Most ministry leaders don't think about the dreaded word "successor" until it is too late. They act as if they will live forever. Or they stay in control of their church or organization until they are so old that it's too late to train their replacements.
Naomi Dowdy, a veteran church planter who has worked in Asia for decades, decided to buck this trend. She selected her successor, Dominic Yeo, several years ago, trained him and then set him in place in 2005. Yeo's installation at the 5,500-member Trinity Christian Centre in Singapore was an impressive demonstration of the way church leadership is supposed to work—and it gave Dowdy an opportunity to share her secrets with leaders all over the world.
Ministry Today asked Dowdy to download her secrets to us. We think you'll benefit from her refreshingly practical wisdom.
Ministry Today: Why do you think most pastors don't consider it a priority to find a successor?
Dowdy: One reason is tradition. Tradition says that a pastor stays with the church until "retirement"—meaning when he or she is too old or too sick to continue.
Another reason is the old-fashioned attitude that says, "I want to die preaching in the pulpit." In the old days, ministry was considered to be about preaching and was not defined by other expressions. So we had this idea that if you really wanted to be successful you would never stop ministering.
A third reason is poor planning. Many pastors have not planned for another expression of their ministry beyond the church they pastor now. Many of them cannot picture themselves sitting around doing nothing in their older years. They have energy, and they want to be productive in some way in their later years.
To complicate things, most churches either cannot or have not helped their pastors with financial planning. How will older ministers pay their bills?
Ministry Today: You recently handed over the leadership of your church to Dominic Yeo. When did you first come to realize that you needed a replacement, and how did you identify him?
Dowdy: The realization came long before there was someone available and ready. I took steps to prepare. I had to basically grow my own leaders. This required me to break from a traditional approach to doing church.
There were not many Bible school graduates to select from. I knew I needed to begin to develop men and women who could work in every area of ministry. I needed those with pastoral skills, leadership skills and preaching skills. Mostly I was looking for spiritual sons and daughters who had the DNA of the church.
During the 1990s, when I would have our various pastoral planning retreats, I would lead our pastors into open discussions about their spiritual gifts. We talked about what gifts they thought they had versus what gifts others felt they had. We discussed their perception of themselves and how it matched the perception of other team members.
We asked many questions: Were they able to see, from among their peers, who had the gift of apostle, prophet, pastor, evangelist or teacher? Could they recognize and accept that there were some leaders who had a greater anointing to lead the whole team? Would they be willing to accept and follow their leadership?
This was not a democratic process that involved voting; it was a time of dialogue. I could see which leaders were emerging, but it was necessary for the person to be accepted by their peers when the time would come for transition. This was all part of a long process to prepare both the person and the staff for new leadership. Of course, they did not know that I was doing this.
Without a lot of detail I would give my leadership team the opportunity to prove themselves in various ministry situations. In other words, I tested them. This gave them experience, exposure, time for evaluation and an opportunity to gain confidence.
Ministry Today: Obviously your congregation had come to love you over a long period of time. How did you help them adjust to the idea of a new leader?
Dowdy: I knew it was necessary to develop new leaders from within the church. The congregation had to begin to love these growing leaders, so I had to create ways for the church to experience their power and anointing. I would tell the people how great our pastors were so that I could build confidence in them.
I would also put them in charge of the affairs in the church while I was overseas on ministry trips. These things were planned with a purpose.
Ministry Today: Did you and Dominic have any different views on major issues? Does a pastor's replacement have to think just like he or she does, or is there room for the new leader to have a new style?
Dowdy: Dominic and I did have some different views in the beginning. However, we worked through those early in our relationship, before I was sure he would become my successor. There were no major differences on methodology or vision, because he was a part of the process in developing and fine-tuning our church's core values.
For this reason I know the vision of our church will not change. Our methods might need to change as we grow and as our world changes. I told him that he must always pray, hear from God and then review our methods in order to stay on the cutting edge.
Ministry Today: Now that you are traveling a lot, what function do you play in the church, and how is the congregation responding to you in your new role?
Dowdy: I have always traveled in ministry outside my church. We are more than just a local church. We have a global vision, thus we are involved in working with churches in many nations. Most of our pastors are involved in ministry beyond our church and outside Singapore. That is who we are.
However, in the earlier years of my pastorate, I did greatly reduce my travel in order to concentrate on our local church and to develop a strong leadership base. As our leaders grew, I increased my travel to other nations.
Officially my role and title in the church is that of resident apostle. I do not involve myself in the daily operations of the church—rather, I am a mentor to our leadership team. I continue to work with our new senior pastor as we mentor the next generation.
I am involved in our overseas endeavors, and I work to expand our outreach and strengthen the churches we relate to. I'm also involved in many areas of ministry, but I don't lead unless I am asked to. The church and the leadership at Trinity Christian Centre continue to love and honor me, but I don't place obligations on them.
