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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
172 pages
Jul 2006
Barclay Press

The Leader's Legacy

by David L. McKenna

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



Through the Revolving Door

Thousands pass through the revolving door of Christian leadership each year. Whether we are clergy or laity, pastors or missionaries, educators or evangelists, executives or elders, the journey through the revolving door of transition is as inevitable as death and taxes. Promotion, transfer, resignation, dismissal, retirement, term of office, completion of task, and death all account for the numbers.

As the portal spins, each generation asks two questions: “Where have all the leaders gone?” and “Who will lead us in the future?”

History, of course, shows that God raises up his leaders from age to age. Still, he puts in our hands a responsibility for succession, or the orderly process by which one leader follows another. Each generation of leadership meets that responsibility by appreciating the past, advancing the present, and assuring the future. Succession is the ultimate test of Christian leadership.


The literature on leadership tends to give little attention to the subject of succession; major emphasis gets placed on the role and relationships of the individual leader. In the Christian context, authors describe character, define expectations, and delineate functions. Organizational aspects of Christian leadership are usually limited to matters of structure and management for the local church, the congregation, and small groups. Thoughts about the succession from leader to leader are rare indeed.

Leadership development also occupies a key place in the literature. Christian leaders are expected not only to be on a personal and professional growth line themselves; they are to nurture the gifts of their subordinates through mentoring and team-building. But this task almost always involves developing leaders within the organization, not preparing candidates to take over the leadership role. The study of succession in leadership is the missing link. Few have written about it and fewer understand it.

While we intentionally develop leaders within our churches, schools, and ministries, we often seem unprepared for the succession of leadership when the revolving door turns. More often than not, we count upon the good graces of the Holy Spirit to bring us through.

But our failure to address the question of succession leaves Christian leaders at all levels grasping for understanding when our time comes to walk through the revolving door. Scores of executives of Christian organizations anticipating a change invariably asked me, “How do I make a graceful exit?” Behind their query lies a more important question: “What is the meaning of my ministry?” While the two questions overlap, they are not the same. “How do I make a graceful exit?” asks about transition or the steps in managing the change of leadership. “What is the meaning of my ministry?” pleads for an understanding of succession so that the departing leader will see how his or her tenure contributes to the larger mission of the ministry.

To answer the question of succession is to lay the groundwork for answering the question of transition. As a background for these questions, the three-fold perspective of wisdom, experience, and revelation will help us understand the guiding principle of succession that gives meaning to our ministry.


James MacGregor Burns notes, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.”1 If this is true of leadership in general, it is particularly true of succession in leadership.

In earlier studies of leadership, succession was applied primarily to family firms in which one generation followed another in ownership and management. Today, the term needs to be enlarged in scope, related to mission, and applied to the line of leadership that must be drawn with continuity from the past, through the present, and into the future. In this context, anyone who leads in any sector and at any level is responsible for “succession.”

While succession has not been emphasized in most definitions of leadership, it is often implied. Max DePree, in Leadership Is an Art, writes, “Leaders should leave behind them assets and a legacy.”2 He cites financial resources, accountable systems, and institutional values as examples of assets that a leader leaves behind. DePree adds, “Leaders are also responsible for future leadership. They need to identify, develop and nurture future leaders.”3 Later on, he spells out this thought in the chapter titled, “To Make One Vice-President, Mix Well….”4 DePree offers unforgettable words of wisdom to summarize his thoughts: “When talking about leadership, one always ends up talking about the future, about leaving a legacy, about followers. In other words, leadership intertwines the most aspects of an organization: its people and its future” (italics mine).5 Although DePree does not use the word succession, he certainly implies a principle essential to the definition of leadership.


DePree’s convictions about the legacy of leadership coincide with my own experience. In a career of more than 50 years in Christian ministry, I have served as a pastor, hospital chaplain, psychological counselor, university professor, search consultant, and elected officer in national and international evangelical organizations. At the core of my experience are 33 consecutive years as president of a college, university, or seminary. During this time, I participated three times in the succession of leadership at the presidential level. Also, I have served as a consultant with numerous Christian organizations moving through leadership transition.

So I know what DePree means when he says leadership is “talking about the future…leaving a legacy, [and] about followers.” As I remember the three transitions in presidential leadership—college, university, and seminary—during my career, I see transcontinental moves that dislocated my family and tested every lesson I ever learned. Each appointment involved a radical change in my leadership role, a major adjustment to regional and institutional cultures, and a formidable challenge in working with predecessors and successors. Fortunately, I enjoyed the best of relationships with both predecessors and successors. Natural strains occurred, to be sure, but none became personally destructive or institutionally detrimental. In each case, I honored my predecessor and celebrated my successor.

My experience in presidential succession gives me the opportunity to reflect upon what I have learned. Sometimes I feel like old Satchel Paige, who once said, “I have seen some terrible things in my life, and most of them have never happened.” I too claim the credentials of experience to speak on the subject of succession in leadership.

