and Scheitle reported their findings in the current issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Still, the challenges of replacing a charismatic star may particularly resonate with megachurches.

The typical long-term, large-church pastor leaves about five years too late, Bird learned in more than 100 interviews since 2011 for his work on pastoral succession at large churches.

Bird, co-author with William Vanderbloemen of the new book “Next: Pastoral Succession That Works,” found some of the biggest challenges to stepping aside included letting go of power and control.

The large-church pastors he spoke with said two major factors in a successful transition included:
• If the pastor left before the church declined heavily.
• The behavior of the outgoing pastor, whether the cleric got out of the way with the arrival of the new pastor.

Lasting change

The hopeful news for congregations is that conflict associated with pastoral changes does not necessarily reflect the long-term health of religious communities.

For all the challenges facing megachurches, large-church pastor successions are surprisingly successful, with new pastors lasting 10 years on average, Bird found.

In their research, Dollhopf and Scheitle found the effects of leadership changes appear to be mainly short term.

“Congregations may, therefore, benefit more by focusing their energy on general organizational health and long-range planning without getting too caught up in leadership change issues. Perhaps this may be consoling to organizations experiencing noticeable membership decline in the aftermath of a transition: in a few years, the effects should diminish,” Dollhopf and Scheitle conclude.

Researcher Cynthia Woolever said it is critical for congregations to celebrate, and then let go of the past during leadership changes.

“Now it’s time to have a new vision and to convince people the best is yet to come,” said Woolever, co-author with Deborah Bruce of “Leadership that Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor for What Kind of Congregation.”

But even the best- or worst-laid plans can have unexpected consequences.

In his own take on the Leno-Fallon transition, Letterman deadpanned: “He’s being replaced by a younger late night talk show host –- what could possibly go wrong? Honestly. They had pretty good luck with this in the past.”

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