There is no success without a successor.
I want to spend a few minutes today talking about the importance of handing off the baton of leadership well – as a father, but more so as a leader. Because as you know, the most critical part of any relay race is the hand off. Races are won or lost in that handoff zone.
Leadership succession or transition is the hot topic right now among business leaders and church leaders. Business CEOs have retired in record numbers over the last 12 months and over the next 10 years in the US alone, there are expected to be 480,000 pastoral transitions. Pastor Rick Warren (Purpose Driven Life) just announced he is handing off the baton. What is troubling though is that out of those 480,000 pastoral transitions, an astounding 90% of them are occurring in churches with no succession plans in place.
This is so odd, because every healthy leader intuitively knows they are only a temporary leader. Every pastor is an interim pastor. One retiring CEO said I can get kicked out, carried out, or I can walk out - I want to choose the latter. Dr. Grubbs once told me years ago that a leader needs to leave the stage while they’re clapping - and not throwing things!
That’s what Moses did. I’ve been studying Moses lately (every leadership problem or situation you will ever see as a leader is found with Moses). I’ve been reading about him and especially the handoff of his leadership baton to his protégé Joshua. I want to hit on one highlight of that today…
Deuteronomy 31:1-3 Then Moses went out and spoke these words to all Israel: “I am now a hundred and twenty years old and I am no longer able to lead you. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not cross the Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you will take possession of their land. Joshua also will cross over ahead of you, as the Lord said.
Deuteronomy 34:1 Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan,
Deuteronomy 34:5-9 And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over. Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the Lord had commanded Moses.
Joshua 1:1 After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites.
Joshua 1:5-6 No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.
‘Moses, my servant is dead.’ Why would God choose to declare something so obvious at the very start of Joshua‘s leadership career. Sounds harsh. Why? Because knowing/embracing this was the only way the people and Joshua could move forward into The Promised Land. It was a ‘necessary ending.’ Moses was the only leader they had had for 40 years. All the miracles and success they achieved was under his leadership baton and what a run they had!
But Moses had to pass in order for God’s people to reach the next place of blessing. A new man/model of leadership had to emerge. This required a new way of thinking and leading. Moses my servant is dead. See - whether we like it or not, what/who got us to where we are, won’t get us to where we are going. We can celebrate the past, but we cannot live in the past. To break through to the next chapter of opportunities, some doors have to shut - so others can open. Some things have to die, so new things can be born.
Moses had to be at peace with his death. Remember Moses was still alive and kicking when they arrived at the River Jordan. He had some gas still left in the tank. He could’ve been stubborn and tightly held the reins of his leadership for a few more years. He likely had people whispering in his ear – you’re still the guy! That new guy Joshua is so different than you… But God asked him to go up Mount Nebo to die and voluntarily lay down his position so he (and they) could enter a new territory.
So God had Moses climb Mount Nebo. Nothing about that was easy for him spiritually, physically, or emotionally. Wonder how long it took him to finally get to the top and place designated by God. It was a big mountain - I’m thinking 12 to 14 months! But stepping up that mountain was a choice he was making to position Joshua for success and Moses spent the final days and moments of his life traveling to that place. The predecessor had to move away for the successor to move forward. This is why the Levitical priests serving in the temple were mandated to retire at age 50, so new younger leaders with fresh ideas could step up.
And once Moses was OK with dying, the people had to be at peace with Moses dying. Have you ever wondered why God himself buried Moses - why nobody knew where his grave was? Could it be that if Israel had known where Moses' dead body was, they would have spent time and energy trying to find him and start worshipping him instead of God? They might have been tempted to drag him along with them (to resurrect the old), instead of moving into the new things God had in store for them.
This might also explain why there is an obscure verse in Jude that says the devil was contending with the Archangel Michael regarding the body of Moses. Because the Devil loves to distract people with the body of work of the former leader, so the new leader cannot boldly and freely lead into the promised land.
You know, if you’re perceptive today, you know I’m not just talking about Moses and Joshua. I’ve been running this leadership race as your pastor at Whitewater for quite a while. Donna, Tyler, and I arrived at Westwood Cheviot COC this very week 19 years ago, while our daughter Amanda stayed in Virginia to attend college. We have seen and done a lot together. What huge victories we have enjoyed and celebrated. And I want you to know that it has been the honor of my life to be your pastor.
But ‘Moses your servant is dead.’ (Not quite!) But he’s ready to hand off the baton. I’ve been writing this sermon today for 19 years! Because there is no success without a successor. It’s not easy, but it’s essential. That’s why over a decade ago, the elders and I starting discussing it.
And now I want to invite our Elder Chairman, Bob Stoll to come and share some exciting news.