Passing the Baton


Lately my phone has been ringing off of the hook with people who want to talk about pastoral succession: denominational leaders who want to prepare for the impending onslaught of baby boomers about to retire; senior pastors wanting to think about exiting their congregations well; and lay leaders wondering how to talk with their pastors about this without making everyone nervous. Most of these callers want to talk about a process for managing a change in pastors. I’ve been trying to re-frame the conversation.

c-baton-passManaging change, and managing the transitions that accompany a change, are not one and the same (Bridges, 1991). Change happens in an instant; the pastor departs, a new pastor arrives, and change has occurred. The transitions associated with change are much more subtle and occur over a broader expanse of time. Transition management addresses the cultural, behavioral, and spiritual adaptive learning that must occur for a congregation to fully prepare for new leadership. During pastoral succession, most congregational leaders are so invested in managing the change elements of succession that they fail to adequately tend the important work of managing the transition. We need to be talking about the transition work.

Congregational leaders invest enormous angst and energy in managing the change mechanics of pastoral succession, because they know what is at stake. They zealously manage and protect the process of search. They maintain control by keeping secrets about progress. They work to preserve the status quo among congregants while the transition is underway. As a result little actually transitions in the congregation during the succession period. It is up to the search committee to identify a candidate who “gets us”. And then it is up to the new clergy leader to figure out how to adapt to an entrenched system as they enter it.

As we seek to better understand failed pastoral succession we often discover that the failure has less to do with the attributes of the specific candidate, and more to do with the candidate’s inability to survive the transition into the congregation. “They just weren’t a good fit for us”. “They just couldn’t seem to adjust to how we do things here.” “Our leaders just weren’t ready to let go of the reigns and let them actually lead.”

One clergy leader described his entry journey in this way. “It was a full five years before I could exert any kind of meaningful leadership. For the first several years I was negotiating my way through fog. There were unexpressed standards of performance that I was being evaluated against, that everyone knew but me, and no one was able to articulate.” This particular candidate was eventually able to claim a leadership voice and went on to have a successful eighteen year pastorate. Others are not so fortunate.

Today’s large congregations are asking new and provocative questions about the real nature of transition in this important leadership season. Are interim pastorates really helpful in negotiating transitions in the large congregation? Can the congregation transition directly from one senior pastor to the next without creating an arbitrary space between leaders? Should internal candidates be considered for the job, to minimize the risks of transition? If so, what process is appropriate for considering internal candidates? If the congregation is kept in the dark about pending pastoral transitions, can they really do their adaptive work? Can retiring senior ministers retain some kind of role in the faith communities which they have shepherded for many years?

Is your congregation in conversation about this? What’s the nature of your dialogue?

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