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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

16 May '12

When it is time for ministry founders to transition

Posted by T.J. Addington in Healthy leaders, transitions
Ministry founders are special people. They took risks to get the ministry up and running and took it through the hardest period - the early years. The ministry vision was theirs. The decision making was theirs and others largely acceded to their wishes because the founder represented the vision and heart of the ministry. Often, for many years their decisions went unchallenged even by those who they brought into leadership around them. The ministry is seen as the founders ministry.


Founders often forget, because of the role they play that the ministry is not theirs. In fact, once a ministry goes beyond one person (the founder) it is no longer His or Her ministry and they are simply stewards of that ministry. 


Once there is a board there is an acknowledgement that there is also accountability to others and the ministry is no longer a sole proprietorship. In other words, even though the founder played and plays a special role, it does not belong to them and they are now accountable to steward well and accountable to those in leadership above them.


The transition from being in control to being accountable to others is often a hard transition for founders to make. After all, they are entrepreneurs who figured out how to get the ministry to where it is today. In their minds, nothing has really changed except that the ministry is larger and they now have more structure. They believe that they made the right calls in the past and can and should continue to make the calls in the future.


In reality, though, a lot has changed: The ministry is not larger but different, there is now a formal leadership structure that even the founder is under, others legitimately want a seat at the leadership table and what was once "mine" is now "ours" and the founder is just one of the players. Whether the founder realizes it or not, the whole world around them has changed and it is a new day that relies much less on them than it once did. 


In addition, and this is a very hard thing for founders to grapple with: there often comes a time when the leadership needs of the organization have moved beyond the leadership skills of the founder. This poses a delicate issue for them and their board. For founders, because admitting that they are no longer the needed leader is very tough - they got the ministry to where it is. It is in their minds their ministry. For boards, because they need to make a transition while acknowledging the special part that the founder has played.


I have watched high profile ministries do this well and do it poorly - it depends on how the board handles it and how the founder responds to it. However, these dynamics hold true in small ministries and churches as well. Many times, founders hold on and their fingers need to be pried open to allow the ministry to move on and flourish in the next run. Sometimes, when founders hold on tenaciously they end up seeing the ministry they built go into a sad decline.


In ministry, founders are not owners but play the start up role. Whether they can transition from the start up role to that of leading a different and more mature organization depends on their skill set. Some can and some cannot. Both boards and founders, however, need to acknowledge that the ministry does not belong to the founder. It is not unlike parenting. My kids grew up and now make their own independent decisions - and organizations grow up and start to make their own independent decisions. 


Founders are special people. Most people cannot start something like they did with their faith, courage and entrepreneurial spirit. But they and their organization need to understand that this does not mean that the ministry belongs to them. And there will come a time when they need to release the ministry to the next leader.