Sacrificial  Succession:  A  Biblical   solution  to  leadership   transition  crisis  

Most Christian leaders are ministering to, and serving others, sacrificially. However when it comes to the handover of leadership, many of their successions are in crisis. Most are succeeded by family members or in corporate reshuffles. These worldly leadership transitions are challenged by the radically sacrificial succession of Jesus. This paper proposes Biblical alternative called “sacrificial succession”. Sacrificial succession requires incumbents to sacrifice their leaderships mid-tenure for successor success preceded by pre-succession then postsuccession preparation of sacrificial successors.

  An obvious challenge with virtually all the leaderships I have known or studied is the matter of succession. For the past ten years or so I have had the privilege of being part of growing churches in Australia, East Timor, Indonesia and Myanmar (Burma). During this time, thousands have come to Christ and hundreds have been baptised. Many of these converts are being trained for Christian leadership. Personally, I have learned much from these sacrificial leaders, especially those evangelising Muslims and Buddhists.

corporate succession comes from the head of a large Christian media organisation. He has prepared a capable local successor yet has his succession plan routinely deferred by a foreign Board of Directors who prefer maintaining his leadership. With strong managerial control and relative stability, this sort of corporate succession is widely recognised as ‘best practice’. Despite this thinking, there is little outcome evidence that corporate successions are solving succession crisis (Garman & Glawe, 2004:119). Instead, self-interest dominates corporate successions causing many problems for stakeholders (Harrison & Fiet, 1999:301), such as church members and the next generation of leaders.

Sacrificial  Succession  of  Jesus  
Given these findings, it is encouraging that most Christian leaders are ‘serving rather than being served’, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 20:28. Of concern is that so many of these same leaders are failing to sacrifice successionally as Jesus also commands in this same verse. It is his sacrifice ‘as a ransom for many’ that is especially promising as a solution to leadership succession crisis. In Matthew 20:1-28 and parallels in Mark 10:17-45, Luke 22:24-28, John 13:1-15, 14:26, 15:9-17 and 26-27, Jesus teaches and models this sacrificial succession. Jesus starts his sacrificial succession with a ministry preparing his successors, the disciples. Jesus follows this discipleship by the mediatory sacrifice of his leadership. His succession ends with an ongoing mastery of advocacy for his successors and us, his church. The first of these successional truths are presented in the Parable of the Vineyard Workers (Matthew 20:1-16). Its key point is in verse 16 about ‘the last being first and first last’. Here, Jesus teaches that the choice of successors should not be based on the twin [worldly] merits of performance and tenure. The recognition of Paul as the Apostle to the Gentiles, despite his ‘unnatural birth’ (1 Corinthians 15:8-9), is evidence of this truth in practice.

Succession  Crisis  
Yet when asked about their succession plans, many of these Christian leaders share a strong sense of unease. Many are unprepared for succession. Research confirms that many organisations struggle with succession crisis (Barna, 2009, Bower, 2007, Charan, 2005). Succession is defined in this paper as the transfer of managerial control from predecessor to successor (De Massis, Chua & Chrisman, 2008). Succession crisis is mainly attributed to a lack of leadership commitment to succession planning, developing successors and handing over leadership in a timely manner. Confirming this problem in Christian circles is the head of a large and rapidly growing mission. He shared openly about their aging leadership with few apparent successors1. Another top mission leader lamented that his succession candidates were not ready as successors. This was despite their desperate need to transition from an international to a local leadership. Most of those who are prepared for a succession have either the dynastic handover of leadership to a family member or the corporate reshuffle of top leaders in mind. Evidencing dynastic trends are pastors who have handed over or are planning to handover leadership to their children. An example of

Ministry  of  preparation  
Next, Jesus predicts his upcoming death, for a third time. In so doing, he continues routinely preparing his successors for the transition. Jesus makes the timing of his succession clear. In John 15:15, he explains this successional truth by considering his successors as friends rather than servants. Jesus makes everything he has learned from his Father known to them. Peter’s acceptance as leader by the early church and Jesus’ apparent reference to him as successor (Matthew 16:18-19, John 21:16),
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Due to these leadership transitions being ongoing, exact names and places are withheld to ensure that the identities of these individuals and organisations remain confidential.

