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Succession Planning for Christian School Leadership



J. Barry Koops, PhD, and former Headmaster of Lexington Christian Academy in Lexington, Massachusetts, tells the story of his father, who at the age of 24, became the principal of the Christian elementary school in which he was teaching. Mr. Ramerman, his predecessor, had died of a heart attack, and the school board asked Bernie Koops—the only male teacher—to step in and head the school, though he had just 2 years’ teaching experience and no training in management. ​ Dr. Koops continues, “At the same time, looking ahead, we know that the Lord wants us to be wise stewards of His resources, planning for the future and extending His kingdom. What are the best practices for leadership transition in the Christian schools that we hold in trust? It is widely understood that a board’s responsibilities are (1) to keep the institution faithful to its mission and (2) to ensure the financial integrity of the school. The board accomplishes the first primarily through the head of school it appoints, encourages, supports, prays for, and partners with. To a considerable extent a school takes on the style, ethos, and energy of its head. The board will bear in mind, too, that it is looking for long-term leadership. Thus the choice of a school head, and the transition from one to another, is of highest importance” (Koops, J. Barry. Preparing Your School for Leadership Succession. ACSI, 2006–2007, CSE Volume 10 Number 4). Effective leadership succession planning takes time and a prescribed “plan of attack.” School boards effectively hire one employee, the Head of School. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the Christian school board to spend a significant measure of time on this one issue alone. An effective succession plan must be mapped out and should take specific, strategic steps. Why do Christian schools struggle in this area?

  • Succession planning is not a priority among boards.

  • While boards may feel they are effective at strategic planning, succession planning doesn’t get into the strategic planning process.

  • Succession planning is a moving target and takes too much time and effort to think through all the scenarios.

  • We fail to realize that the need for transition could happen immediately through an unforeseen circumstance.

Definitions of Succession Planning

  1. The ongoing process of systematically identifying, assessing and developing talent to ensure leadership continuity for all key positions (American Society of Association Executives).

  2. The process of planning appropriate action in the case that a person acknowledged to be a key person or who currently occupies a key position in the organization is no longer available to the organization (Jean Roberts: Managing Governance in Nonprofit Organsations in Australia (2004).

Some Critical Considerations The need for nonprofit organizations to design and implement leadership succession planning has never been greater.

  • From 1996 to 2006, the number of people between the ages of 55 and 64 in the US increased by 54%.

  • A national leadership study completed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2004 confirmed that Baby Boomers account for nearly 73% of the chief executives of nonprofit organizations and that 55% are over 50.

  • Baby Boomers are going to leave the sector in two waves: the first starting in 2010 and the second starting in 2020. A little over half of the Boomers (57%) in Executive Director positions are planning on leaving by 2010. Nearly 85% plan to leave during the next 7 years.

First Steps Leadership transition often leads to the loss of critical unspoken (tacit) knowledge that has built up throughout the years. To reduce this potential loss of knowledge, strategies such as intentional documentation, deliberate knowledge sharing among staff and board, and attention to effective systems and processes should be implemented. Creating a shared-knowledge culture in a Christian school can eliminate many of the critical gaps caused by leadership transition. However, first things first: the school board must analyze its current state of readiness for leadership transition and agree to the importance of dealing with succession planning here and now. Christian Schools that fail to plan are certainly planning to fail. It is often easier to deny the inevitable discussion and put it off until the next meeting. When school boards take this approach, success in transition planning never occurs. The best Christian school boards will take care of this most important function of the stewardship of the school. Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed (Proverbs 15:22). Conclusion Succession planning is an ongoing process that may require outside expertise. It is imperative that Christian schools not delay in starting this critical venture. The future success of Christian schools, and in particular, your Christian school, may be at stake. ------------------------------- Other References for this Article Kittleman & Associates. http://www.kittleman.net/index.php ​© by SchoolRIGHT, LLC., unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved.