I have almost reached 60 years old, and over the past few years I have watched as several of my long time friends transitioned from this world to the world to come, which is a flowery way to say that my friends died. I don’t want to sound morbid, but the truth is as I get older and as friends pass on, I have thoughts about dying and death more often. In other words, the older I get, the more mortal I realize that I am.
Last year, I was preaching a message at my synagogue about the promise of eternal life and I said “When I die, I will not leave fingernail marks in my coffin from my efforts to try to stay in this world.” More recently, I found myself hearing the question inside my spirit, “You may not leave fingernail marks in your coffin, but will you leave them in your pulpit?”
I have been in ministry for nearly 40 years, and so a lot of my friends are either rabbis or pastors, and many of them are my age or older. As I age, I have noticed just how many Moses’ there are who have no Joshuas in their life. These men who began effective ministries pioneered new works and walked with strong faith, yet never set in motion a plan of succession for their ministry. I am not sure why they didn’t, but they didn’t. Now, as the years have passed by, I have watched as congregation after congregation go into crisis mode because their leader became too ill to serve, or they have died.
We, as leaders, teach that the Bible is our guidebook, or owner’s manual, yet far too many of us never read the portions concerning leadership transition. Just think about the Biblical plan the Bible provides for the Levites in the Torah. They began training for service at 25 years old, went into full service at 30 years old, served until they were 50 years old, and then they would train those who were 25-30 years old.
Many of the ministry leaders I know began their ministry service in their 20s and 30s, but are now in their 60s and 70s and still serving without an apprentice or assistant in place to carry the ministry’s torch when their torch begins to burn out.
When I passed 50 years old, I realized that I was already 10 years behind in the Biblical example of leadership succession and began to search for someone who could carry on once I am either no longer able, or no longer here. After several years of prayerfully searching, I found my Joshua: a young man with the heart of a shepherd, a desire to serve (not to be served), and the willingness to run behind me (at first), then beside me, and finally to run past me so that the race I began would continue until the final lap is completed.
It is my hope that I live and serve for many years to come, and I am excited as I see my Joshua running along behind me full of energy and enthusiasm. I am getting great pleasure as he learns from my words and gleans from my example. However, as he is learning from me, I am learning some difficult lessons myself. As he is learning how to take the reins and lead, I am learning an even harder lesson, which is how to release the reins.
I am learning that while it takes great spiritual strength and power to rise up into leadership, it takes even more spiritual strength to step down out of leadership; that the faith and trust in G-D you have to have to start a congregation is the same faith and trust you have to have in G-D to turn that congregation over to those who will lead after you. We often speak of G-D’s plan for an individual's salvation, and G-D’s plan for the body of Messiah, but hardly ever speak about G-D’s plan for leadership transition. So, I know the answer to the question I was asked in my heart: no, I will not leave fingernail marks in my pulpit trying to stay holding on to leadership. I will gladly release leadership to my Joshua when it is time. Why? Because G-D also showed me that the pulpit too many of us have dug our fingernails into doesn’t belong to us in the first place.