Book Review: Next, by William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird
William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird, Next: Pastoral Succession that Works. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014. 224 pages. $21.99.
This book surprised me. On the one hand, I was not expecting it to be so thorough in its analysis of the dynamics involved in pastoral succession. I knew the book would be well researched, but it exceeded my expectations—case in point: the explanation of the research process on page 12. On the other hand, I was not expecting such a woefully unbiblical standard for measuring success in pastoral succession.
The book brought me great joy in terms of the way it walks the reader through the complexities and intricacies of pastoral succession. Reading this book is like reading a thorough traveler’s guide that prepares you well for all the joys and dangers you may meet when traveling to a different country. The authors excelled in many areas, but perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the authors’ ability to blend together principles, practice, and pictures.
They clearly define and discuss many important concepts that are integral to the topic of succession. For example, they unpack different types of succession plans (emergency, nonemergency [yet unforeseen departure], and retirement; 33-34). There are in-depth discussions of complicated issues like founders syndrome (ch. 7) and unintentional interims or the dreaded sacrifice pastors (ch. 12).
But the authors do far more than provide principles; they also give guidance in moving from principles to practice. They address where to look for succession pastors (ch. 14), how much it will cost (ch. 15), how to know when it is time to leave (ch. 4), and how succession works in messy endings involving moral failures or church splits (ch. 11). The authors also saturate the book with stories that help make the principles and practice stand out with more detail and color. They are realistic in these stories because they try to strike a balance between positive and negative examples of succession.
The authors provide many more positive contributions to our understanding of pastoral succession. For example, the book begins with a compelling case for why succession planning can’t wait (ch. 1), and the chapter on the “ten commandments” of succession planning alone was worth the price of the book (ch. 2). Each chapter is bursting with statistics such as the average age difference between the outgoing pastor and the incoming pastor (148). The authors also allow for situational differences and nuances because no two succession stories are the same. I could point out more positives, but I have to move on to the most shocking and glaring weakness of the book.
The book brought me great pain in terms of the way the authors measure success in succession. The authors assess success almost exclusively in terms of pragmatic metrics like attendance and giving. If more people are coming and giving than before, then the succession must have been an immense success. Take the transition from John Osteen to Joel Osteen as a case in point. The authors take the reader through the details of the transition and then they come to a conclusion:
Yet Joel Osteen made headlines and history books. He demonstrates powerfully that sometimes even the unlikeliest candidates can become pastoral successors with amazing results. His favor in the city of Houston and the church at large is unprecedented. (91)
If success is defined in terms of numbers, then Lakewood is an astonishing success story. If success is defined in terms of faithful stewardship of the Word (1 Cor. 4:1), then Lakewood’s “success” is seen in a completely different light. What looked like a success story may be a horror story if the gospel is not faithfully proclaimed. Greater numbers gathered to hear false teaching means that more are caught in the snare of error. Pragmatism completely ignores the New Testament warnings against false teaching. Growth can come as a result of false teaching, but Paul does not commend it; he combats it (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
It should concern readers of this website to note that none of the 9 Marks show up in the book as standards of true success. The authors certainly would not advocate a “man-made” pastoral succession as opposed to a “Spirit led” succession. They have no desire to “take God out of the equation” with a succession plan. On the contrary, they believe that God uses “people and systems in conjunction with the Holy Spirit to help build leadership teams in the church” (26).
But Scripture forces us to go further. A Spirit led succession will not contradict Spirit-inspired Scripture and the standards it sets for ministerial faithfulness. The authors made reference to Scripture only occasionally to illustrate examples of succession, not to establish standards of success. It is noteworthy that there are many appendices, but no Scripture index.
Pastoral succession provides an intense opportunity to “ponder anew what the Almighty can do.” The supremacy of Christ should shine in pastoral succession. The authors quote a statement I made about the aim of pastoral succession at Bethlehem Baptist Church. “We tried to make this transition not about finding a man but about fulfilling a mission” (181). I would add that the mission must be defined biblically because, as John Stott one memorably said, “Scripture is the divine scepter by which King Jesus rules his church.” Therefore, the supremacy of Christ shines best when we trust the sufficiency of his Word most. The decisive question in succession is “how would the Lord of the church regard this local church’s transition?”
Therefore, this book is a great guide for exploring the situational factors involved in succession. I recommend it highly for that purpose—and that purpose alone. For the purpose of properly defining success in pastoral succession, look away from this book and turn to God’s book for authoritative guidance. We can test success today by Scripture, but on the last day it will be tested by fire: “Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (1 Cor. 3:13). May we never forget that under-shepherds are all interim shepherds because we await the appearance of the Chief Shepherd.