Handing Over

by Ramez Atallah

Ramez served in Christian leadership roles for nearly 60 years, including his recent role as the General Director of The Bible Society of Egypt.

One of the greatest tragedies in Christian groups and organisations is that often, after a good and effective leader has left his position, the ministry suffers considerably. Why does good work often nearly collapse after a successful leader departs? And how can we prevent it? There are many excellent books and articles on leadership; all I want to do is share some of my personal reflections and experiences of nearly 60 years of different leadership roles.

In most of these cases, what I have learned has been from failure rather than from success. How effectively you can replace yourself as a leader depends very much on your philosophy of leadership. Do you see yourself as a ‘captain’ who tells everyone what to do, or a ‘coach’ who helps and encourages others to do the work?

Some leaders believe the success of the ministry depends mainly on them. As a result, they are frantically busy, exerting themselves with every ounce of energy to have a successful ministry. They are always there when needed and are willing to work long hours at thankless tasks. This ‘do it all’ leader is often very effective but extremely difficult to replace. His giftedness and dedication make it nearly impossible to find someone who could take on all his tasks and functions. The group gets used to his style of leadership and loyalty to him makes it hard to imagine anyone else who could do the job. Often this kind of leader moves on without having trained someone to take over and the group spends a long time trying to find a suitable replacement. Since the leader did not see the importance of training up his replacement, an outsider must be brought in to take on the leadership. Invariably, the ministry suffers until it adjusts to the new leader, who, not having been part of the ministry, leads in a different direction according to his or her own particular vision. This naturally creates upheaval and often staff are also replaced. The result is that things go downhill, reinforcing the conviction that the organisation really couldn’t do without the previous leader, who may feel gratified to believe that he really was indispensable!

A Broader Outlook

I have made it a point over the years to encourage my colleagues to develop a healthy balance between their commitment to their work, families and church. Apart from the fact that this is a biblical mandate, staff whose only life is their ministry tend to get too much of their self-identity from their work. If you criticise their work, you threaten their very identity. They become less open to criticism and less able to move on. A leader whose whole life centres on his ministry will be less disposed to consider the inevitability of succession, will resist planning for it and be devastated when it happens. On the other hand, those who have a healthy balance between family, work and church commitments will be able to leave a position with less resistance.

Delegate & Trust

Many years ago, when I was a student, the Christian university group asked me to be the missions secretary. My task was encouraging students to pray for, support and consider world missions. The person who asked me to take on this task described what I was supposed to do, including that by the end of the year I should find someone and equip them to replace me. I have reflected on this over the years and come to the conclusion that if I were to succeed in replacing myself effectively, I should not do anything someone else could do. Thus, instead of feeling that it was my responsibility to do as much as possible, my success depended on how little I could do. This was a difficult principle to apply as leaders are often expected to never say ‘no’.

So often, one is tempted to run the show from behind the scenes. How difficult it is to delegate a task and not to interfere in its execution or get the credit. To work in the background encouraging others to do the work often takes much more time and effort than if you did the task yourself. However, taking this short-cut removes the opportunity for others to do the work and develop.

People Before Programmes

Many people feel that they are simply being ‘used’ by their leaders to accomplish certain tasks. If we really believe that people are our primary ministry, then we should be willing to risk some efficiency to train and encourage the next generation of leaders. Investing in people is the best investment a healthy organisation can make. People who feel they are the most valuable resource, and are treated as such, develop a deep sense of commitment and security that helps them and the ministry thrive.

Over the past 30 years at the Bible Society of Egypt, around ten of our staff who were hired to do menial tasks have become some of our best salesmen and fundraisers, and one is a manager. This is because their leaders believed in and encouraged them. These staff move from being ‘employee’ to being ‘owner’. This has helped us have a very low level of staff turnover. If people are really primary in our ministry, then the real task of leadership is ‘to have a positive influence on equipping others for the work of ministry for God’s glory’.

Develop Their Vision & Passion

My goal as a leader should be to help others effectively achieve their goals and fulfil God’s will for their lives, and not my own. The difference may seem small but it is important. If people are simply fulfilling my visions and dreams then when I’m gone, the work stops. But, if I help them to effectively accomplish what God is giving them to do, then the work will continue and grow, even without me.

My goal as a leader should be to help others effectively achieve their goals and fulfil God’s will for their lives

One of the most effective ways of ensuring transition of leadership is for the person who is taking over to have a gift and passion for the work. A wise HR specialist once told me that any employee will eventually focus their time where they are passionate. They will do the other tasks required of them but will thrive in the areas where they are most fulfilled.

When we interviewed a highly recommended candidate for a position, we were surprised to feel he would not be suitable for it. So I asked him to write his own job description, which we used to create a role that perfectly suited his passion. He has been a real blessing because he is so gifted and passionate about what he is doing. Now, I realise we cannot do that for everyone but unless a team member has a passion for a significant part of their responsibilities, they won’t excel in what they do.

A Thriving Success

Success depends on how well things develop after you leave. I have found that few Christian leaders seriously consider who will take over from them. God has helped me to leave four major responsibilities and, in most cases, to leave behind competent, committed and motivated successors. Nothing gratifies me more than to see these ministries continuing decades after I left with leaders who ‘own’ the ministry and are determined to lead it effectively. Finding my replacement at the Bible Society of Egypt took over 15 years of prayers, soul searching and many unsuccessful attempts but it was definitely worth the effort.

In many Christian organisations and churches when the leader announces his resignation a search committee is then appointed to look for a replacement. There is wisdom in having an effective incumbent recommend his choice in consultation with the board and senior staff.

Time to Leave

One reason why succession turns sour is that good leaders stay on too long. One of my early mentors told me that I should strive to leave any position when things were going well. He indicated that most people stay until they are no longer effective or no longer wanted.

If we are truly servants of the Lord Jesus Christ rather than empire builders, then we should genuinely rejoice when those whom God has chosen to take over are able to build on the foundation we have made. We should be pleased to see them develop the ministry in areas and directions we could not even have imagined. A leader must ask themselves: What is more important – your success and effectiveness or the long-term effectiveness and growth of the ministry?

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