What Olympic Relays Teach Us About Succession

I confess I’m going through withdrawal now that the Rio Olympics are over.  For two weeks, like countless viewers, I was captivated by the inspiring stories and spectacular accomplishments of world class athletes. Just two years to wait for the Winter Olympics!

What I did not expect was an object lesson from the track and field relay teams for our work in Succession Planning.  The women’s 4 x 100 team featuring Alison Felix failed in the trial race to pass the baton and were initially disqualified.  Later the judges determined that Alison was bumped by another runner and the Americans were allowed to compete in the final – from the least desirable lane on the outside. In spite of these obstacles, they raced for the Gold Medal!  Sadly, our men’s 4 x 100 team experienced a different outcome. After celebrating a victory lap for the bronze medal with the American flag draped over their shoulders, the team discovered they had been disqualified because the baton was passed outside the official zone. This baton passing is a tricky business!  And the consequences for getting it wrong are heartbreaking.  So what can we learn for churches facing the crucial process of passing the baton from one Senior Pastor to another?  Here are some lessons I gleaned from Rio:

  1. Process Matters – No matter how skilled the runners are, the process of passing the baton is a huge factor in the result of the race.  Many churches facing Succession might assume that the major challenge is finding the right next person.  But Succession is about so much more than Search. Of course, the right candidate is essential for the future ministry of the church. But if the transfer of the leadership baton from the current leader to the next leader is unhealthy, moving forward to the next season can be stalled and impaired. The congregation and staff all need the process to be one of openness, appropriate honoring and grieving, celebration, and authentic support for the new leader.
  2. Practice Matters – No doubt the Olympic runners practice baton passing over and over and over. They likely studied films and learned from other teams about the best approach and potential errors to avoid.  In the same way church teams facing succession should prepare well in advance, learning from other churches who can share lessons of what worked well and what surprises they faced along the way.
  3. Coaching Matters – I was moved by stories in Rio of coaches who have worked for years with athletes, offering perspective, training plans, discipline, encouragement, and support. One triathlete could not stop hugging her coach after winning the gold medal, acknowledging that they shared the journey and the final victory.  A coach brings a steady, wise, consistent voice to the person who is on the field.  And when it comes to Succession – the enormously vital movement of a church from one leader to the next – a coach is essential.  At Slingshot we believe a coach should ideally begin working with a church team as soon as the “s” word of Succession is first uttered.  The passing of the leadership baton does not have to be fraught with misunderstandings, serious identity issues, poor communication, and a lack of trust.  With a skilled coach to guide all along the way, the Succession process can honor God and be filled with integrity, truthful and timely communication, closure for the congregation and staff, hope and excitement for the departing pastor’s next season, and a wonderful launch for the critical first 100 days of the new pastor.

The winning of a gold medal is exciting and meaningful.  Yet in terms of eternity and the fruit of the kingdom, the win of a healthy Succession process is far more significant.  Let’s not drop batons and damage communities of faith.  May God be honored by church teams who intentionally walk into the season of leadership transition with a determination to run this crucial part of the race with grace, skill, integrity, and love.

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