Lame Duck Leadership


“I don’t want to stay a day longer than I ought to.”

“I don’t want to be a lame duck”

These are the two most frequent concerns I hear expressed by clergy leaders who are thinking about retiring or leaving their post. Quickly, the conversation moves away from the first question and onto the second. It’s not unusual for me to enter a congregation and have two independent conversations on the same day. First, the clergy leader approaches me and says, “I’m thinking about retiring (or moving on), but I can’t discuss this with any of my lay leaders because doing so will make me a lame duck leader.” A lay leader approaches me and says, “Many of us are wondering what the pastor’s retirement plans (or vocational plans) are, but we can’t ask her for fear that she’ll think we want her to leave, or that she’ll become a lame duck leader once the conversation begins.” Consequently, nobody speaks about a looming departure and the anxiety level of the congregation builds.

So, what does it mean to be a lame duck leader, and is it a relevant concern for clergy leaders in the large congregation?  I think most of us look to models of political leadership when we think about the lame duck syndrome. We envision the leader in their last year in office when everyone is jockeying for power in anticipation of a change in administration. The incumbent has no hope of bringing about any change of substance. People disconnect from the incumbent in preparation for new political alliances.

I haven’t seen much evidence that lame duck leadership is a problem for the large church leader. Clergy leaders who stay fully engaged in the life of the congregation and who remain powerful in the pulpit seem to keep their leadership authority until the moment of departure. The senior clergy leadership role has a hugely prophetic and visionary component, and people seem to respond well to both of these components of clergy leadership as long as the clergy leader demonstrates vibrancy and commitment. If the clergy leader disengages, then lame duck syndrome kicks in.

Actually, I see more of a lame duck issue when a retiring rabbi or pastor fails to speak about a retirement that is inevitable. Sometime around the age of 62 the congregation begins to actively wonder when their clergy leader is planning to leave. (I know, this is age discrimination, but it’s palpable and real). As soon as the wondering begins the leader has entered the world of lame duck leadership. People begin to pull back out of fear that their leader will leave them unexpectedly and without a good succession plan in place. Out of that fear people begin to detach.  Leaders maintain a much stronger authority base when they: actively plan for retirement, communicate a clear message to the congregation that succession planning is in place, offer an assurance that a retirement date will be announced at the appropriate time, with ample time allowed for smooth transitions. With these kinds of open communication and assurances, lame duck syndrome can be put to rest.

What kinds of experiences have you had with lame duck leadership issues? How far in advance of departure can and should a congregation know about a clergy leader’s departure? How can clergy leaders and lay leaders have better conversations about this?

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk


6 Responses to “Lame Duck Leadership”

  1. Rev. Larry Wesolik Says:

    I just retired on April fools day 2009. I announced my intention to retire one year in advance. Prior to that year we attempted to call a person 2 B the next senior pastor committing to a period of transition when I would take the Associates position. That did not work. Most candidates were either too fearful or proud to make the switch. Too bad.

    I retired on the afore mentioned date, had a chance to talk to and encourage the next Senior, participated in his installation, and am now a supportive member of his parish. The new pastor has been supportive of my presence. We have worked together on a project or two at his initiation and under his leadership. I know enough not to undercut or even hint at dissension.

    I am currently coaching a pastor in another parish, preaching around and am part of a parish renewal intervention ministry.

    In the minds of some, I was a lame duck. If you don’t like that, then die younger. It happens that way and it is unjust. There is still a valid ministry of “preparing for the next leader” to initiate. The retiring Senior Pastor can take on some issues that need to be settled to pave the way for the next Pastor. In our situation we had one last church fight to overcome. That worked. I did lay off some of the things that helped to develop the ministry including the next five year plan. I felt that was the right and territory of the next Senior Pastor. It is not my job to set the agenda for the next leader the Lord decided to call to this parish.

    I am mostly enjoying my retirement. There is a restless part of my nature that could be satisfried by a part time position in parish ministry or other activity.

  2. Jerrie W. Barber Says:

    I announced my retirement from local work to become an interim preacher June 13, 2004, to be effective April 1, 2007. We had a transition plan in place. Although that changed due to the planned next preacher deciding to start an orphanage in Houduras, the transition went well.

    The elders said, as far as they knew, the congregation had not had a planned transition in their 105-year history. They wanted to try it. Most ministers had left unhappy in the past two or more decades.

    We talked about it. When the 20-month point was approaching, I started visiting every family in the congregation. I thanked them for their encouragement. I asked what I could do to help them individually, their family, and the church in the ___ months I had left to work with them.

    During the last few months, we discussed my departure. About eighteen months before my departure, I began disposing of most of my books. I gave them to my family, staff members, the congregation, and a preachers’ group that meets each month: (first article). We planned and had a good “funeral” for my family and me. I did not feel like a lame duck leader. I felt I cooperated in breaking a cycle that had been painful for many years.

    I am finishing my second interim since my “retirement.” The church I left is doing well. I am happy and productive in this stage of my ministry.

  3. Rev. David W. Robertson Says:

    Susan – a friend and classmate of our current Associate Pastor offered us brief informal guidance as I approched the time of retirement – and helped guide us into a Transitional Co-Pastor relationship approved by our denomination (PCUSA) but tried for the first time here in this Presbytery – Detroit. Search for Co-Pastor about on par for all searches in the denomination – a bit complicated by the newness of the plan. Two rules have guided us – Clear time frame for the transition (no longer than 6 months), clear definition of responsibility, with the co-pastor to suceed upon retirement serving as Head of Staff. More later on how this all works out – begins Dec. 1 – but congregation has been comfortable with the process to date and after two earlier rugged Interim experiences grateful for a possibly more seamless transition.

  4. Susan Says:

    Hi David! In fact, more and more large congregations are experimenting with pastor to pastor transitions with a brief copastorate overlap. I’m sure the topic will the subject of many future blogging posts. Thanks for chiming in.

  5. Fred Harris Says:

    I retired from a congregation with average sunday attendance of 425 in August of 2009. About two years prior to my intended retirement date, I prepared a study document for my 12 elders which attempted to discuss a tranistion plan with several options including the possibility of seeking the next senior minister and using the overlap option that was discussed by others in their blogs. After reading the book “Elephant in the Board Room” and deciding we were a combination of an “icon” and large family church by that writters catagories, it was clear to me that this option should be seriously considered. We were just begining the process of seeking a new second staff minister and this would make the plan very economically practical. The elders essentially decided that they did not want to talk about it and some felt that I was seeking to select my successor. I did feel that the process made me somewhat of a lame duck in that the needed updating of a stragic plan for the church got side tracked as a result (“We need to wait till the new pastor comes attitude”). The congregation did continue to thrive during my last two years but some of the energy seemed to be drained and some significant conflicts began to emerge. At this point I believe I would have taken a different and less direct approch if I were doing it again.

  6. Susan Says:

    Fred, thanks for sharing the real life struggle that goes into decisions like this one. It is so helpful to hear people share those aspects of a transition that worked, alongside those that didn’t. I’m wondering if the use of an outside helper in the system (consultant or denominational rep) would have helped the congregation stay more focused on those parts of the strategic planning process that they could have engaged while waiting for the new Senior Minister. I also wonder if an outside presence could have shaped the dialogue to keep you out of the hot seat. What do you think? Would the use of outside help have made a difference?

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