1 Kings 19 shows us a glimpse of Elijah as a leader who has read a few too many of his own press clippings. We see evidence of this when God questions Elijah as he hides in a cave at Mount Horeb.
“What are you doing here?” God asks Elijah in a still, small voice.
And in response, Elijah reminds God just how incredibly zealous he has been. “The Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:10 NRSV)
Elijah saw himself as being faithful, but his response also demonstrated a perceived indispensability. He was the self-proclaimed champion of God; the one left standing while all of Israel had turned away. But God is never without recourse. God sent Elijah forth to anoint three successors in his place: Hazael as king over Aram; Jehu as king over Israel; and Elisha as prophet. In a humbling turn of events, Elijah learns that God is a God of succession planning: a reality that remains true for us as well.
Unfortunately, many of us are like Elijah and see ourselves as indispensable. We know what needs to be done and how to do it. We convince ourselves that no one could possibly do what we do. As such, we fail to seek or recognize the talent in our midst. Moreover, treating practices and processes as sacred, we do not trust others’ implementation efforts. Because someone might dare to change some time-honored tradition, we refuse to relinquish the reins. I remember speaking with members of my church who complained that one of the ladies selected to lead an effort was a “newbie.” The “newbie” had come to the church in 1948. If being a member of the church for 60 years did not qualify this woman for leadership, then no one would ever be qualified to lead.
These kinds of attitudes can thwart our best efforts. In Exodus 18, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, observed the process of settling disputes, requiring Moses to sit day and night while people brought grievances to him. Even Jethro said, “This is not good!” He recognized that both Moses and the people were suffering and recommended a succession plan. Moses was encouraged to train leaders to sit as judges over minor disputes, leaving the important cases for himself. By doing this, Moses would be able to endure, and the people could go home in peace. This is the potential of succession planning. We are made better not because we dogmatically adhere to what has always been done, but because the gifts and abilities of others are employed.
Furthermore, making way for differing styles of leadership can be a good thing. In his succession planning, Jesus said to the disciples that through faith in him, they would not only do the works he had done, but also greater things (John 14:12). Those who are prepared to follow you stand positioned to further the good works of the church, organization, or institution. But to realize such positive trajectories, it is up to us as leaders to do the work of preparation.
What are some of the things that we can do to plan for succession?
First, we need to always be on the lookout for new talent. Often, people want to add value; they simply need the chance to contribute. Who in your organization or congregation is seeking different opportunities? Speak to them about what they want to do so that you as a leader become aware and sensitive when such opportunities present themselves.
Second, make space for others by giving them real responsibilities. It is too easy to delegate the trivial work to others, allowing them to go for you while you do the real work. Administrative and logistical tasks are important, but people will not learn to lead if the sum and substance of their delegated tasks are “grunt work.” What of your work can you delegate, providing someone with a real opportunity to lead? What assignments might you give that offer growth?
Third, remember that delegation does not mean abdication. Succession planning works best when you provide support for the delegated task and are available as a resource. I gave my student employee the opportunity to present to senior administrators at Yale Divinity School. Because it was his first presentation, I met with him so that he could review his content with me and rehearse his remarks. My support helped him to be comfortable and confident when he made the presentation. Not only did he gain necessary skills for his future, but his proposal was well received.
Finally, and related to the previous point, successful succession planning is a good reflection on you. My student received great accolades from the administrators to whom he presented. While he basked in the glow of success, I did too. Because he was prepared to shine, his light shined on me as well. His success meant that there were others trained to do and promote the excellent work of the organization, which was the goal.
It is this goal that should drive us to plan for our succession. Before Elijah was taken away, his successor, Elisha, asked that he be given a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. While Elijah acknowledged the difficulty of the request, it came to pass because Elisha had been prepared to receive it. We as leaders must likewise prepare others to follow us. Their success will be ours as well.
The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her book “Spiritual Practices for Effective Leadership: 7Rs of SANCTUARY for Pastors” is available through Judson Press. She will be presenting the workshop Leading and Succeeding for the Future at the Mission Summit in Virginia Beach, VA on June 22, 2019.