Book Review: Passing the Leadership Baton, by Tom Mullins
Tom Mullins. Passing the Leadership Baton: A Winning Transition Plan for Your Ministry. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015. 210 pages.
I suppose it would be honest of me to begin this review with a confession. When I received the assignment I was not familiar with the author Tom Mullins. But as I began to read I wondered how it was possible that I had not heard of this man who had led such a large church and ministry for so many years. And the more I read, the more I realized that Mullins is an exceptional leader who comes across as simply a very kind and likeable guy.
I wanted to read this book because, after 31 years at my current church, I am in the midst of a transition myself—and I was not disappointed. While I am past the point in my own transition of going back to implement all of Mullins’ ideas, this was a helpful exercise in seeing another’s perspective on all the ins and outs involved in a successful transition.
Passing the Leadership Baton has a wealth of material and helpful suggestions for any pastor who has been at his church for a reasonably long period of time, beginning with the basic idea that one ought to plan for transition long before it takes place. Pastor, if you’re not thinking and praying about your own eventual transition, you should be. On this point, I’m reminded of one of the best quotes in the book: “Your own sense of comfort and contentment in your role should not be the determining factor in whether you stay longer or not. . . . Your decision needs to be based on when it’s best for the organization and for your successor” (42). When tied with his insistence “that we are simply stewards of God’s work,” (40) this idea critically pervades the entire subject of transition.
I liked Mullins’ relay race analogy and passing the baton (having used it myself before our congregation). It gives a clear picture of what is being faced, and throughout the book he gives pointers to both the one passing the baton (predecessor) and the recipient of the baton (successor). This is very helpful from both perspectives.
For the outgoing pastor/leader some of the key points of emphasis are: (1) count the cost of leaving for both yourself and your family; (2) determine what, if any, your future role in the church will be; (3) seek to plan well for your financial situation in retirement; (4) plan well in choosing your successor, especially focusing on his ability to carry on the DNA of your church; and (5) prepare your successor by giving him ample opportunities to know and be known in your world. Mullins also gives 11 tips for handing the baton off well in Chapter 6. They are extremely practical for those who are leaving both during the time of transition and for their future life and ministry.
For the incoming pastor/leader there are several valuable points as well. Chapter 5 outlines 11 things that must be done to receive the baton well. Of these I would point to the first two as holding special importance: Be patient and be yourself. Take your time in making changes, remembering it took your predecessor a long time to become the leader that he has been. And don’t try to be him. His time to lead has passed. Your time has come. Do it humbly. Mullins quotes Jason Bolin, who gives a profound insight: “Don’t assume you have trust. What you have initially is love until trust is earned” (117).
Finally, Chapter 7 gives much-needed insight into handling transitions that come from crises. These are times when one is thrust into the role of successor without a positive, proactive time of passing the baton from the predecessor. If you find yourself in this role, this chapter can be of immense help to you.
I found Mullins book to be insightful and helpful to a host of pastors who either will be or currently are passing from the scene in their churches. That said, here are a few suggestions that I would offer.
First, a few criticisms. While I love the analogy of the baton exchange, I didn’t like the use of the term “Anchor” to apply to the successor. Though I don’t think Tom Mullins truly meant to convey this, the truth is that the anchor leg is the final leg in the relay. Neither the out-going nor the incoming pastor needs to think of himself as the “anchor.” If the outgoing pastor thinks that way he will find it difficult to pass the baton. And if the incoming pastor adopts this attitude he will fail to begin to look toward the day when he will become the baton passer.
Next, while this book has many principals of leadership transition that are universal in nature, the majority of the focus is on a significantly large church context and a father-to-son transition. Most of the key illustrations and examples are in this father-to-son realm. Reality is that most pastors who need to make a transition won’t have biological sons to carry on after them nor will they be in churches of the size, staff, and financial means to carry out much of what is recommended in the book. For example, while they may have the same gracious heart of a John Maxwell, most churches may simply not have the means to do what he suggests in regards to the outgoing pastor. The book would have been helped by some case studies of how smaller churches have or could have transitioned.
Another weakness of the book for church situations is an under-emphasis on the role of the spiritual leaders of the church as a group. Whether your church calls them elders or shepherds or whatever, the biblical model is clear that there should be a plurality of godly leaders in each church giving spiritual direction to the church in a unified way. Though Mullins does mention a “Board” from time to time, the implication from his experience and many of the examples he uses is that the predecessor pretty much calls the shots alone in the transition. For churches who are seeking to be true to a biblical model of leadership there certainly needs to be a deep involvement of the shepherds at every step in the process.
On an interesting side note, this book made me wish for another book. Mullins references Bob Russell and Dave Stone from Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and Bob’s book The Transition Plan. I still think Bob’s book is the best book for any church to use in beginning the conversation about pastoral transition. But from the many references to Bob and Dave in this book about some things they wished they had done differently I found myself hoping that Bob and Dave would write a follow-up book together to The Transition Plan reflecting back and suggesting what they might do differently.
That wish leads to my last point about Passing the Leadership Baton. Much is said about the predecessor being available to his successor both for personal interaction and for whatever his future role in the church might be. I think for everyone involved it is best to realize that this is the successor’s call. He needs to be transparent about his desires for his predecessor’s involvement and the predecessor should honor those wishes. And the incoming pastor needs to be the one to initiate the contact following the transition. The predecessor should rightly feel that he cannot force himself into the ongoing life of the church and its pastor. He should be invited in if that’s what the successor wants.
I found this book to be helpful and insightful, and I have already recommended it to some others who are in this process. If you have been at your church for any significant length of time, my recommendation is that you read Bob Russell’s The Transition Plan to get your mind going in this direction and then read Tom Mullins’ Passing the Leadership Baton for more specificity into how to go about it.