Succession Planning with Father Dan Swift

June 24, 2016


One of the measures of a great leader is what happens to an organization when they leave. A ministry or committee that crumbles as a result of a change in leadership or administration is not an impressive testimony to the extraordinary giftedness or singular achievements of the predecessor.

While participating in Parish Catalyst’s first cohort, Father Dan Swift, pastor of St. Mary of the Lakes Catholic Church and School in Medford, NJ, began developing healthy, sustainable ministry and programs through renewed focus on one of the least appreciated, but most critical aspects of leadership in a parish: succession planning.

Succession planning is about maintaining continuity in vision and effectiveness when leadership passes from one hand to the next. In other words, how will you train your replacement, or shepherd your ministry in time of transition? It is of major importance at every level of church life, from the pope to your next youth group volunteer.

A New M.O.

No one who loves their ministry likes to think about succession planning, but it is essential to ensure a healthy parish in the future and present. One negative consequence of poor succession planning, Father Dan says, is the creation of a modus operandi where the pastor becomes the point person and final word on every aspect of ministry. As a result, important decisions aren’t made due to lack of time or information. Not only does that become unhealthy for the parish, Father Dan notes, it becomes unhealthy and distracting for the pastor.

Others worry about the pastor being hit by the proverbial bus, leaving no one knowledgeable enough to take over in his absence. Similarly, it happens that lay volunteers in charge of a specific area for a long time end up with more of a club than a ministry and mission mentality, and end up discouraging involvement.

Leading at the Summit

These represent the problems many churches face, but St. Mary of the Lakes is committed to changing the culture.

One major initiative at St. Mary’s, inspired by their experience with Parish Catalyst, was the idea of hosting their own Parish Leadership Summit. At these summits, which happen twice a year, everyone currently in ministry (not designed for recruiting new ministers) gathers on a Saturday morning through the early afternoon to hear a series of inspiring talks from parish leaders on how to rise up and lead others. During the day, they gain important training through exercises and share their experience and ideas in ministry with each other. They are not there to be told simply what to do, but how to do it and then teach others as well.

Rather than a select group of parishioners performing many ministries, the goal is for many parishioners to be doing some specific ministry. St. Mary of the Lakes parish currently offers over 70 ministries, and many have been the fruit of initiatives like their Summit, including their ministry to Young Adults, expanded Senior ministry, and “Joe’s Friends,” a telephone ministry to those suffering from the loneliness of being homebound or without much company of family.

Importantly, the Parish Leadership Summit equips parishioners who want to learn more about leading ministry with the skills and confidence to accept more responsibility, as well as encourages existing leaders to pass on their acquired wisdom.

By: Evan Ponton, Assistant to the Pastor, Church of the Nativity, Timonium, MD

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