Fall 2014

Just What the Doctor Ordered

Preparing for a healthy transition

When pastoral change is on the horizon, the most important step might well be to have already prepared for this moment. Change, even in the church, is inevitable.

But if change has caught you unawares and you’re praying about where to turn, perhaps the next most important way to restore the church’s healthy equilibrium is to slow down the voices that cry out to findanewpastorquickly. Take the time needed to reaffirm who you are, and who God has in mind to lead you forward and bring any needed healing.

The most essential players in this process are the members of your district team, whose role is to serve you in your mission. They can bring an objective eye to assessing the church’s needs. If the atmosphere is already divisive or toxic, that objective eye is essential to moderating a healthy process.

Consider additional advice from several EFCA district superintendents that applies even if you don’t yet see change on the horizon… .

1 In every church, identify the community of “primary influencers”: staff and staff spouses, current and former elders and spouses, key lay leaders, primary donors, etc. The overall spiritual and emotional health of this community largely determines the health of the church at large.

2 Target these primary influencers for discipleship, with a view to multiplying that healthy climate and grooming future leaders. Emphasize a high EQ (emotional quotient): self-awareness, transparency, honesty, humility and teachability. This helps you transition your future leadership pool from “outside strangers with academic credentials” to those developed from within.

3 Annually address the issue of retirement finances for staff, especially the lead pastor. (When a pastor cannot envision either adequate retirement income or an alternative to providing it, that fear exacerbates a defensive grip on his position.)

4 Craft a rough succession plan that emphasizes process rather than specific details. Develop a “play book” of contingencies:

  • sudden death or permanent disability of a key leader
  • significant personal issues (or moral failure) in the life of a key leader
  • rapid decline of attendance or giving
  • sudden shift in community demographics (factory, school or hospital closing, for example)
  • significant tension/conflict/strife within staff or key lay leadership
  • temporary incapacitation of a key leader
  • assessment by trusted fellow leaders that it’s time

Sometimes, churches face crises that have slowly crept up when no one was paying attention.

5 A fifth point cannot be overlooked: Emphasize open communication and truth-telling.

Sometimes, churches face crises that have slowly crept up when no one was paying attention. In these cases, dysfunctional communication patterns breed toxic environments. Watch for and address these scenarios if you spot them developing, and be willing to have the tough, loving conversations that have been lacking:

  • Buried anxieties. In this scenario, church members and leaders believe that the pastor has “lost a step,” but their church climate is such that it is not OK to talk openly about it.
  • Declining attendance and giving. People vote with their feet and their wallets. In many cases, they do not want to rock the boat by speaking out when they perceive the pastor’s leadership slipping (see above point).
  • Carbon monoxide effect. In this invisible but debilitating pattern, as a lead pastor ages, he often loses the very self-awareness and objective clarity that might have characterized him earlier. Often, he is the last to know how others view his declining effectiveness. In some cases, it deteriorates into myopic and defensive tunnel vision, or a death grip on control.
  • Pastor’s financial instability. If a church or the pastor himself has not planned well for retirement, he is insecure about leaving even if the time is right.

When left unchecked, these patterns can build on each other until there is a crisis, resulting in a call to the district staff team for intervention. But by this time it’s often too late to stem the crisis, and the emphasis becomes that of mitigating the damage.

Transitions can indeed arise out of nowhere, and even a church that’s prepared will have to navigate some rough waters. But more frequently, pastoral transitions can be well-planned celebrations of God’s calling.