The first article was about some retired citizens in Japan that have formed a team called the Skilled Veterans Corp. They have formed this team to volunteer to enter the Fukishima nuclear power plant to instigate necessary repairs so that younger workers do not have to. The youngest on this corp is 60 and the oldest is 78. These are real heroes. They reason that they do not have as long to live as the younger generation and they feel some responsibility since they have benefited from the nuclear power for a longer period of time. They add that since their own cells reproduce at a slower pace they would take longer to contract cancer and die from it and likely will die sooner anyway. The truth is, they are willing to sacrifice their own lives so that the generation of their children do not have to. The website calling for volunteers states: "This is our duty to the next generation and the one thereafter."
A separate article was about the supposed fact that the Rev. Robert H. Schuller was voted off the board of directors for the Chrystal Cathedral. Later the church released a statement that he was not voted off the board, though he is no longer a voting member. Of note is that it was Schuller's son (who was ousted from the church a few years ago) that made the original comment, indicating that there is still plenty of drama at the Chrystal Cathedral even with out the Christmas pageant.
Just as this church was a forerunner in the mega church phenomenon, in my own opinion it is an omen that is visually picturing a coming problem that the American mega church must address and address soon. A few years ago Schuller retired and left the church in the hands of his son. Not long after that his son was fired and his daughter was placed in charge. The church has plummeted in attendance to the point where now it is hard to get a shot of the audience for the TV show because of so many empty seats. Even more striking than the low attendance is the high debt and lack of financial resources. The church has gone into bankruptcy and is selling off property and doing all it can to try and stay afloat as it rapidly sinks.
So what do these two articles have in common? Retiring leadership that is responsible for releasing the next generation. In one case, the fathers respond with heroic sacrifice for the sake of their children and grandchildren. In the other case the senior leadership does not adequately prepare the next generation and leaves a sinking ship in the hands of siblings in conflict all while their 84 year old father continues to try to grasp what power he still can until he is finally forced out.
Most mega churches in America remain led by their dynamic founding pastors. These leaders are getting older and in many cases have passed retirement age but still continue leading as if they are immortal. They are not and if they do not raise up the next generation and hand off the baton they too will see their ministry shrivel up and die like the Chrystal Cathedral.
Many of these dynamic senior leaders have children that have grown into leaders themselves, much like Schuller. While some have done well at releasing their sons, others are not doing as well. It is frankly a bit shocking that so many leaders have their sons take their place, like some sort of royal monarchy or family owned business. Billy Graham has Franklin step into his shoes. Jerry Fallwell is replaced by his son. Charles Stanley's influence is now eclipsed by Andy, even though it wasn't always a smooth transition. In fact, many of these successions have not gone well, such as the Schuller debacle. Just a stones throw away from the Chrystal Cathedral is Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa where Chuck Smith Sr. is wrestling with succession issues and from what I hear his own son, also a pastor and author is no longer a viable option.
To their credit they have raised children that are still following the Lord and leading in the church, and for that we should give honor. But the issue is that the way we have done church does not pass the baton well. The sort of leader that can build a mega church is not the sort of leader that does well at giving away the ministry to others, and therein lies the problem.
From my point of view, succession is not the real issue but simply a symptom of a bigger problem. The real issue is that the leadership of the previous generation is not passing the baton well because they are holding on to it for too long. The famous teachers are not producing the next generation of teachers, but rather are holding on to the influence which creates a dependency that does not reproduce. The center piece of an attractional format tends to become invaluable and irreplaceable. Those leaders, likely doing it all for good reasons, become the lynch pen of success and as such ironically become the vulnerable piece of a churches ultimate demise.
I personally believe that the mega church of today is far more vulnerable than she appears to be. Dependency upon a specific charismatic leader and the funds that such a leader draws is actually very crippling and will likely implode in many cases.
One remarkable scripture that we may have read dozens of times but not really considered in light of today's church leadership is a simple statement by Paul in his epistle to the Philippians. He says:
"So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure."We are familiar with these words and perhaps even preached, heard or read messages about working out your own salvation and what that means. But how many of us took the time to consider the opening statement that this church was actually doing better in Paul's absence than in his presence? That, friends, is a huge statement and perhaps even an indictment against the current expressions of leadership found in most of our churches.
We do not need a succession plan as if the current leaders are so valuable that we must spend hours or even days trying to figure out how to replace them with other dynamic leaders that are equally as valuable and consequently vulnerable. What we need is a leader with a heart of sacrifice that is more concerned with his spiritual children's success than his or her own, and will lead in such a way that others are empowered to do even better than the previous leader. What we need is sacrifice, like those fathers in Japan, rather than succession.