Leadership succession

The appointing of church leaders can be pretty murky territory.  I can’t even begin to count the number of leaders I’ve spoken with who felt like they carried the responsibility for an area without having the authority to lead it well.  This happens for all kinds of reasons.  Regardless of whether your church’s leadership culture is more hierarchical in style or more team-led, the Bible has examples that can teach us about appointing leaders well.  When we do appoint leaders well, the result is peace and an area that flourishes.  When there is a lack of clarity about succession or a new appointment, division follows.


Ignore for the moment that you know that Saul’s reign does not end well.  Put aside the Sunday school teaching that ingrains the idea that Saul is bad and David is good for a minute.  This is not about their character or the success of their leadership, this is about the success of the early years of their leadership, and the affect of their leadership on the people they were leading.

In first Samuel chapter eight, the story of Samuel’s succession teaches us an important leadership lesson.  The prophet Samuel was getting old, and he started setting up his sons to be the next judges in Israel.  Unfortunately, the people did not respect his sons and rejected them as leaders.  They told Samuel they were tired of having a judge, and they wanted a king like everyone else had.  A felt need for leadership percolated through people’s conversations.  The way that Samuel handled this situation resulted in a peaceful transfer of power and provides us with some clear steps that can be used in appointing leaders today.

The way Samuel appointed King Saul:

  1.  The overseer asks God about the leadership role, whether its needed and if so, who to choose.  Thought and prayer go into the choice.

Samuel asked God if the new leadership role was needed, and God revealed his choice to Samuel—Saul.  (1 Samuel 8:21-22, 1 Samuel 9:17)  The Holy Spirit will help us identify someone who he has chosen that is able, humble, and ready.

  1.  The overseer has conversations with the potential leader about the potential role.  The potential leaders needs to have confidence in God’s call on their life, in the leader that they will be following, and in their ability to lead.

Saul gained confidence in Samuel’s leadership and ability to hear from God when Samuel gave him prophetic insight into a personal problem. (1 Samuel 9:20) Samuel helped Saul understand that he was specially suited for the role. (1 Samuel 9:20) Samuel identified three confirmations for Saul that this was indeed God’s will for him. (1 Samuel 10:2-6)

  1.  Anoint the leader first in private.

Samuel anointed Saul in private.  (1 Samuel 10:1) Notice this meeting had more spiritual significance to Saul (anointing) than practical significance (appointing).  This first step is about a leader accepting God’s call on his or her life and saying yes.

  1.  God changes and supernaturally empowers the leader to be what He calls him or her to be.

God changed Saul to become the man he needed to be to be king. (1 Samuel 10:9) Saul led people spiritually before he led them as a king. (1 Samuel 10:10) This work was inward within Saul before it became outworked through his job as king.  Samuel left some time between the anointing and the actual appointing.  Evidently, Saul needed some time for further development before he was fully ready.

  1.  The leader does not tell the people in his new area of responsibility about his new title—his overseer does.

Saul didn’t announce his own leadership to people.  He kept a low profile until Samuel made a formal announcement. (1 Samuel 10:16)

  1.  The overseer brings the entire group together for an announcement about the new leadership, and gives them confidence that this is a God-led decision.

Samuel brought everyone together for a meeting.  He drew lots for the role, again choosing Saul, to explain everyone that Saul was indeed God’s pick for the job. (1 Samuel 10:24)

  1.  The overseer clearly explains to the entire group the new leader’s role and the boundaries of his or her authority.

Samuel explained to everyone the parameters of Saul’s authority in detail, in public, and then wrote it down so that everyone would remember. (1 Samuel 10:25)  No one was left wondering about grey areas.

  1. The new leader gives people space to adjust and does not get offended by people in the group that struggle with the new leadership.

Saul gave people grace as they got used to the new authority structure and new leadership.  Some men followed Saul, some did not.  Saul didn’t try to defend himself with those who did not.  (1 Samuel 10:27)

The end result of Samuel’s leadership transition to Saul was peace.  Israel enjoyed good years unified under Saul’s leadership.  They knew what to expect and Saul knew what was expected of him.


The needs of a rapidly-growing ministry can make it easy to fast forward through steps one to four.  Once we appoint a leader, it’s very very hard to get that leadership back.  A rushed leadership appointment leads to regret.  On the other side of the coin, seasoned leaders who have been bitten by this mistake in the past can be too slow to appoint leaders, paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong choice.  Lack of clear leadership constipates everything.

When God made clear to the prophet Samuel that Saul had disqualified himself and it was time for new leader, Samuel anointed David, but never appointed him.  Saul never acknowledged the fact that Samuel had anointed David as the next king.  Saul was so determined to hang on to his own power that he ignored what would happen after his inevitable death.  He was entirely focused on preserving power and didn’t set up anyone to lead after him.

When David finally did take the throne, it was a bloodbath—a total mess.  The kingdom was divided over who should be the new leader, and all kinds of people died to try and reunite the country.  If we appoint someone privately and don’t acknowledge them publicly, like Samuel did with David, then we can count on the civil war that will follow and the inevitable frustration of the person appointed to leadership.  In most cases, we have set that person up to fail.

David learned from Saul’s mistake, and before he died, he clearly appointed Solomon as his successor.  Not only that, but he left Solomon with a mission—to build God a temple.  He gave Solomon explicit plans for how to build that temple and then gave him all the resources that he would need to fulfill that mission.  David’s vision was larger than he could accomplish in one lifetime.  He was looking far beyond his own leadership tenure, and as a result, he gave Solomon the greatest setup possible.  David is remembered as the greatest king that Israel ever had.

David challenges me to dream bigger and connect with causes that can’t be accomplished in my lifetime alone.  His leadership so inspired his successor that even after David’s death, Solomon carried out his father’s instructions.  David’s authority was finished, but his vision was large enough to inspire another generation of leaders.