Book Review: Succession, by Bryant Wright
Bryant Wright, Succession: Preparing Your Ministry for the Next Leader. B&H Books, 2022. 128 pages.
“One of the most daunting tasks that a pastor will ever face is leading his congregation to the future he will not see.”
Those words provide a fitting introduction to Bryant Wright’s small but helpful book Succession: Preparing Your Ministry for the Next Leader.
From 2010 to 2012, Wright served as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was the founding pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church (JFBC) in Marietta, Georgia, a position he held for 38 years. Sensing the Lord leading him to conclude his ministry at JFBC, he desired to thoughtfully and prayerfully guide the church through the process of calling and confirming his successor.
Although Succession is written primarily from the perspective of the departing pastor, its foreword and interspersed sections by his successor, Clay Smith, give the book added perspective. The interaction between the two men, especially toward the conclusion when the “handoff” was made official, is both moving and refreshing.
SUCCESSION FOR MEGACHURCHES
This is clearly not a “how to” manual as much as it is the personal account of how one megachurch prepared, implemented, and evaluated a plan of pastoral transition. Some churches will be able to better identify with the process Wright recommends than others.
Because JFBC is a megachurch with a large staff and multiple Sunday services, the plan of succession promoted by the author does not adequately address the circumstances that smaller churches will face. Therefore, its practical value for most churches, those for whom a more “streamlined” plan is needed, is doubtful.1
That being said, because Wright’s love for the flock he shepherded for almost four decades permeates nearly every page, Succession should motivate churches of any size to make pastoral transition as seamless as possible. Although the steps JFBC followed likely will not serve as a model for most pastoral search teams, they nevertheless reveal many of the “intangibles” which are frequently overlooked in the interviewing process with possible successors.
Wright should be commended for his long-range planning, as well as for his patience in implementing the plan that eventually led to the naming of his successor. His repeated emphasis for the pastor to include his wife in prayerful conversations throughout the transition process is a helpful reminder.
Thumbing back over the book’s chapters as I was writing this review, I was struck by the lack of biblical support and the mention of specific passages which may have inspired and even directed the succession process. That is not to imply the Scriptures were not consulted and considered, but the lack of any reference to a New Testament model or paradigm is regrettable.
Prayer is said to have been a vital part of the process, but there are no specific references to how answered prayers reflected God’s method for raising up and calling local church leaders.
BETTER MODELS OF SUCCESSION FOR MOST CHURCHES
After serving as a local church pastor for thirteen years, I had the opportunity to recommend my successor as retirement neared. I oversaw the vote of members to call him, and I had the privilege of preaching his installation service. I couldn’t help but compare the process followed by our much smaller church with those Wright describes at JFBC.
Would we have been helped by reading the path this larger body chose to pursue? Certainly. But I’m not convinced we would have been persuaded to implement the process he suggests; in fact, even if persuaded, I’m not sure such a process would have even been possible for us.
To his credit, Wright does discuss the need for churches to have a “catastrophe plan” in place in the event of a pastor’s sudden departure, either by death or other unexpected circumstances. At the time of this writing, I serve as the interim pastor with another local fellowship whose shepherd of eighteen years unexpectedly passed away last year. Because he did not have the opportunity to give serious thought to his successor, the church found itself unprepared to begin its pastoral search. I have been asked to assist and advise the church as it conducts its search and interviews potential candidates. Although Wright offers some brief suggestions in cases where a church suddenly finds itself without a pastor, these are not specific enough to be of tangible assistance.
Although Succession is an enjoyable read, it does not fully deliver what it promises. For churches considering pastoral transition and preparing for their next leader, there are other works which address the subject more comprehensively.
I would personally recommend Next: Pastoral Succession by William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird. Interestingly, Wright credits the Vanderbloemen Search Group for its assistance in the JFBC transition process. Tom Dale Mullins’ Passing the Leadership Baton: A Transition Plan for Your Ministry is also more complete and practically helpful for churches of any size.
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 Local fellowships having 2000 or more attendees on Sunday mornings are generally considered “megachurches.” According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, less than 1% of the more than 300,000 churches in America fall into that category. Conversely, 59% of American churches have 100 or fewer attendees each Sunday. http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html.
For more on pastoral succession, check out:
- On Preparing for the Next Guy, Pastors Talk
- Prepare the Church for the Next Guy, by Matt Schmucker
- A Tale of Two Pastoral Transitions, by Bob Johnson