Spiritual Work in Pastoral Transition

 Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to Frank Ostaseski speak about Being a Compassionate Companion while accompanying the dying. Frank is a leader/teacher in the Zen Hospice Project. As I listened to Frank speak, I was struck by how well his five precepts for walking with the dying apply to congregational life, when a congregation is in the midst of a significant ending.

labyrinth_4Pastoral transition is a death, of sorts, in the lifecycle of a congregation. It involves taking stock, defining the boundaries of our own existence, celebrating our success, grieving our losses, and reflecting on what it means to construct a well- lived life as a congregation. In this sense pastoral transition calls forth the same kind of spiritual work that is involved in a good death experience.

Let’s consider Ostaseski’s five precepts for companioning death, and apply them (with some liberties) to leadership in a season of pastoral transition.

1. Welcome Everything: Push Away Nothing: Over years of doing ministry under a singular head of staff, congregations get caught in habitual responses to ministry and the environment. In a season of pastoral transition it behooves leaders to adopt an attitude of “fearless receptivity”; openness to considering that “what comes to us is for us”, to embrace and to learn from everything. All things have the potential to teach us, especially conflict, failed experiences and risk taking.

Of course, this doesn’t suggest that leaders embrace every new request or new idea that presents itself during an interim time period. It does suggest that leaders maintain a spirit of wonderment about what emerges and a willingness to embrace the anxieties that arise in saying goodbye.

2. Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience: I have noticed that congregations approaching a pastoral transition often hunker down and prepare themselves to power through the events of the transition period. They act as if hard work and singularity of focus will help minimize congregational anxieties and conflicts. Leaders put on their super-hero armor and their masks of competency in front of the congregation. They deny whatever level of grief, confusion or anxiety that they may be experiencing for fear of contagion.

If we want our congregations to practice adaptive leadership in a season of pastoral transition, then we need to cultivate openness, receptivity and wonder. We can’t cultivate those attributes in a congregation without revealing our own discomfort and sense of dis-orientation. This is not about revealing our ignorance. It is about demonstrating our authenticity.

3. Don’t Wait: So often, congregations in the midst of pastoral transition put any and all new initiatives on hold, for fear of binding the hands of the new leader. All planning and evaluation efforts are met with a resounding, “We had better not initiate that until after the new pastor arrives.” The congregation moves into maintenance mode and this is deadly, particularly for the large congregation. Once a congregation has programmed itself to function in maintenance mode it is extraordinarily difficult to re-ignite new energies.

Implementation of changes in the strategic direction of the congregation should be postponed until the arrival of new leadership. However, dreaming about those directions and making ongoing course changes in anticipation of those changes, these are necessary for vitality and growth.

4. Find a Place of Rest in the Midst of Things: Pastoral transitions can move at a snail’s pace. It can take months/years to articulate the needs of the congregation, prepare an attractive church profile, search for the ideal candidate and call that candidate. Leaders must take care not to burn out while ensconced in the difficult work of adaptive learning.

The basic human response is to try and find rest by managing the conditions that surround us. We tell ourselves that we will rest once the budget is balanced, the staff team is fully configured, the new board is up and functioning and a search committee is underway. In a season of pastoral transition, conditions will almost never be right for rest, if rest requires everything to be in order.

We need to allow ourselves to take a rest from the hard work of adaptive leadership by bringing our attention fully to the presence of the moment we are in; by resting in the sufficiency of God’s grace and abundance in the now.

5. Cultivate a Don’t Know Mindset: It is not ignorance to admit that you don’t know what to do next, you don’t know how a problem will resolve itself, or if a problem will resolve itself. When we don’t know what to do next, we have to rely on others to pick up their share of the adaptive challenge and to do their part in the hard work of transition. Giving the work back to the people is a hallmark of good adaptive leadership. When we admit that we don’t know, we open ourselves to new learning and create an atmosphere where others can do the same.


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