Organizations in all walks of life openly plan for leadership transition. The Church is unique in the veil of secrecy that we draw around pastoral transition. We don’t want to watch people grow anxious, so we withhold known information about departure. In doing so, we postpone the hard adaptive work of leadership transition into the next chapter. New pastors walk into congregations that haven’t yet had a good ending, and clearly aren’t ready for a new beginning.
Pastors plan their retirements for years, but wait to tell their congregations about their plans until a few short weeks or months before the intended transition date. Or, a pastor discerns that his or her call to this congregation is drawing to a close. She begins feeling a pull towards a different kind of ministry. Rather than discussing this discernment with leaders in the congregation, she holds her decision tightly to her chest until another call is firmly in hand. Then she springs an announcement on church leaders, four short weeks prior to her departure.
Recently, a congregation contacted me to help them with some low level anxiety in the system (i.e., conflict) that was getting in the way of strategic planning. We decided to host listening sessions with leaders, to better understand what was happening.
The consultation began with the senior pastor pulling me aside for a “confidential” conversation. He wanted to talk about his planned retirement. The pastor was in his early seventies and had not yet spoken with a single staff member or lay leader about the end of his ministry. He had been their leader for twenty-three years. The church had experienced remarkable renewal and growth under his leadership. This pastor was certain that any conversation along the lines of retirement would create mayhem in the congregation. In fact, numerous leaders had told him over the years that he couldn’t possibly retire because he was so loved, and no one could replace him. The pastor didn’t believe that line, but he could sense the anxiety in his leaders, whenever he tried to broach the subject.
When I finished my conversation with the pastor I facilitated listening sessions with the board and the staff team. In both listening sessions the primary issue raised was the future leadership of the church. They loved their pastor, but they sensed a waning energy and enthusiasm in his leadership. The believed it was time for the pastor to begin planning for retirement, but they didn’t want to disrespect his leadership by saying so, directly to him.
Leaders were fearful that the lack of a transition plan would result in one of three outcomes. The pastor would experience a significant medical event that would abruptly take him out of leadership and leave the church in chaos. The pastor would stay too long at the fair, and the vitality of the church would wane, inviting malaise and decline that would be hard to reverse once a new leader actually came on board. Or, the pastor would exit from the system poorly, failing to release the leadership reigns gracefully to a new leader.
Why couldn’t the leaders of this congregation have an open and honest dialogue about pastoral transition? They were afraid. They had legitimate reason to be fearful about all of the possible things that could go wrong in such a conversation.
There is fear that too much time in role after the announcement will lead to “lame duck” leadership; pastors feeling sidelined and irrelevant in their own congregations. There is fear that the anxiety in the congregation will prevent good work in the present. Better to wait and let the congregation do their grieving and adaptive work during the official interim season. There is fear that the rest of the staff team will get nervous and bolt if too much time passes between the announced intention to depart and the actual departure. Finally, there is fear that announcing an intended departure will place control in the hands of everyone else, but the pastor.
The problem is, and always has been, that systems know when secrets are being kept. First, when it comes to pending retirements, let’s acknowledge that congregations can do basic math. They know how old their pastors are, they anticipate that retirement is somewhere on the horizon. Second, leaders can sense when a leader is anxious about their own call, or when a leader has begun the process of detachment. In the absence of information, people make up their own stories about what is happening, and the stories that they make up are almost always more dramatic and fatalistic than reality.
We have taught ourselves this culture of secrecy and dread around pastoral transition. And it’s time to teach ourselves a better way.
Over the past several years I have worked with a number of congregations who have courageously entered the pastoral transition conversation, with openness and transparency. This is what I am experiencing. Congregations have remarkable resiliency around pastoral transition. Pastors can effectively discuss their departure plans with leaders, even years in advance, when several good practices are put into place.
• The governing body of the congregation (or its designated sub-committee) has an annual performance conversation with the senior leader, during which an honest picture of the health and vitality of the church and the clergy leadership role is explored. The pastor, in conversation with this body, develops a clear picture of his or her vibrancy in the system.
• When it becomes apparent that leadership transition is on the horizon, a trusted and authorized group of leaders is assigned the task of designing a leadership transition process. (This is often the personnel committee or the executive committee of the board). The departing pastor is an active participant in this design process.
• Depending upon polity, or the stipulation of by-laws, an appropriate group authorizes the transition plan. (In some congregations this is the governing body; in some it is the congregation at large.)
• A communication plan for announcing the departure is thoughtful and deliberate. People receive as much information as they need, when they need it, in order to manage their part of the transition process. Once a critical mass of leaders is aware, the whole congregation is brought into the communication loop.
• A transition team is appointed by the governing board to provide oversight to the overall transition. The transition team is not the search committee; the search committee has its own demanding work to do. The transition team consists of four to six spiritually mature, trusted, strategic thinkers in the life of the congregation. Their job is to monitor the congregations overall transition process; and to help negotiate the effective transfer of leadership authority, responsibility and accountability. The transition team stays in place until well after the new pastor has arrived.
• The pastor stays energetically engaged in the life of the congregation, all of the way up until the last day. The body of work that they do may begin to shift as they prepare for eventual departure. But, they stay engaged, active and vibrant in the pulpit.
• The pastor plans for the next chapter of his or her life and actively communicates his or her excitement about beginning that new chapter to the congregation, so that the congregation is able to envision life after ministry for themselves and the pastor.
The process of pastoral transition doesn’t have to be nearly as frightening as we make it. It is time to lift the veil of secrecy and discover a better way.