Archive for July, 2014


Pastoral Transition-Lifting the Veil of Secrecy

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

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. secretjpg_jpg_size_xxlarge_letterboxIn 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.

Is Our Busyness Masking Spiritual Boredom?

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

The large church is known for the quality and depth of its programming, and for the exhaustion of its staff team. It’s true, every one of my client congregations is functioning with a burned out staff team, and pastors on the brink of exhaustion.

We assume that a growing and thriving church is always adding more programming, enhancing current programming, and making certain that there is something offered to satisfy every imagined need. We heap on more and more options in an effort to improve participation and engagement. But it isn’t really working, is it? Those who are already engaged and active feel compelled to participate in the latest new offering to show their support. In fact, we are creating more opportunities for those who are already over-engaged, while the under-engaged watch our frenzy with mild disinterest.676x380

As we design and facilitate more programs, what is it that we fancy we are accomplishing? Do we honestly believe that adding offerings to the already overcrowded lives of our congregants will lead them more deeply into relationship with the Divine? Does one more scripture study, an extra spiritual formation instruction, an enticing new worship experience, or a compelling social justice opportunity really contribute to the soulfulness of our people or our congregations? Wouldn’t it be better to teach people how to sit still, to be okay with the discomfort of confronting themselves in empty time and space, to see what might emerge?

I suspect that the busyness we participate in and contribute to masks a deep-seated spiritual boredom of our own. We have forgotten what an authentic experience of God feels like, and how it is nurtured. Experiencing God begins in silence and stillness. There are no classes, twitter feeds, blog posts or sermons that will produce this. We cannot manufacture silence and stillness for our congregants. We can only point them in the general direction, and then trust that God will meet them there.

Have we ourselves confused thinking about, speaking about, and acting on behalf of God with the deep personal experience of being with God? Are we fearful that if we enter the silence and stillness that we will find nothing there to satisfy our souls? Are we afraid that we will have nothing to teach our congregants out of that experience?

It is summertime. We dreamed of this time all through the busy program year. This is the season we imagined would involve long stretches of uninterrupted time to dream, to pray, to rediscover our relationship with God, and to invent a next chapter. Instead, many of us are secretly ticking off the passing of days, worried that the summer will pass us by with nothing productive to show for our rejuvenation efforts. Many of us are already secretly gearing up for the onslaught of fall programming, just around the corner.

Today, I read this marvelous piece from Maria Popova on “Why the Capacity for Boredom is a Good Thing”. Popova reminds us of the childhood experience of boredom that emerges from having long stretches of “nothing to do”. She quotes Adam Phillips:

“Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom; that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.”

We have to slow down the madness of our program offerings so that we, and those that we lead, can enter the stillness, experience the boredom, and rediscover the desire for God on the other side. We need the courage to lead others in this counter-cultural journey of discovery.

So, today I invite you to quit work early. Put aside the sermon prep. Go for a walk or sit by a stream and stay there long enough to remember the sweet invitation of boredom. Invite God into that space with you and see what happens.

How to Have a Better Conversation

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Board leaders long for meaningful meetings. Instead, many participate in mind-numbing meetings that repetitively chase topics, with little forward momentum. Agendas are rigidly structured around the receipt of reports, with little work that actually impacts the future of the congregation. What would it take to foster more fruitful board conversations?

BetterConversationRecently, I observed a board conversation about declining worship attendance. The decline followed three years of slow, but steady growth. The topic appeared on the agenda as “worship attendance.” The conversation was introduced by the pastor as part of her regular monthly report. The pastor pointed out that every other indicator of church health looked positive; membership was up, the budget was growing, more people were serving in volunteer positions, and new programs were well attended. The pastor wondered aloud what the dip in attendance meant, and whether or not the dip was a foreboding indicator of future decline.

Immediately, the gathered leaders plunged into frenzied dialogue with a lot of “worrying about” attendance numbers. There was some brainstorming about cause, some speculation about how to solve “the problem”, and lots of worrying about long term budget implications. The conversation lasted twenty minutes, without any clear consensus as to whether the congregation actually had a problem, and no plan of approach as to what should happen next. Leaders agreed to watch the situation, and the conversation was tabled until the following month, where it was re-introduced again, with much the same outcome.

