The Transition of a Founder: Handing off the Reigns

Meeting handshake

Starbucks Howard Schultz had to return to the helm at Starbucks. Apparently, according to numerous reports, he tried to leave, but came back to attempt to reverse the suffering the company experienced. Dell’s Michael returned to help steer Dell back to health. Steve Jobs once returned to Apple. Other companies, who have founder with lesser known names, have seen their founding fathers return to the helm of leadership. Companies like Sun Microsystems, Novell, and Vonage saw founders return. They all returned to help the company succeed again. In some of these cases things were never the same after the return, but my point is they were forced to return to the companies they founded.

I have a theory.

Companies today will face this dilemma more than companies founded in years past.

Could it be that because companies today begin with such an imprint of their founder in their DNA that it is becoming more difficult to pass the reigns of the top spot to another person? Study Starbucks and you have to study Howard Schultz. (He even wrote a book about it.) Look at Dell computers and you see Michael Dell all over the company philosophy. Even today, as he is trying to rebrand the company that holds his name with a newer identity, his personality appears to drive the process. Companies today are very much an impression of their founders. Google’s corporate “fun” environment apparently IS Larry Page. Every time I’ve heard Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, interviewed he describes the social network with a passion that only a founder could exhibit.

Companies are launching into their niche faster than ever before. The information age and technology allows for growth at a pace unknown in previous generations. Much of that growth is a direct reflection on the personality and passions of the founder who is seen in the public as the chief representative of the company. Social media fuels that even faster. I’m not sure building around a personality has been the case as extreme as it seems to be today.

As I view this phenomenon within corporate America, I can’t help but wonder if there are implications for churches as well.

Doesn’t Northpoint have the personality of Andy Stanley? Lifepoint certainly embodies the imprint of Craig Groeschel.

What will happen when these leaders attempt to retire? The answer to that question remains to be seen. I have no doubt these two mentioned are thinking about those issues, but are their lesser known counterparts? We certainly are planting lots of churches. And, that’s a good thing.

But, certainly also, we are planting many churches today that share their DNA with the founding pastor. The world of social media elevates the role of the founder in churches too. People follow leaders…personalities. We can agree Jesus is to be that personality…it is Him we are to follow…but even still, society tends to look for individual leadership to follow these days. Hopefully, those churches are preparing to be churches that will last for years to come.

This thought process encourages a few things churches (and organizations) may want to consider in their beginning years:

  • We must be thinking transition of the founder from the founding.
  • We must be careful not to elevate people or personalities over a vision.
  • Whenever possible, we may want to consider easing a leader out gradually, rather than allowing a fast exit of the founder.
  • We must make sure our visions are easily transferable, if we want the church (or organization) to exist long-term.

As with most posts, I don’t have all the answers. I’m, hopefully, just triggering thoughts.

What are yours?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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17 thoughts on “The Transition of a Founder: Handing off the Reigns

  1. This is chocked FULL of nuggets to ponder. I look forward to more…. just VERY helpful in this season I'm in! Thank you so VERY much for sharing!

  2. Interesting topic. I've never heard of this dilemma before. I think it may actually be good that corporations, churches, or other organizations, are — their leaders, especially in the information age. I think this because things change and evolve rapidly. Computers and technology change. Laws and perspectives change. Perhaps this is why we have elections every 4 years. With the transition of new leaders is the transition of, perhaps a fading fad, or good direction, into something fresh and relative. It is of course up to that new leader to do their due dilligence and make things work effectively, rather than fail and call for the need of their predecessor. Thanks!

  3. Been there done that and its the best leadership decision I've ever made! Cape Christian has grown from 1,000 to 2,000 worshippers in the last 4 1/2 years since the public part of the 5 year transition plan was executed. I've remained on staff serving in new "sweet spot" roles while coaching the new lead pastor. Awesome release of a whole wave of new leaders all the way around when it is modeled from the top down!

  4. It might be interesting to see how Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota does through their transition from John Piper to Jason Meyers. If it's successful, then maybe a study to see where that success came from because you know Piper's DNA is all over that church. And just maybe John Piper had Desiring God ministries where he poured out his personality but kept the church more in balance with many pastors and speakers and not just one so the focus wasn't always fully upon himself.

  5. From the think tanks of Leadership Network to the PhD labs of Organizational and Ecclesial Leadership one common theme arises: There is a leadership vacuum in our churches and organizations. I am trying to crack this problem in my research and personal life but it is very difficult. Christian leadership should at its core be Christologically mimetic. However, somewhere along the line a transition takes place and people stop "following me as I follow Christ" and the end up "following me." I am not sure where we are missing "it" on the discipleship front but there are definitely gaps in raising up the next generation.

  6. Thanks Ron for sharing on such an important topic that will become critical in a few years as Boomer pastors age. I founded Cape Christian 27+ years ago at age 32. I'm turning 60 next month. At age 55 I transitioned from Senior Pastor to Founding Pastor and named Wes Furlong as Lead Pastor. He was 32 year old and had been with me for several years prior. It was a 5 years in the making transition before we went public with it. I've stayed on the staff and it has been a phenomenal experience. The church has grown from 1000 to 2000 in weekly attendance since the transition and 80-90% of the new growth are in their late 20's or 30's. The church is healthy and doing well and that is the greatest sense of success and significance that a church planter can experience. I've been able to share our story through Warren Bird and Leadership Network and the March 2013 webinar they did on the topic of Leadership Succession. John Wimber said it well, "What you don't give away, you don't get to keep." And another quote by Andy Stanley reminds us, “Empower others as if your future depends on it, because it does.” – Dennis

  7. Thanks Ron for sharing on such an important topic that will become critical in a few years as Boomer pastors age. I founded Cape Christian 27+ years ago at age 32. I'm turning 60 next month. At age 55 I transitioned from Senior Pastor to Founding Pastor and named Wes Furlong as Lead Pastor. He was 32 year old and had been with me for several years prior. It was a 5 years in the making transition before we went public with it. I've stayed on the staff and it has been a phenomenal experience. The church has grown from 1000 to 2000 in weekly attendance since the transition and 80-90% of the new growth are in their late 20's or 30's. The church is healthy and doing well and that is the greatest sense of success and significance that a church planter can experience. I've been able to share our story through Warren Bird and Leadership Network and the March 2013 webinar they did on the topic of Leadership Succession. John Wimber said it well, "Whatever you don't give away, you don't get to keep." Or another one by Andy Stanley is applicable,“Empower others as if your future depends on it, because it does.”

  8. Thanks Ron –

    You are always so insightful.

    I believe this issue is why succession planning must be a major agenda item for every leader and the board who supports the organization he or she leads. Too often this important task is shifted to a recruiting firm. Those currently leading must be able to anticipate the type of leader that will be needed for the next season in the life cycle of the organization.

    I hold fast to the notion, great leaders train up great leaders. When they do – transition is smooth and the essential DNA is transfered.

    Thanks for always being willing to take on the tought stuff!