Evangelist Billy Graham recently celebrated his 92nd birthday.
The renowned evangelist has virtually vanished from the public eye, handing his ministry to son Franklin Graham. Since taking up the mantle, the younger Graham has made some controversial statements that show he is not his father.
Succession from founding father to child is common in Christian ministries.
Robert H. Schuller, known for the weekly broadcast “Hour of Power,” turned over the Crystal Cathedral pulpit to his son and then his daughter. Televangelist Joel Osteen inherited Houston’s Lakewood Church and its TV ministry from his late father, John Osteen. Jerry Falwell Sr.’s sons, Jonathan and Jerry Jr., took over leadership of Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University, respectively, after his death.
Preachers’ children often are exposed to the challenges of the ministry and can receive invaluable insight from being around their parents. They thus tend to be suitable candidates for succession.
Family-line succession also is biblical. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the high priest of Israel was to be a descendant of Aaron, the brother of the prophet Moses. Aaron was succeeded by a son, Eleazar, and the trend continued for several generations.
Celebrity ministries often benefit from family succession because they tend to be personality-driven. Having a person familiar with the organization’s leadership style, who has similar personality traits, can provide stability for continued success.
The main problem with family-line succession is descendants often are expected to continue their parents’ vision rather than develop their own.
Schuller’s son retired after disagreements with his father about what Schuller Sr. described as “different ideas as to the direction and the vision for [the] ministry.” Schuller Sr. relinquished leadership but never gave up control. The congregation recently filed for bankruptcy and many attribute the diminishing success of “Hour of Power” to the church’s inability to find a comparable replacement for Schuller Sr. His daughter now is senior pastor.
Joel Osteen took over after his dad’s death and critics note that his message deviated sharply from his father’s. John Osteen’s preaching style was more aligned with the Pentecostal charismatic movement while his son often is accused of being more of a self-help speaker. Still, the younger Osteen has increased his father’s flock almost fivefold and developed his own brand.
There never will be another Billy Graham. To expect otherwise may be unrealistic. The challenges of a new generation dictate the need for new leadership. Family-line succession can help preserve the spirit of a ministry, but new leaders should be allowed to bring new ideas and directions.