I also have the responsibility as the resident apostle to "step in" if the senior pastor falls into sin. In such a scenario I would have to judge the matter and determine the course of action needed to deal with him, and also to lead and guide the church through troubled times.
The church has responded well to my transition, and they are flowing with Pastor Dominic and the leadership team. The church is growing, miracles are happening, and our new building is progressing on schedule. The church has also responded well to my new role.
The major complaint is that I am gone too much, and they want me to reduce my travel so I can stay in Singapore more. It is great to know they love me!
Ministry Today: What is the worst thing that can happen to a church if the pastor just continues to remain in the pulpit and never trains a replacement?
Dowdy: There are a couple of "worst" things. The pastor can overstay his effectiveness. This can result in the church becoming stagnant and drifting into maintenance mode. In this condition the church will probably lose members and become a shadow of its former self. This would mean that a new pastor coming in must pick up a church that is on decline and try to reverse the situation, losing years of impact.
The other "worst" thing that happens is when a pastor without a replacement suddenly dies or just gives the church a short notice that he is resigning. This pushes the responsibility and burden of finding a replacement in a short time onto a group of elders or a church board.
Usually they do not know where to begin looking. Many times they are not sure what they need to look for because they do not fully understand all of the responsibilities, vision, anointing or skills they should be considering. They just know they need a preacher.
This is mostly the way we have done it in the past. Sometimes it works, but more often it does not work. The new leader does not know the church, the people, the community, the vision or the local leadership. The new person will usually come with his or her own vision, dismantle what is in place and build something new.
While it is not wrong for a new leader to have a vision, this scenario is a waste of precious time, emotion, energy and spiritual well-being. A total rebuilding should not be necessary unless the church is in really bad shape.
If there is training and development of spiritual sons and daughters in the church, then you are able to find a new pastor from within. The new pastor can build upon the foundation already laid and the church will go from glory to glory.
Ministry Today: Looking back on your experience, would you have done anything differently in this transition at Trinity Christian Centre?
Dowdy: I can honestly say I would do it the same way. I do not have any regrets. I believe we created a good model that other pastors, churches or businesses can follow in their transitions.
Ministry Today: Are there pitfalls to watch out for during the process of handing over the baton? What happens if the younger leader is too eager to take the reins?
Dowdy: There are so many pitfalls, I could write a book about them. Let me highlight just a few: (1) Failing to consider the person's character and focusing only on their skills; (2) Passing the baton before the new person is ready; (3) Not preparing the congregation properly for the change; (4) Not considering the feelings of the present staff in the process; (5) Not having a clear understanding of the present pastor's new role or relationship.
If the younger leader is too eager to take the reins, then that young leader has disqualified himself from consideration. That kind of an attitude would harm the church in the long run.
Ministry Today: Some churches have a more congregational form of government. Others have an elder board. How does your model work in these situations, where the senior pastor does not have the authority to choose his successor independently?
Dowdy: I did not choose my successor independently. I was responsible to choose my successor, but then I brought my choice before our board, and they gave the final approval. It did not go to the congregation for a vote, but it was not a dictator's choice either.
When a congregational government is in place, it does present more of a challenge. When pastors are voted into office it can reduce the selection process down to a popular vote. This has never been God's way. God chooses and God appoints. In Acts, it was the apostles who selected and appointed the leaders.
I believe in accountability, but we must also free the pastors to fulfill their God-given mandate to lead the local congregations. I would highly recommend that churches consider making some changes to their selection process. Seek out someone who would have successfully passed the baton and engage them to be a consultant through your process. This is an area where pastors, churches, elders and church boards need some training.
Ministry Today: Do you expect Dominic to take the church further than you did? If so, does that create any tensions?
Dowdy: I definitely expect Pastor Dominic to take the church further than I have. I expect him to stand on my shoulders and build on the foundations that I laid. Of course, he was part of the team that helped me build that foundation. I expect him to be able to have greater and faster success. That's because he can build and expand without having to tear down and rebuild.
I told Dominic that if the church goes down in membership or in finances, then I am the failure, not him. Secondly, I asked him: "Who is your successor?" I wanted him to begin his tenure aware that he already needs to be planning for his own successor.
Ministry Today: What will happen if older leaders begin now to identify and train their replacements? How will this affect the kingdom of God?
Dowdy: The church at large would greatly benefit if those with successful years of ministry could be released to travel and help mentor existing pastors. While these experienced pastors are still young enough and strong enough to be effective, they could mentor another generation of leaders.
Our society is changing. We must entrust the church to younger men and women to lead the charge into the future. Yet the younger ones would love to have an experienced mentor to guide them without controlling them. The kingdom of God would be powerfully equipped to drive Satan back into the pit, and welcome the rule and reign of Christ.
Naomi Dowdy is the resident apostle and former senior pastor of Trinity Christian Centre in Singapore. She is also the founder and head of Global Leadership Network and Global Covenant Network and has been dedicated to training pastors and leaders for more than 30 years. For more information, go to naomidowdy.com.