reinforces this important pre-succession truth. This disciplic, sacrificial pre-succession ministry involves preparing successors, appointing a successor and predicting the timing of a succession well in advance of it occurring. Following the prediction of his death is the fascinating exchange between Jesus and James, John and their mother (Matthew 20:20-23, also Mark 10:35-40). They wanted favoured treatment in his upcoming succession. Many potential successors, it seems, serve sacrificially with these selfish ambitions. Jesus goes on to explain that the choice of successor is not his alone but God’s (Matthew 20:23). This truth emphasises the need for the subordination of incumbent to oversight in choosing successors. Importantly, this passage, along with 1 Samuel 8:9-18, casts serious doubt on the legitimacy of dynastic successions being part of sacrificial succession. Then, in verse 24, comes the inevitable, indignant response by the other leadership contenders upon finding out about their own colleagues’ attempts to win special favour. By dealing with this conflict openly, Jesus succeeds where many succession relationships fail because of trying to keep such conflicts secret. Next, in verses 25-28 Jesus goes on to warn against the norms of corporate and dynastic successions. He explains that those in authority authorise a succession and their intermediaries exercise this authority. Sometimes they do this as benefactors (Luke 22:25) and other times as rulers (also Mark 10:42). This wrong succession mastery occurs where leaders are chosen based on managerial performance, positional authority or familial control (Konrad & Skaperdas, 2007:623, Senge 2000:1). Such successions are fundamentally bureaucratic, dynastic or autocratic. That such authoritarianism underpins successions in some Christian institutions is unfortunate (Murray, 2004:2, Van Gelder, 2004:426, Davis, 2001:213). The radical alternative of sacrificial succession is explained by Jesus to his disciples and successors in Matthew 20:27-28 (also Mark 10:43-45 and Luke 22:26-27). Sacrificial successors are chosen based on a track record of serving others prior to being in leadership then ministering sacrificially to others through their leadership positions. Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in John 13:1-15 is probably the best known enactment of this truth, which is most often associated with genuine servant leadership (Sendjaya & Sarros, 2002:59.

leadership. Its outworking must be their mediatory sacrifice for successor modelled perfectly by Jesus. In practical terms it was the altruistic laying down of his life for his friends (John 15:13). Thus, for a sacrificial succession to occur, a leader must lay down their leadership ambitions for their successors’ success. The key truth is that incumbent’s sacrifice must outweigh the sacrifices of successors in mediating their succession. In so doing, the spiritual and practical truth underpinning Jesus’ sacrifice for us is maintained through sacrificial succession. We are saved by grace not works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Therefore, sacrificial successors are more than servant leaders who ‘give up to go up’ (Maxwell, 2008:15). Instead, they willingly sacrifice their leadership for the success of their successors. Research shows, however, that most leaders sacrifice selfishly (Gintis, Bowles, Boyd & Fehr, 2003:154). Even apparently altruistic acts are more often than not selfishly motivated. The radical alternative of sacrificial succession is that incumbent pays the succession price for successor. Originally, this was about the ransom (lytron) price paid by a master to free a slave (Strong’s Concordance Greek: 3083). Sacrificial succession cannot be mediated by the self-effort of successors. Instead, the rule is that the sacrifice by incumbent for successor outweighs the sacrifice of successor for their succession. Otherwise, a genuinely sacrificial succession cannot occur. This martyria (Niewold, 2007:133) truth is diametrically opposed to merit-based sacrifice, which aims to gain salvation or enlightenment through self-effort and self-sacrifice (Mathews, 2010, Maududi, 2006, Tangelder (2002). In human terms Jesus’ leadership tenure was a relatively ‘short’ three-and-a-half years. He sacrificed his leadership earlier than his disciple’s expected. This exemplifies sacrificial succession. Peter’s willingness to share his leadership with Paul reinforces this important truth (Galatians 2:78). With incumbent paying the higher price in a succession the natural effects of successor selfeffort and self-interest are minimised.

Mastery  of  advocacy  
The final aspect of sacrificial succession modelled by Jesus is his mastery of advocacy on our behalf by the power of the Holy Spirit. In so doing, Christ chose to limit himself to work through us. By the Holy Spirit, he teaches and reminds us of his Word (John 14:26). This important spiritual truth applied practically, postsuccession involves replaced leader staying on as advocate for successor, especially with the leadership.

