While I see our government planning for succession, I don't see many churches doing the same. Some pastors feel that they should serve God in their position till their last breath. What do you think?
We have heard it said, "There is no retirement in God's service." The servants of God in the Bible like Moses, Elijah and Paul served until the end of their lives. That may be true−but each of them left behind a successor: Joshua, Elisha and Timothy. We need to be clear about what it means to serve God.
Firstly, we can serve God with or without a position. The senior pastor of a church or the founder-president of an organisation can continue to serve God after stepping down from his position. Serving God should not be confused with holding a position.
Secondly, while there is no “retirement” as we generally understand it, there is a change of role tied to age. This is clearly taught in Numbers 8:24-26 (NIV), concerning the Levites who served in the tabernacle:
“… Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the tent of meeting, but they themselves must not do the work. This, then, is how you are to assign the responsibilities of the Levites.”
Though this practice applied to the Levites, I believe there is a principle here that holds true for all who serve God in any place. All servants of God should move at some point from a leading role to a mentoring role.
We sometimes hear a leader talk about “working myself out of my job,” but I am not sure how many of us are serious about it. If my goal is to keep myself employed, I would make myself indispensable. But if my goal is to equip God’s people to build God’s kingdom, then I would want to multiply myself. I wouldn’t worry about becoming redundant and losing my job. In any case, people who work themselves out of a position are often sought after for greater responsibilities.
Leaders who do not think about succession or plan for it are doing their followers a disservice. As someone once put it, "We have no doubt that our pastor will die for us. We are only worried that he may die on us."
So an urgent reason for succession planning is the fact of our mortality. We simply do not know how long we will live. Who will take over if we are suddenly taken home? Another reason is the need for the work to continue beyond us. As a friend of mine puts it, “I work as if I am staying but I plan as if I am leaving.” Of course, that is easier said than done. There are practical implications.
The first is financial. If a leader is dependent on a position for regular income, stepping down from it means the loss of income. If he has dependents to support and debts to repay, such a decision is difficult. The second is vocational. If he steps out of a position, what does he step into? Is there any meaningful role or gainful employment left for him? The fear of an uncertain, insecure future makes retirement a frightening prospect.
Yet, as a responsible person, a leader has to plan and handle his finances well. The ideal is for him to become financially free by a certain age, that is, when all his debts are cleared. Once that is taken care of, vocational change becomes less problematic. Hopefully, by retirement age, dependents are fewer, and financial needs more manageable. In some cases, we may have to downsize our expectations and simplify our lifestyle. I believe that if we have been faithful to the Lord, He will not fail to provide for us. As the psalmist testifies, “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread” (Ps 37:25).
Pastor David Wong (centre) served Mount Carmel Bible-Presbyterian Church from 1976 as the first home-grown pastor for 17 years before Pastor Daniel Chua (left) took over and served for 22 years. In 2016, Pastor Oh Boon Leong succeeded as senior pastor thus completing a third generation of pastors for the church.