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September 6, 2012

Sam Wells on how to transition as a leader, in three acts

Transitions are tricky. You leave a church or an organization or a school where (of course) everyone loved you and you did everything right. Now you’re in a new place with new people and the stakes are high for leading the institution well, loving the people and serving the community. No problem, right? Not exactly.Sam Wells

Here is Sam Wells (from a recent email exchange with Faith & Leadership), discussing three challenges leaders face during a transition and how to address them:

1. Challenge: The temptation to regard your previous institution, where of course you licked everything into shape, as a template for your new organization.

If your new organization has a high self esteem, it will be insulted to be compared to anything else; if it has a low self esteem, it will quickly tire of hearing how wonderful your last place was, and will justifiably wonder why you didn’t stay there.

Solution: Only refer to your previous institution when specifically asked about it (in other words, probably never).

2. Challenge: The temptation to walk around your new institution rather as a new occupant walks around an apartment, making horrified faces and mocking glances, as if to say “I don’t know who was here before, and why they imagined magnolia was a good color for the sitting room or white for the bathroom.”

Things likely are the way they are because good people have tried alternatives and settled on what works, and a dominant constituency likes things this way -- otherwise they’d have changed them or gone elsewhere.

Solution: Ask lots of questions about why things are how they are and be slow to give your opinion even when it’s sought.

3. Challenge: To love a new set of people, even when at first they may seem very different or unlovable.

The people you have not made time to see in your first 6-8 weeks will always remember the clear statement that they’re not part of the inside crowd.

Solution: Get someone to draw up a list of the 50 key people in the new place and do whatever it takes to spend 30 min with each one in the first 6-8 weeks. By the time you’ve done that you’ll know what needs doing and who you need to talk to before you do it.


Generally true

In my experience, which is specifically working with churches in transition, these are all pretty good suggestions, with some exception to number 1. I do find it necessary to refer to other places I have been and the work that was done there in some particular ways: 1) to inspire the new church that other churches have had challenges and overcome them 2) to establish my credibility in working with churches in transition and 3) when it is very relevant to whatever is going on at the time. However, the point is never to say that XYZ church has it all together and this one does not.

Thanks, Sam

Three succinct hand-holds, Sam. Thank you. In our work with transitioning Catholic pastors, #1 is the first big challenge at which some fail, especially if it's their first transition. For many it's a matter of being too logical and not wanting to do the work "all over again." Very likely, it's also connected to the issues and emotions you raise in #3, so they can remain suppressed. In these times we need to give ourselves time to grieve, without a timetable. And to respect the grieving and sometimes funky behavior of those we meet in the new community.


In my life, there were a half dozen organizational transitions in the business world, the average duration of each was 9 years. My experience supports each of your three "challenges" and "solutions".

Number Three was always the hardest for me, even though I tend to be a bit outgoing. It just takes longer to establish solid working relations than one would think. But this has the best and longest value of them all. For me, friendships live on from each of my various organizations.

I learned long ago from a good friend to make a "100 Day Plan" -- an Entry Plan -- with input/review with the boss. This includes the people to meet by name. It gives me a good checklist and shows my superior how thoroughly, quickly, and seriously I would penetrate the organization. I recommend it!

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