During my visit with the board, I asked the leaders if they would humor me in an experiment. The leaders agreed and I introduced the language of Richard Chait, et al., in their book Governance as Leadership. We discussed the differences between fiduciary, strategic and generative modes of governance, all of which must be nurtured within the life of a board. I introduced the following distinctions.

The fiduciary mode of governance focuses on the effective use of assets. It concerns itself with preventing theft, waste or misuse. It explores issues related to budgets, assets, compensation, facilities, fundraising and staff team performance. It considers the ethics of a situation, the safety of the constituency, the legality of things and appropriate boundary setting.

I asked the board to talk about the dip in worship attendance, purely through the lens of fiduciary governance. They talked about possible budgetary impact, and the long term correlation between attendance and giving patterns. They engaged in some worrying behaviors, but their overall conversation was directed towards specific asset areas. They asked themselves if giving patterns were historically correlated with attendance patterns. They wondered what a plateau in growth would mean for long overdue salary increases anticipated at the end of the year. They asked themselves what percentage of the operating budget was actually allocated to the production of the Sunday worship service. If people were changing the way that they participated in the life of the congregation (by worshiping less), should the assets devoted to worship attendance be re-allocated?

Next, I introduced the language of strategic governance. A board is operating in strategic mode when it explores the long-term impact on identity and future of the congregation. It examines the topic for its intersection with the questions: Who are we? Who are we here to serve? What is God calling us to do or become? Strategic governance builds authority, responsibility and accountability into the system by empowering others to act in pursuit of an agreed upon strategy.

I invited the board to wade into the conversation about attendance again, this time purely through the lens of strategic governance.

They had a rich conversation about the link between worship attendance and their identity as a disciple-making congregation. The wondered if less face time in worship actually reduced spiritual growth and relationship building within the congregation. They explored whether or not their mission suggested a particular sized worshiping community. They wondered aloud how they would know if they were being successful in worship, and whether or not worship attendance was an appropriate indicator of discipleship success.

The group decided that they needed better information to determine if the dip was problematic or not. Had some people dropped out of worship entirely, and if so, who were they? Or, was the dip reflective of a stable but growing body of worshippers that were attending with less frequency. The board decided to assign the research of these questions to the Director of Membership and asked for a more complete reporting, by demographic group, at the next scheduled meeting.

Finally, I introduced the mode of generative governance. This mode of governance seeks to unleash the power of creative thinking. Generative thinking invites meaning making about the knowledge, information and data. It involves re-framing problems/challenges so that the congregation can understand and approach them in new ways, by introducing paradigm shifts. Generative thinking typically requires noticing cues and clues, choosing and using new frames of reference, and intentionally constructing a dominant narrative.

Board leaders began their conversation again, this time adopting the generative lens. They began with open brainstorming about all of the challenges, problems and opportunities that might contribute to worship decline. They discussed the busy lifestyles of the congregants, the increase in competing activities on Sunday mornings, and the presence of a new mega-church across town. Someone suggested that members might be experiencing more authentic Sabbath by staying home on Sunday mornings. They talked about a recent article from ABPnews/Herald on national trends in reported worship attendance, and they explored whether or not the article had anything to do with this congregation. They brainstormed possible ways to infuse more energy into the existing worship experience, and they suggested potential new worship venues to better meet the needs of congregants. They wondered what qualified as meaningful worship. Ultimately, they decided that they weren’t ready to create a narrative about worship attendance. They wanted to see more information first.

At the end of our experiment, leaders agreed that this conversation had been more meaningful and future focused than previous attempts. The board agreed that they wanted to delegate more of their fiduciary work, so that their future conversations could take on more generative and strategic overtones. They agreed that artificially separating the three modes of governance was an interesting experiment that they would adopt from time to time moving forward.

Most importantly, the board chair and pastor realized that they had important work to do in framing agenda items before bringing them to the board. The framing of an agenda item influences the mode of governance that the board assumes as it enters a conversation. The board chair decided that the agenda item for the following month’s meeting would read, “Changing patterns in worship attendance, by demographic group.”

And the conversation moved forward from there.