Leadership Shelf-Life

When I go to visit my 86 year old mother in Oregon, I love to step into her pantry just off her kitchen. The shelves are always filled with lots of canned goods and all the stuff I don’t usually eat at home:  Double-Stuffed Oreo’s, Ranch-flavored Dorito Chips, Famous Amos Chocolate-Chip Cookies and much more. The grand and greatgrand kids love grandma’s pantry. But there is an inside secret that all the family knows. Always check the expiration date. And it’s the same with everything in her refrigerator. Check the “Sell by” or “Expiration” date. There’s a pretty good chance that a few of those appealing goodies I’m tempted to taste (because “I’m on vacation,”) may have passed its shelf-life. 

Carey Nieuwhof got my attention earlier this week with a blog, Why Most Leaders Have a Ten Year Run.”  Nieuwhof has a theory that we leaders usually have a shelf-life of about a decade before we need to reinvent ourselves or possibly move to a new role or a new location.  And if you don’t change, you or the organization you lead will pay a big price.  It’s an interesting theory that I think has lots of validity. As I reflect on my own 40 years of leadership experience, I can see the patterns of 7-10 year seasons.

For me, it was serving for seven years at the first church I pastored after seven years of preparation in college and seminary.  After that first seven years of pastoral ministry in Elmira, NY, I was ready to get on with what my wife and I sensed was our life calling—starting a church from the ground up. 

After moving 1500 miles south from New York to Florida, the next seven to ten years was all about laying the ground-work, launching, establishing and building the culture of Cape Christian.  We grew from a small church of 65 to a medium-sized church of 400 during that first ten years.  We transitioned from small-church thinking (congregational decision-making included business meetings to vote on budgets) to become a staff-led leadership team with board oversight. I reinvented my leadership style from being the facilitator of the congregation’s vision (which was what I was trained for in seminary) to becoming a bold visionary leader who led staff, board and congregation through influence and vision casting. 

The next ten-year segment of my ministry was characterized by understanding and respecting my own giftings and leaning into my strengths as a pastoral leader.  I became super intentional about growing and leveraging my entrepreneurial leadership style by wrapping up a 10 year project of purchasing 48 individual pieces of property and assembling them it into one 14 acre property so we could built our first multi-purpose worship facility and move out of renting the public schools for weekend worship.  I trained a team of lay pastors who led small groups and I let them do much of the pastoral care so I could be free to lead.  I reinvented myself and started being a leader of leaders.  I developed a leadership succession plan.  During this decade, we went from two to three worship services with an average weekend attendance that grew from 400 to 1,000. 

At the three-decade mark of my full pastoral leadership journey, I passed the leadership baton of my church plant on to a younger leader I had been mentoring for five years.  I executed the succession plan and changed my title from Senior Pastor to Founding Pastor, with a new title of Lead Pastor for my successor.  Again, reinventing my own leadership style, I began leading from the second chair.  My long-term successes and influence helped to propel a young leader forward in his first role as a lead pastor.  The church grew from 1,000 to 2,000 over the next five years.  As of 2019, my fourth decade of leadership, there have been two more successors.  The church has not only survived those two leadership transitions but, continues to thrive with health and growth to five weekend worship services for and average of 3,000 in attendance. 

Church Life Cycle

As I reflect on Carey’s theory of the 10 year shelf-life of leaders and I study the findings of innovative church consultants like Tony Morgan, I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve had frequent nudges from God to be both courageous and intentional about making leadership shifts and transitions that have thrust the church I founded beyond the normal life-cycles of growth, peak, stagnation and decline. We’ve avoided the staleness and burnout of being past our expiration date.  We’ve continued to flourish, be fruitful and be relevant.  And I’ve personally never felt more alive and excited for the future. The best is yet to come!

Fruit On Other People’s Trees

One of my mentors-from-afar changed his address last year.  Bob Buford moved from his earthly home near Dallas, TX to his heavenly home at age 78 on April 18, 2018.  I always admired Bob.  A successful business leader, Bob leveraged his visionary wisdom, leadership skills and generosity to significantly contribute to three major landscape shifts in American Christianity.  He was a founder of Leadership Network—helping larger growing churches and their leaders ramp up their ability to be more innovative and entrepreneurial so they could multiple their Kingdom impact (our church was one of those).  Bob also wrote the best-selling book “Half-time” (which greatly influenced my life) and started the Halftime Institute to help business leaders make second-career shifts from success to significance.  And a third contribution, was the launch of the Drucker Institute, to help non-profit organizations learn top-level management skills.  Buford’s later life mission was to “transform the latent energy of American Christianity into active energy.”   

Bob Buford

Bob Buford had a saying about wanting his “fruit to grow on other people’s trees.”  Bob constantly invested in the lives of leaders.  He had a unique way of influencing high-potential leaders to expand their capacity and then empower them to flourish in their unique calling and gifting.  He loved to see the success of others. Bob always avoided taking credit for the success of something he initiated and when someone would try to hand it to him, he would quietly point upwards and whisper “Yay God.”

I’ve never personally met Bob.  I’ve read his books.  I’ve been personally mentored by one of his mentorees, Lloyd Reeb. I’ve been personally inspired, challenged and encouraged by Leadership Network staff: Linda Stanley, Dave Travis, Warren Bird and more.  And I’m grateful that his fruit has grown on my tree.  And actually, Bob Buford’s writings and influential organizations are my primary inspiration for loving to see my fruit growing on other people’s trees. Developing and implementing a succession plan in the church I started, can be traced back both directly and indirectly to Bob Buford. Now, my fruit is growing on the trees of my successors. 

Philippians 2:3-5 contains Bob Buford’s core values:  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.  Not always easy, but absolutely necessary—if you plan to see your fruit growing on other people’s trees.