William Vanderbloemen on Pastoral Transitions
Date: February 15th, 2015

If your church is facing a period of transition of leadership, who you gonna call?  Well, this week we talk to William Vanderbloemen, founder and president of Vanderbloemen Search Group that specializes in matching clergy with congregations.  This is a fascinating look into an entrepreneurial niche market that supports churches during periods of pastoral succession.  We discuss this business and William’s book about the topic of leadership transition, Next: Pastoral Succession that Works.

As is par for the course, our discussion begins with a bit of background about Mr. Vanderbloemen, who we learn was raised in a Presbyterian tradition in a small North Carolina town.  While somewhat of a rebel spirit in college interested in business, he found himself drawn into philosophy, which then took him on a journey to Princeton Theological Seminary.  We explore some of his time in the ministry, starting as an associate pastor and then moving down to Alabama to help rebuild a flagging congregation.  He learned a great deal about reviving churches and also about transitioning leadership during his 15 years in the ministry, which also took him to run a large church in Houston.  Tony probes those periods of transition, asking about how different churches found out about him, and what it was like to leave one church to go work at another.  Having seen pastoral succession from the vantage point of the pews, Tony was curious to find out what it was like from the other side of the pulpit.

We then examine how William came to run a business focused on assisting churches replace pastors and find new leadership.  William explains how his experience in a Fortune 200 company, combined with his zeal for entrepreneurship brought him to the point of striking out on his own to set up a business in this niche “headhunting” business for clergy.  Starting out in the less-than-hospitable economic climate of 2008, and initially working from a folding card table at home, he has been able to build up to a staff of 30 and a permanent office in Houston.  He shares some of his experiences including how he came to get his first client.

We then spend time addressing some of the bigger concerns that churches should have when it comes to finding a successor to their current ministerial leadership.  We begin with two case studies of failure in the process of pastoral succession — the Crystal Cathedral and First Baptist Dallas — drawing lessons from both cases.  From the former case of Robert Schuller’s famous ministry, one of the biggest lessons learned is that even the most successful of ministries is always just one generation from potentially disappearing.  William also talks about how early innovations in Schuller’s ministry became traditions and how the church found it difficult to innovate.  This combined with a tightly-held leadership council that led to sibling rivalries spelled disaster for this world renown church.

The other failed transition we discuss involves the First Baptist Church of Dallas.  Led for nearly a century by two very dynamic pastors — George Truett and W.A. Criswell — this church served a spiritual home of many spiritual leaders including Billy Graham.  The transition between Truett and Criswell went smoothly due to close connections between the spouses of the two pastors.  However, upon Criswell announcing retirement the church set about looking for a new minister.  Given the long tenure of both preachers, the transition proved choppy with the lesson being that even with the best intentions about planning for a transition, the actual task of finding a successor can be difficult.

We then move on to some notable successes.  For the Bethany World Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the process of succession was enhanced by the retiring pastor being able to take up a new role to channel his interests into international church planting.  William makes a point that it is easy for pastors to become fatigued with their position and providing new outlets for creative energy often enhance the leadership transition process.  He also mentions that success in this case was due to the humility of the pastor knowing when it was time to leave rather than trying to stay for an extended period of time.  Part of any successful transition process will involve, early on, letting young leaders find pastoral options for their later years.  We also talk about the Peach Tree Presbyterian Church where a popular leader — Frank Harrington — died without much warning, leaving a vacancy to fill.  With no succession plan in place, the congregation plodded along for a few months with membership starting to drop.  Victor Pentz, who replaced Rev. Harrington was an outsider to the church, but he made a very critical decision to learn about Peach Tree’s history and honor it in his leadership.  While paving some new territory, Rev. Pentz still was able to find a connection to the past that helped keep older members connected to the process of change.

We finish our discussion with a number of William’s thoughts on successful successions.  He quickly notes that there is no one single recipe or set of factors that guarantees a transition will proceed smoothly.  However, he does note that the most important thing about such transitions is that a conversation about succession begin immediately with new leadership.  He points out that the topic of succession should even be brought up when negotiating the contract of a new pastor.  Successful business firms employ such strategies and Mr. Vanderbloemen feels the church can learn a great deal from this practice.  William also has a few other important pointers for church elders, pastors, and even congregants, but you will have to listen to the interview to hear those.  Recorded: January 26, 2015.


William Vanderbloemen’s bio at the Vanderbloemen Search Group.

Next: Pastoral Succession that Works, by William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird.

William Vanderbloemen’s twitter feed.


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Matt Boswell on Redemption Church, One Year Later.

Matt Boswell on What Pastors Don’t Want to Reveal.

Thom Rainer on Baptist Conventions and Church Health.

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