Mediatory  Sacrifice  
However, with sacrificial succession, an incumbent’s ministry cannot stop with servant

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Here, the main aim of outgoing leader is to maximise successor success, particularly in helping to prepare the next generation of successors. By staying on post-succession, replaced leaders also play an inter-generational role in teaching and reminding their successors about the importance of sacrificial succession.

Unnatural  Selection  
Other than the sacrificial handover of leadership to successor midterm rather than at the endpoint of a transition, the ongoing advocacy by replaced leader for successor is probably the most controversial and unnatural aspect of sacrificial succession. Yet without this unnatural sacrifice, a leader may serve sacrificially yet never actually hand over their leadership. This was the main issue of the successions in crisis cited at the start of this paper. Therefore, the mediatory sacrifice by incumbent for successor success is the trigger for sacrificial succession. It is their mastery of advocacy that provides the necessary support to help a successor prepare the next generation of sacrificial successors. Without this intergenerational aspect of sacrificial succession being continually modelled by predecessors and successors, more naturalistic dynastic and corporate successions are inevitable, as history proves (Melton, 2003:10).

hands over leadership to successor. Then, over another three years, now replaced leader stays on post-succession as successor advocate to help prepare the next generation of successors. Sacrificial succession is an unnatural selection. It goes against all humanistic leadership models. Yet its outcome is proved by the sacrificial succession of Jesus. Through his death he gives us life (Roth, 2010:644). Thus, it is Christ’s mastery of advocacy by the Holy Spirit that empowers us to sacrificially serve him. The sacrificial succession of Jesus is a powerful catalyst when applied to sacrificial leadership succession.

Applying  Sacrificial  Succession  
If you are interested in applying sacrificial succession to your leadership transition, here are its seven main steps. Below, these seven sacrificial succession steps are grouped into three transitional phases. Phase one is the pre-succession ministry of preparation of successors for succession. Next is the mediatory sacrifice by incumbent for successor, which defines the succession event. The final post-succession phase is a mastery of advocacy by replaced leader for successor.  

The  Seven  Steps  of  Sacrificial  Succession  
1. Ministry of preparation (3½ years) Choose and prepare sacrificial servants and ministers as potential successors. Minister sacrificially by clearly predicting the timing and terms of a succession. Appoint a successor with a proven track record of ministering sacrificially. 2. Mediatory sacrifice (six months) Ensure incumbent’s sacrifice outweighs that of successor in handing over leadership. Mediate a sacrificial handover of leadership midway through a transition. 3. Mastery of advocacy (three years) Stay on to teach and remind successors of sacrificial succession. Master by advocating with leadership for successor success. Please prayerfully consider what I have shared with you about sacrificial succession. My prayer is that your next succession may truly be sacrificial and successful! I would be happy to talk further with you about sacrificial succession.

Concluding  remarks  
There is undeniable power in sacrificial succession. This is the practical and spiritual story of the Bible and our own personal testimonies. The key is the mediatory sacrifice by incumbent for successor. Yet it is unnatural. This is mainly due to sacrificial succession being fundamentally against human nature. In spite of this, even secular research confirms the reciprocal power of altruistic sacrifice by leaders for followers (Singh & Krishnan, 2008:272, Knippenberg & Knippenberg, 2005:25). The mediatory sacrifice of Jesus and his ongoing mastery of advocacy following a ministry of successor preparation is the perfect example of sacrificial succession. Current research shows many leadership tenures now last between seven and 10 years (Coates, 2010:14, Spencer, 2004:1, Teegarden (2004:5, Murray, 2003:22). Therefore, enacting a sacrificial succession could, theoretically, occur over a seven-year period, starting with a ministry of service preparing and discipling successors. Preparation would involve predicting the succession timing and appointing a successor. This would be towards the end of a three-and-a-half year transition. Following that, over a six-month period, the actual sacrificial succession event would occur. It is at this crucial point that incumbent sacrificially

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About  the  Author  


Paul Rattray is Asia Pacific Missions Manager with Christian Vision (, a global media and mission organisation that aims to touch a billion people with the gospel and impact nations for Christ. Previously he was a business owner and university lecturer. Paul is an avid red deer hunter and researcher in his spare time. Your comments and questions about sacrificial succession are welcomed. Email:

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