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Making transitions

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.

“If they know the new pastor, we ask the departing pastor to lift up one or two of their strengths and why they respect them,” Schol said. “Just saying things in a positive light about the new pastor reassures the congregation that the transition will go smoothly.”

For many, the temptation to stay involved with former parishioners -- to return for funerals, baptisms and weddings -- is strong, but should be resisted, said Les Robinson of the Center for Congregational Health, a church consulting organization in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“Those are moments when pastors and church members can connect more closely than any other time of life,” Robinson said. “If you’re not allowed to be the pastor in those moments, then you never will be.”

Organizations also have responsibilities at this stage. When leaders announce their departure, Tebbe said, most boards of directors want to jump right into a job search “and get back to business as usual as soon as possible.” But the reality is that there will be no business as usual, at least for a while, he said.

A successful transition involves more than a search for a mythical right person, he said.

Interim pastors, intentional and unintentional

While every congregation should engage in periodic self-examination, the gap between the departure of the old pastor and the arrival of the new one offers an ideal opportunity for such work, said Lambert, of the UMC’s Intentional Growth Center.

Congregations have become so dependent upon pastors for leadership that the interval between pastors offers a rare chance to take a broader look at ministry, said Marcia Myers, director of the Office of Vocation for the PC(USA).

“It is a moment when the congregation can discern where God is calling them next and what their mission is now,” she said. “It may have been one thing when the church was founded, but maybe that’s not the mission anymore.”

In many denominations, particularly those that call pastors, interim ministry has become a part of this process. A 2007 survey by the PC(USA)’s Research Services found strong support for the use of interim ministers, especially in dealing with grief, empowering laity and preparing for change.

Ideally, as the congregation clarifies who it is and where it is going, it will also get a clearer idea of the kind of pastoral leadership it needs. It takes time and hard work. Interim ministry can be confrontational.

“A good interim holds up a mirror to the congregation and says, ‘This is who you are’ and helps them get beyond the fantasies about who they think they are,” said one pastor who asked to remain anonymous.

That pastor learned personally and painfully the value of a good interim when he answered a call to lead a prestigious big-city mainline church on the East coast.

Though his denomination usually requires an interim minister as part of a leadership transition, the congregation convinced judicatory officials they didn’t need one. They were wrong.

Once in his new post, the pastor discovered the church -- unknown to most in the congregation -- was running a $300,000 deficit on a $1.6 million annual budget. It had been doing so for years, assuming it would be able to make ends meet with unanticipated bequests.

With the church unable to meet payroll, the new pastor had to dismiss several staff members. Other tough decisions followed.

“It was one low point after another,” he said. “I had to receive the venom of people who thought I was Lucifer. I had people tell me I was evil.”

The pastor thinks an effective interim pastor would have made a difference by uncovering the financial problems and forcing the congregation to take a look at itself before he arrived.

The situation is improving, but it has been a painful experience.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to last,” he said. “We’ve made progress, but I may end up being a long-term interim.”

Listen, learn and lead

Once the groundwork has been laid, the incoming pastor has one primary task: getting to know the new congregation and community.

“The way to do that is to listen, learn and lead,” Lambert said. “Find people within the church who know what is going on and who can help you interpret and understand.”

That can be difficult. Caimano, for example, faced a small but significant opposition in her new congregation. Though the search committee voted overwhelmingly to hire her, the vestry was initially deadlocked, then voted to call her after the bishop met with them and encouraged her not to drop out.

“I girded my loins and said, ‘OK God, if this is where you want me, I’m coming,’” she said. “But it was no secret that for some people my arrival was not good news, but for most of the parish it was. It was very confusing at first. I didn’t know who to trust or what was really going on. Some were going out of their way to make me comfortable and some were going out of their way not to.”

In the UMC’s Baltimore-Washington Conference, newly appointed pastors are asked to meet one-on-one with at least 20 key leaders at their new church and with larger groups of members. They identify issues and goals to work on, Schol said.

“We want them to find out what issues need to be addressed right away, who the formal and informal leaders are, and who else they need to be talking to,” Schol said. “What’s critical in the beginning is building relationships.”

In those early days, the new pastor is a guest and should act accordingly, said Lovett H. Weems, director of the G. Douglass Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Seminary, Washington, D.C.

“At the beginning, the congregation is the host,” said Weems, who leads the transition workshop for pastors and lay leaders in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. “They have all the power. You don’t have the keys unless they give you the keys. You don’t know what time services start unless they tell you. So, in that sense, the new pastor really is a guest and should be sensitive to the host and act as they would as a guest in someone’s home.”

While many pastors immediately see things they would change in their new church, experts are divided on timing. Weems and others advise waiting at least six months, while others say those first few months present a prime opportunity.

Caimano quickly realized that her presence as a new pastor meant she was making adjustments in hundreds of small ways that she wasn’t even aware of. So she decided to move the altar within a month of arrival, after consultation with people in the congregation.

“How do you even begin to know all the things you do that are different from your predecessor?” she said. “You’re a completely different person.”