Take advantage of transitions

Institutional leaders and their colleagues can use the energy unleashed by a transition to encourage positive change. What processes can you put in place to make a difference?

The Sunday before Christmas the three pastors at First Baptist Church resigned without other jobs -- just months after I had led a team-building process with them.

Upset at this devastating turn of events, church leaders summoned me immediately after Christmas to discuss what had happened. I was bound by a confidentiality agreement and squirmed through 30 minutes of questions I could not answer. In exasperation, one of the leaders said that my opinion was of little consequence; this sort of problem had occurred between previous ministers. She wondered whether the church, and not the ministers, was the problem. She asked, “What should we do to correct our problems?”

This crisis had revealed a pattern of behavior that had been largely hidden from public view. No one could deny the problems any longer, and church members committed to each other and to God to behave differently.

Most of us resist change, especially if the change is forced by others, seen or unseen. Most congregations and other organizations maintain a balance that holds the forces of change in check. Transitions disturb that balance and make change easier. The more public the transition, the more opportunity it presents.

For generations the interim between pastors was considered lost time. It was a period to be passed through as quickly as possible. In the 1970s, Loren Mead and colleagues at Project Test Pattern studied the conditions under which congregations experienced renewal and were surprised to find that the interim time between pastors is the most opportune time for a congregation to deal with problems.

Mead told me recently that this insight came as a complete surprise to him. As Mead and colleagues organized the Alban Institute, Roy Oswald created a process to take advantage of the insight by developing a training program for interim pastors that eventually became the Interim Ministry Network.

What are the transitions happening around you? How can you and your colleagues use the energy unleashed by a transition to encourage positive change? What processes can you put in place to make a difference?

Any departure of a colleague, supporter or member is a transition that presents an opportunity to review the system, consider the appropriate role and make changes. Any increase or decrease in funding is a chance to review priorities. Any conflict is an opportunity to consider the methods used to achieve the goals.

One of the challenges is that some communities are in so much transition that leaders need to choose when to stop and take advantage of a transition for a period of intense reflection and when to keep moving. In my experience, a series of transitions is a clear signal that a period of reflection is needed. Once that period is done, the lessons learned can guide through years of additional transitions.

It is not sufficient to announce that one is taking advantage of a transition. In order for it to be a learning experience, the organization needs a plan.

Mead and his colleagues identified five developmental tasks of a congregation in the interim between pastors. Oswald led a team in developing training programs to provide tools to lead the congregation to engage the tasks. The process has been adapted over time, but the larger lesson is that a road map is required. Time limits are needed so that a group can measure progress. I have met many people who understand that a transition holds the possibility for learning, but they are nearly paralyzed because they don’t know how to start a learning process.

Processes that provide structures to deal with adaptive change, strategic planning and conflict resolution all provide the sort of maps that give steps to the process. Choose the process that seems most comfortable or for which you know a skilled facilitator.

Any transition can be the occasion for slowing down; deeply listening to God, one another, constituents and the community; and discerning next steps.