Some readers may wonder if the examples I use from my experience as a college, university, and seminary president fit the leadership setting in which they find themselves as pastor, evangelist, missionary, or lay leader in the local church. Let me try to dispel any such doubts by confessing that a president of an educational institution is one of the most vulnerable people in one of the most difficult leadership settings I know. Personal pressures limit presidents to an average term of four or five years in office. Why?

First, educational institutions are essentially “organized anarchies,” which means that professional issues of leadership get very complicated. Second, presidential decisions remain open to challenge from faculty peers who “think otherwise.” Third, budget limitations often reduce the president’s leverage for leadership to a risky minimum. And perhaps most difficult of all, presidents and their families live in a fishbowl, with every eye scrutinizing their behavior. The whole world knows when a mistake gets made.

These realities are not cause for complaint! The joy of serving God in the ministry of presidential leadership far outweighs the slumps and the bumps of the experience. Still, when we project the lessons of presidential leadership for public viewing, we must use a wide screen, large script, and vivid color. Every viewer in any leadership role can learn from these lessons of experience.

THE PERSPECTIVE OF REVELATION For those who still may have doubts about the possibility of transferring useful lessons from presidential leadership to the pews of the local church, I offer the perspective of biblical revelation. I would like to direct your attention to what could be called “The Greatest Succession Story Ever Told.”

I realize that John the Baptist is an unlikely model for succession in leadership. His rough appearance, eccentric style, brash demeanor, severe message, and short time in the spotlight may make us forget that he was, in fact, the most successful evangelist of all time. Some scholars estimate that he won a half million or more converts with his message, “Repent and be baptized.” Without the help of advance teams, giant stadiums, or mass media, his success still astounds us. The fact that many mistook him for the Messiah confirms his opportunity for greatness.

Yet, by his own confession, John the Baptist rejected fame and flattery. As the forerunner of Christ, he saw himself as a bit player on the stage of redemptive history. In a fleeting moment, he stepped from the wings, introduced the Lamb of God, and then faded into the darkness. Such a brief public career may suggest to some that his leadership was limited and his ministry momentary.

A deeper look into his life story, however, opens up some surprising insights. John the Baptist truly is our biblical model for succession in Christian leadership. We may not identify with his style of ministry, but each of us can learn from his spirit as he brings the meaning of succession to life. Step by step, as the book progresses, we will see how the life and career of John the Baptist exemplifies “The Succession Principle” and encourages us to apply its meaning to our own leadership. THE SUCCESSION PRINCIPLE

When one blends the perspectives of wisdom, experience, and revelation, a new dimension gets introduced into the definition of leadership. With special emphasis upon the progression of Christian leaders from one generation to another, I call it “The Succession Principle”:

A leader builds upon the past,
gives momentum to the present, and
leaves the promise of greater things to come.

This definition implies some distinguishing characteristics that set apart those Christian leaders who serve with the Succession Principle in mind: 

The mission is the overarching vision, the consuming commitment, and the moral force for leadership ordained by God. 

The timeline is continuous. It extends from the past, goes into the present, and moves toward the future of redemptive history. 

The qualities of leadership are raised to give priority to personal character without neglecting professional competence under the anointing of God. 

The relationships in the leadership process are personalized in a caring community, a functional family, and a learning organization in the body of Christ. 

The moral response of leadership to human need is elevated to include the vision of transformational change without sacrificing the reality of transactional function under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

The motivation for leadership goes beyond self-interest to servanthood, and even Christlike self-sacrifice. 

The outcomes of leadership are measured in the leader’s contribution to the mission, both now and in the future, with the Holy Spirit working the results.

With these distinguishing characteristics in mind as we write, leadership, especially in a Christian context, rises to stature beyond the ordinary. Throughout the book, you will find these expectations guiding us. Whether in the life and career of John the Baptist or in the position to which God has called us, these are the expectations by which our leadership performance is evaluated. They go beyond profit margins, statistical goals, program efficiency, and even people management. In them, the mission of the ministry and its preservation and advancement are paramount. If we really believe this, we will embrace these expectations as the very reason for our existence as leaders.

Without these distinguishing characteristics, Christian leadership will continue to remain a worthy term in search of a guiding principle. But with these distinguishing characteristics, another facet in the gem of leadership comes to brilliant light. We are inheritors of the past, guardians in the present, and benefactors for the future. The Succession Principle may not be the final word in leadership development, but it is another step toward the meaning and maturity we rightfully expect from those gifted to lead.

Whatever our leadership role as Christians—clergy or laity, high or humble, secular or sacred—each of us will take our turn moving through the revolving door. Joining all who have gone before us and all who will follow us, we will ask, “How can I make a graceful exit?” and “What is the meaning of my ministry?”

With the Succession Principle as our guide, we are ready to cycle through the rules of succession from the beginning to the end of our time in the leadership spotlight. In that way we can present our gift to the future—some affirmative answers that come with the story of succession.