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July 28, 2018

Starting succession planning in your parish*

By Laura Ann Phillips

It’s something no parish would race to manage, but must: the departure of a ministry leader. Particularly, an effective one. Whether through sickness, death, or the brighter circumstances of getting married or moving, a leader’s anticipated or unexpected departure can mean the termination of a ministry if there’s no suitable replacement.

Succession planning for parishes is not a new concept. In an article on the website,, Fr Dan Swift, pastor of St Mary of the Lakes, New Jersey, cautions that leaders in charge of a group for an inordinately long period risk developing a club instead of a ministry, and could end up discouraging membership.

In this Archdiocese, parishes are encouraged to change heads of groups every three years to enable other members to gain leadership experience. But, members may often feel ill-prepared for the role, and groups with small memberships may, in truth, be very limited by the available pool. So, what strategies can a parish adopt to prepare for the inevitable, and ensure smooth transitions between outgoing and incoming leaders?

St Mary of the Lakes hosts a biannual Parish Leadership Summit at which persons currently in ministry participate in training exercises, obtain advice and inspiration from experienced heads and have the opportunity to share their own ministry experiences and exchange ideas. So, for parish ministry to thrive, the answer seems to be: listen, train, encourage. Succession planning equals leadership development.

What do we want to accomplish?

So, what is the parish’s main goal? We might say something like: “Make space for Jesus to be experienced, known, loved.” But, what particular actions by this particular group would accomplish that? Take-away prayer cards? Monthly play-and-coffee-mornings? In the Forbes Magazine article The Secret To Succession Planning: It Starts With Leadership”, business development guru and PeopleResults CEO/founder, Patti Johnson, notes, “A good succession plan should be built into what you’re trying to do with the business.” For our purposes: whatever we’re trying to do with our parish.

What do we need to accomplish this?

Having identified your goals, identify the skills needed and persons who may have them. Start with parishioners first, then look outside. Ask if they’re willing to provide training.

Be the Encourager.

Communicate clearly the kind of qualities needed for leadership of the group and, if you see those qualities in someone, tell them. Most parish groups have a particular area in which they excel; affirm and encourage them. Of course, don’t shy away from gently pointing out areas for improvement; offer to arrange training.

Expect the unexpected.

Expected or not, it is safe to assume that no-one will lead a group forever. So, it is the parish’s responsibility to put measures in place as swiftly as possible to develop a culture of leadership grooming. Christian leaders have always been called to hold the peculiar paradox of being “wise as serpents, yet harmless as doves” (Matt 10:16). We’re expected to put our brains to use as we make Jesus known and loved through our parish’s work and prayer.