We Are All Dispensable
Last Fall at the Vanderblomen, Next: Succession conference, I was somewhat jokingly told there were two circumstances that can best help an incoming pastor hoping to replace a founding pastor…either the Founding pastor suddenly dies or he/she has a major moral failing. In Manfred Kets de Vries, The Leadership Mystique, I am given equally encouraging advice for the outgoing CEO (pastor) when Kets de Vries talking about power transferring also somewhat jokingly says, “the major task a CEO faces is finding his likely successor and then killing the bastard.” Chapter 11 in Kets de Vries book is titled “The Dynamics of Succession” so I knew that would be a good place for me to dive in.
Kets de Vries does an excellent job is this book discussing the need for emotional intelligence and that carries over to his chapter on succession. As you would expect from Ket de Vries, in regards to succession he doesn’t just lay out plans and strategies for succession, but he gets into the emotions an incoming or outgoing leader might be feeling. Fear is a key emotion Ket de Vries identifies in both parties during succession. Regarding the outgoing leader, Ket de Vries says, “succession arouses basic fears of death…CEO’s tend to be fairly close-lipped about their fears and feelings, making succession shrouded in mystery.” For the incoming leader Ket de Vries identifies another reason for fear, “once a person becomes head honcho, there are no obvious new positions to strive for. It’s success or failure; there are no other options.” It seems pretty clear to me that these fears mostly revolve around power, the fear of letting go of power and the fear of obtaining power.
Fears revolving around power also exist in the church. After studying numerous case studies of pastors letting go or retiring, one of the most common difficulties I’ve observed directly connects with Ket de Vries comment on CEO’s when he says, “CEO’s are highly sensitive to shifts in power and some simply can’t face the reality of losing power.” Just like CEO’s, many pastors attach their identity to their work and have a hard time letting go of power. Pastors are just as likely to become workaholics and tend to build their church around their own personality making it even more difficult to one-day walk away.
Kets de Vries points to a trait that is often present in successful successions and that is being able to accept that everyone is dispensable. Charles de Gaulle’s comment “that graveyards of the world are full of indispensable men” should hopefully resonate with church leaders. As church leaders we should humbly lead knowing that one day we won’t be around but hopefully our legacy will. While we all desire to walk out on top, the truth is most of us are going to have to humbly learn to let go at some point in our life, facing our fear and letting go of power. Which is why succession planning is such an important task we all should be thinking about. As Ket de Vries concludes regarding succession that “the acid test of excellent leadership is what happens when the leader is no longer there.”
 Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, The Leadership Mystique: Leading Behavior in the Human Enterprise, 2nd ed. (Harlow, England.: FT Press, 2009), 225.
 Ibid., 224
 Ibid., 219
 Ibid., 225
 Ibid., 226
6 responses to “We Are All Dispensable”
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Nick you Bastard, Fear not! 🙂 Other than the power issue, there isn’t much to worry about. But the power deal. Look out. I was in a group setting this week talking about some key issues that were really great until we ran into the issues ultimately rooted in power. It was amazing as we as a group started to realize how much power was the dynamic and the real issue and how unaware of it we were. I think power dynamics run so deep and are so at the core of the why we do what we do, that when we change what we do we are unaware of how much we are disturbing the power dynamics of a team, business, or organization. Good post my friend and again … fear not!
Nick, Really good post. I’m not sure you’d want to dive any deeper into this on a public site but I’m wondering if you and your senior pastor have talked honestly about the fears that you’re both likely feeling regarding the slow shift of power? Fear is ultimately the enemy’s tool to diminish or attack our ministry. Just wondering.
I would affirm the necessity of this question Dave. The de Gaulle quote is particularly pressing on the outgoing pastor I think. Coming to grips with his own replacability and the real emotion of that truth could open the doors for a more healthy transition of power. That conversation would likely need to happen safely behind closed doors!
I’m pretty blessed with an honest and vulnerable senior pastor. I’m sure we both have much more to share in the journey but we’ve been able to share our fears. What your question brought to mind though is the fears of other staff/elders might have. We really haven’t created the space for them to share.
With what’s coming in your life Nick, im sure you got a mouth full out of it this reading. I am praying for you in the event you get this succession. I like what de Vries said about knowing how to let go when we have too. I hope that i will be able to do that if the time comes for me to do it. Because that could be something we have to do even when there is no succession but God wants you to move on to something better! Blessings!!!!
Your focus on power reminds me of Rene Girard’s Mimetic Desire theory – that we desire what another has (all marketing is based on this), and that rivalry quickly enters in. There are two ways to find a healthy approach to this inevitability – one, recognize that desire is actually how God created us (Jesus’s prayer in John – “want what I want, like I want what the Father wants”), but that seizing that power doesn’t work; it comes through a servant’s heart. The second way is scapegoating – finding a third party to blame. From your description of your senior pastor, it sounds like the honesty between the two of you will allow for a healthy transition. As well, you have demonstrated again and again a servant’s heart. A gift we all in this cohort benefit from.