Leadership Succession – off the hook?

Nineteen years ago “Marcell” was living in Thailand when he started an international ministry to rescue young girls and boys caught in human trafficking. For nearly two decades he has travelled the globe with tireless passion. He has built a respected ministry with a combination of hard work and charisma. As the ministry has grown, his staff has come to expect his presence and personal involvement in nearly every new initiative. But Marcell is getting older, and is visibly worn with the grind. He worries about the future of the ministry. But when asked about his plans for leadership succession, he comments, “That’s God’s job, not mine. Just as God anointed me, so He will raise up another to take my place.”

Leaders like Marcell believe that God alone is responsible to develop leaders and that, they think, lets them “off the hook.” They harbor the erroneous notion that leaders are born not made, so they say, “Why should we try to develop them?” Some of them also nurture the “once a leader, always a leader” idea, operating on the premise that you only leave the position when you die. The replacement or training of leaders happens only when there is a crisis, when it is absolutely necessary, or when a vacuum is created.

This idea that God alone is responsible for appointing leaders is more spiritualized than biblical.

“Great Man” Theory

Jesus spent a lion’s share of His time and energy developing the disciples for their future leadership. While it is certainly true that God is working out His sovereign purposes by guiding the appointment of leaders to key ministry roles, leaders also have an important part in the process. Marcell’s perspective is actually a Christianized version of the “great man” theory of the early twentieth century, which had suggested that leadership comes from nature, not nurture, and that effective leaders are born, not developed. Although this theory has largely been debunked by more thorough research in recent decades, many Christian leaders continue to champion the idea with carefully chosen biblical references that support their view that God unilaterally appoints leaders.

Marcell and many others use scriptural language from a sincere motivation to faithfully serve in their leadership roles, but it has created the fallacious view that leadership is a holy mantle that only God can bestow.

This subconsciously absolves the leader of their responsibility for cultivating others, an endeavor that requires time, effort, and commitment.

Anointed by God

Although most will not admit this, many leaders don’t prepare anyone to take over leadership because they simply don’t want to share the position or give up leadership responsibilities, either because they derive their sense of worth from what they do or because they have become addicted to power. They employ the “anointed by God” motif to promote the not-so-subtle sense of their own indispensability.

Recently an African pastor publicly and with great pride declared, “When I die, my church will die.”

As these leaders listen to their admirers, the combination of personal ego and public perception serve up a recipe that reinforces the sense that the leader is irreplaceable. With no intention of giving away responsibility, they are unwilling to expend energy in raising up anyone who could take over their position. A second line of leadership is not developed for fear that the current leaders may lose their jobs. In truth, those who maintain this posture idolize their positions, and have no intention to sacrifice or serve so that others can be raised up.

Two projections over the next decade summarize a global challenge:

First, since almost half the world’s population is under twenty-five, young people will be entering the ministry and marketplace in greater numbers and more quickly than we can prepare them.

Second, older people will be retiring in greater numbers and more quickly than we can replace them. Unless standards are raised for young people today that will help them think and act like authentic leaders, they will not be ready for the responsibility thrust on them.

We have to connect with them, help them interpret the constant swirl of information, model the inherent value of discipline, and provide challenging opportunities in supportive environments. In short, we have to get serious about developing competent influencers with character for today and tomorrow.

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