“There is no success without a successor.”
Nearly 20 years ago, I read a classic book on leadership by Jim Collins titled Good to Great. The book was about how to build enduring greatness in companies and institutions. Collins wrote, “Great companies (churches) are led by level 5 leaders. The good to great leaders never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes. They never aspired to be put on a pedestal. Level 5 leadership is not just about humility and modesty. It is equally about ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company (church) great.
“Level 5 leaders are incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purposes, not themselves.”
When I read these comments by Jim Collins two decades ago, I said to the Lord, “That’s what I want to be! I want to give my life to making Vineyard Columbus into a great church. I want Vineyard Columbus to endure way beyond me and my leadership of the church.”
Experts say that the best succession planning is gradual, thoughtful, intentional and one with lots of information shared along the way. That’s the kind of succession planning we want to have at Vineyard Columbus. That’s why we’re announcing the succession plan two years before my transition to another role on Vineyard Columbus’ church staff. I’M NOT RETIRING! Let me say this in a different way: I’M NOT GOING ANYWHERE AND I’M NOT RETIRING!!
After my last congregational letter, when I mentioned transitioning to a new role, I had many people come up to me or write a note to me saying, “We’re so sad that you are retiring!” Then they shared really kind stories of the impact that my ministry had on their lives. I am incredibly grateful for people’s encouragement. I responded to them the way I will respond to everyone over the next two years. I’M NOT RETIRING! The plan is that in January 2021, when I turn 65 I will hand the leadership of Vineyard Columbus over to my successors. But the plan is to have me continue to preach on a preaching team until I’m 70. I’m still fabulously energized by preaching and seeing people come to Christ and then be transformed by his love. That never gets old! But I also know that only God is eternal.
Here’s what the prophet Isaiah said 2,700 years ago:
6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” 28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. Isaiah 40:6-8, 28 (NIV)
The Church Belongs to Jesus
In my last congregational letter, I spoke about the steps Vineyard Columbus took to choose my successors. The group charged with interviewing candidates and recommending a successor unanimously recommended Eric and Julia Pickerill to jointly become Vineyard Columbus’ new senior pastors in January 2021. Our Church Council (made up of lay leaders and pastors) as well as our Pastoral Advisory Team (comprised of eight pastors) unanimously agreed with the Selection Committee’s recommendation.
Our process was not merely a human weighing of the pros and cons of various candidates. Over the course of our history, Vineyard Columbus has sought to live out the truth that Jesus is the head of the church! He gets to call the shots, not us! He initiates and we follow!
About a decade ago, I felt that Eric Pickerill might become my successor. I saw in him the kind of leadership qualities that would be necessary to lead a church as large as Vineyard Columbus. I respect his pastoral warmth, his heart for the lost, his intelligence, his commitment to Vineyard values and the way people respond to his leadership. I also respect the way that God used Eric to build Joshua House (our twenty-something ministry) into a thriving community of more than 800 young adults.
Eric and I spoke about the possibility of him succeeding me before he and Julia left for Amsterdam to lead Vineyard Columbus’ church planting team. While in Amsterdam, Julia had an opportunity to lead alongside of Eric as co-senior pastors. The Amsterdam church planting team thrived under their co-leadership. But more than that, they were able to plant a healthy, flourishing church in one of the most secular cities on earth and then turn the church over to indigenous leadership after seven years.
The lessons that Eric and Julia learned while leading the church on their own, far from Vineyard Columbus, in a very secular environment, will serve Vineyard Columbus as we face an increasingly post-Christian environment in America. Living in Europe for seven years gave Eric and Julia the tools Vineyard Columbus will need as we learn to do church in a culture that does not support Christianity.
The Lord spoke plainly to Eric and Julia while they were exploring church planting options upon their return to the US. The Lord said to them that they were to come back and serve at Vineyard Columbus! It was an unexpected word for them, especially since starting a new church is easier than taking over an existing church from a long-serving pastor. But God spoke—and that settled the matter for Eric and Julia. They feel called by the Lord to serve Vineyard Columbus!
Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to watch Julia up close as she served in the role of pastor to our staff. She has been exceptional in caring for people, in pointing us to Jesus, and in helping create a healthier work environment. The staff at Vineyard Columbus universally adores Julia. I’ve also found Julia to be an exceptional planner and extraordinary communicator. While I was on sabbatical this past summer, I took a retreat at a monastery in order to pray about the succession decision. We did have other amazing candidates who were under consideration as my successor. Certainly, Dr. Charles Montgomery was never far from my thoughts. He’s an extraordinary preacher and significant leader not only at Vineyard Columbus, but throughout the Vineyard movement. Charles will serve on our future core leadership team and as a Teacher-at-Large, releasing him to be more available for teaching at our campuses and within the larger Vineyard Movement, while he continues to serve as East Campus Pastor. But the Lord spoke to me while I was at the monastery and said that the decision regarding my successor would be a community decision. In other words, the Holy Spirit would confirm God’s choice not just by my own sense of who my successor should be, but by a broad consensus of leaders at Vineyard Columbus.
We experienced an extraordinarily broad affirmation for Eric and Julia to succeed me via the unanimous support of our Selection Committee, the unanimous support of our Pastoral Advisory Team and the unanimous support of our Church Council. In addition, there was near unanimity of leaders at our church—young and old, male and female, black and white—who entirely on their own initiative selected Eric and Julia to succeed me. This communicated to me that Eric and Julia were indeed the Lord’s choice for our future.
What You Should Expect
In January 2019, Eric and Julia will be appointed as Associate Pastors at Vineyard Columbus. They will work together with me and our broader leadership team to continue learning and developing so that they may successfully pastor our church in a couple of years. You’ll be seeing more of Eric and Julia in our preaching rotation. But otherwise, you shouldn’t notice any other big changes at our church. We continue to hold fast to the incredible deposits that God has given to us over our history. We will continue to be a church committed to biblical preaching, seeing lost people come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, breaking down dividing walls between races, ministries of justice and mercy in our community, welcoming the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our midst, healing the broken, passionate worship of the Triune God, global missions, and being the best friend our city has ever had!
While God has clearly blessed Vineyard Columbus in the past, I believe that our best days are ahead of us! I eagerly await the surprising gifts that the Lord has in store for us and for our city as we enter this new chapter in our story!