A change of leadership can be difficult. Congregations, pastors and denominational leaders have to work hard to effect smooth pastoral leadership transitions.
June 9, 2009 | This summer, the Rev. Cathie Caimano finally will begin as rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Wichita, Kan.
Although she was hired two years ago, she spent her first year trying to survive and her second year getting to know her congregation.
“Now it’s time to start building on what’s here,” Caimano said. “Aug. 1, when I start my third year, I feel like I’ll finally be starting my rectorship.”
Caimano’s transition went relatively smoothly. She had support from her friends, family and her bishop; a mostly welcoming congregation and solid groundwork laid by an interim pastor. Even so, the adjustment made for difficult moments for Caimano and her congregation.
Questions to consider:
- How do you craft timelines for significant transitions in your organization? How do you resource and equip both departing and arriving leaders throughout the process?
- If your denomination or institution draws upon the gifts of intentional interims, what has been your experience of doing so? If not, is not doing so a strategic choice you have made?
- Kenneth Lambert offers the wisdom for a new leader to “listen, learn and lead.” If you serve on a board of directors or other personnel committee, how do you communicate to your new leader that you expect him or her to listen first, learn second and lead in response to the other two?
That’s not unusual. Whatever form a leadership transition takes -- a pastor’s decision to retire, a call to a new church or a routine move by a bishop -- there’s plenty of work to be done by all parties: the departing pastor, the new arrival and, perhaps most importantly, the congregation.
In recent years, many denominations have become more intentional about helping pastors and congregations carry out smooth -- or at least smoother -- changes in leadership. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, offers resources to guide congregations through the process. Some denominations use interim ministers as a critical step in the transition.
United Methodists also have taken steps to ease the abrupt change that is an inescapable part of an itinerant appointment system. In the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, for example, pastors who are moving to a new appointment and the chair of the staff-parish relations committee at the new church are required to attend a conference-sponsored workshop on pastoral transitions several weeks before a move.
Whatever the denomination, changing pastors is a complex process that’s more involved than just changing the name on the office door. Congregations can learn much from other organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, about leadership changes.
“It really and truly is an arc of events that begins with a decision to leave or someone else’s decision to effect a leadership change and it doesn’t end until the successor completes at least one full budget cycle,” said Don Tebbe, executive vice president of Transition Guides, Inc., a consultant firm that advises nonprofit organizations on leadership transitions.
‘Turn me loose’
For the departing pastor, the central task is to leave well and prepare the way for a successor. John the Baptist often is cited as a model.
“His total life in ministry was preparing the way for another, even to the point where he tells his disciples to ‘Quit following me and follow him,’” said the Rev. Kenneth Lambert, former coordinator for interim ministry training at the United Methodist-affiliated Intentional Growth Center in Lake Junaluska, N.C. “That is literally what the departing pastor has to say: ‘Turn me loose and follow him.’ But not many of us are humble enough to do that.”
For long-time leaders, especially those who retire, leaving can raise fears about loss of power and position, Tebbe said. In both nonprofit organizations and congregations, transitions stir a range of emotions, including loss, anger, elation, indifference, confusion and hope.
Consequently, it is essential that the pastor’s exit be handled well, according to the PC(USA)’s “On Calling a Pastor: A Manual for Churches Seeking Pastors:” “A good ending is the foundation of a good new beginning for the next pastor.”
One aspect of leaving well is practical. Departing leaders should make sure the church is in good order, with strong and functioning lay leadership and clear, updated financial and other records. A confidential memo or briefing on issues in the congregation, assessments of lay leadership, and other matters also can be useful for the new pastor, said Bishop John Schol of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The conference has a checklist of tasks for departing pastors. It calls for them to prepare lists of church personnel and volunteers, membership records, pastoral care matters such as homebound members, upcoming weddings, church schedules and more.
“Pastors are not always open and honest about issues that the new pastor is coming into,” said Schol. “We want to make sure the new pastor has a heads-up about what is going on in the church.”
Part of a successful transition is emotional, as well. In the time before departing, the pastor should help the congregation shift its focus to the future. If people want to throw a going-away party, for example, the pastor should ensure the event is not about him or her, but is a celebration of their ministry together.