Leaders must reframe transition, shifting the church’s focus from fear of the unknown to excitement about the future.
Action and reaction, ebb and flow, trial and error, change – this is the rhythm of living. Out of our over-confidence, fear; out of our fear, clearer vision, fresh hope. And out of hope, progress.
– Bruce Barton
Churches, like all living organisms, are subject to change.
They grow, age, struggle, learn, face new challenges, and experience different stages of life. They deal with failures and victories, ebb and flow, new circumstances, the rut of old habits, the test of fresh opportunities. People come and go. Leaders rise and fall. Change is not an exception to congregational life; it is the rule.
And churches, like all living organisms, hate change. They fear it and avoid it and resist it. They fight change in any of its guises. They prefer stability and constancy and predictability, even though these qualities are more characteristic of death than life.
None of the changes experienced by congregations is quite so threatening as the loss of a pulpit minister. It doesn’t matter why a preacher leaves: retirement, firing, accepting a new position in another congregation, internal conflict, pastoral fatigue. The loss of a pulpit minister almost always triggers feelings of uncertainty, doubt, insecurity, and anxiety in members of a church.
One of the prime responsibilities of church leaders at such times is to manage the ministerial change in healthy, positive ways. One of the prime challenges for church leaders is to “reframe” the change so that church members are excited about the opportunities ahead rather than focused on their anxieties for the future.
Reframing the Future
Anyone connected with church for very long has experienced that heart-dropping, suddenly-silent moment in an assembly when a preacher or elder stands before the congregation with a sheet of paper in his hand and announces, “I have a statement to read.” It is almost certainly bad news. It is almost always news that will impact the congregation and its future.
Members steel themselves for a wash of emotions: hurt, rejection, anger, disappointment, sadness, grief. These emotions flow out of the particulars of the situation: a member’s feelings about the minister … the reasons given for why he is stepping down.
But there are other emotions that bubble up from more general concerns: What does this say about our church? Can I trust these leaders? Who will preach next Sunday? Is the direction and character of our church about to shift? Where will we be a year from now? When everything settles down, will this still be a church I like?
Wise church leaders can address these concerns by providing members with a map to the future even as they announce changes in the present. They can indicate what church members should expect next week, next month, and next year. They can present a plan for the interim season. They can display the humility and openness that allows them to bring in outside expertise.
But, mostly, wise church leaders can reframe the way members view the interim season.
A little anxiety and apprehension is unavoidable. Without wise leadership, however, church members have a tendency to focus on these anxieties and give undue weight to their fears. They have difficulty seeing the “upside.”
Leaders can reframe the transition experience. Not in one announcement. Not without care and effort. But thoughtful, consistent, persistent leadership can shift a church’s focus to the benefits and blessings of an interim season.
As uncomfortable as a ministerial transition can be for a church, the opportunities that open up are exciting.
Stable churches are comfortable churches. They don’t reinvent themselves. They don’t rock the boat. They don’t ask unnecessary questions. The status quo is protected, even venerated.
But churches in transition don’t have those luxuries. Much of the status quo—what churches assume about themselves, what they are comfortable with—goes out the window when the announcement is made that a minister is leaving. Transitioning churches are—by definition—uncomfortable. They have to reinvent themselves. Their boat is already rocking. And, to survive and thrive, they must do the difficult work stable churches rarely attempt: look at themselves honestly, ask the right (and the hard) questions, think carefully about the church’s health and effectiveness, reset goals, and heal old wounds.
Consider the opportunities that become available in the interim season—when leaders are wise enough to take advantage of them. Here are my top ten (in no particular order):
- A congregation, when losing a minister, has a golden opportunity to remember its past and celebrate the good things God has done through the church. The interim season is a time to tell stories about the church, recall the people who shaped the church, and trace God’s hand in the actions and attitudes of the church. In doing so, churches can rediscover their congregational DNA and identity—touch base again with the reasons the church exists, the core values of the church, the “heart” that has characterized the church through the years. The interim season is a time for churches to remember who they are and who they want to be.
- A transitioning church is motivated to do the hard work of listening to God, hearing his call, and discerning his will for the congregation. Prayer, wrestling with God, and seeking his Spirit are more likely to happen (or, at least, more likely to happen intentionally) during the interim season. There’s something about uncertainty and anxiety that makes us hungrier for God.
- The interim season encourages a church to clarify its mission. Rather than assuming the church has a mission (even if no one can express it), rather than perpetuating a mission that has grown stale or lost traction, transition invites a church to reassess where it is going, what its goals are, and what God expects it to do and be. Transition then challenges a church to build a sense of unity and identity around that clarified mission.
- The loss of a pulpit minister frequently exposes or highlights a vacuum of congregational leadership. Few seasons in a church’s life require strong, effective leadership as much as interim periods. Transition is a great time for a church’s leaders to assess their strengths and weaknesses, identify their leadership style, recognize the skills and aptitudes they have (or need), and seek outside help to develop more effective leadership for the church. It is also a great time for new leaders to step forward and fill gaps in the front ranks of God’s army.
- Transitioning churches are more willing to recognize and address ‘church culture’ issues that may be hindering growth and preventing the church from being an effective outpost of the kingdom. Self-assessment is never easy for any church. But comfortable churches rarely engage in meaningful and honest evaluation. It takes something a bit stressful (like worries for a church’s future) to give churches the courage and motivation to kill a few sacred cows.
- On a related subject, transitioning churches are more willing deal with the hard personal and interpersonal issues that accumulate over time for every congregation: the unresolved conflicts that continue to fester; the difficult personalities that make life miserable for leaders; the impossible expectations; the people in the church who have been wounded by the church and need the church’s attention. Stable churches avoid these matters like the plague. Transitioning churches—recognizing that the effectiveness and longevity of their next minister may well depend on putting such matters to rest—are much more likely to bite the bullet and do the difficult work that makes for a healthier future.
- The interim season rouses the church to think more carefully about important matters such as the call of God (on the church and in the life of ministers), the working of the Holy Spirit, the need for leadership among God’s people, the relationship of ministers to the elders and churches they serve, the role of spiritual gifts, and the missional mindset God wants in his people. Of course, churches could think carefully about such matters any time. But stable churches don’t usually dig so deep; there’s no sense of urgency or need. Transitioning churches, on the other hand, are quick to think about these matters because they matter (deeply) during interim seasons.
- An interim period gives church leaders “breathing room” to examine church “systems”—the way we do things, the methods we use, the habits we’ve developed, the ruts we’ve fallen into. It encourages leaders to ask questions about efficiency (“Are we doing things right?”) and effectiveness (“Are we doing the right things?”). Transition is a good time to examine a church’s operations (including everything from the church office to elders meetings to ministry and monetary management) and implement the kinds of changes that help a church do its business well.
- Transitioning churches are far more likely to listen to their communities. Questions like “How can the church grow?” force questions like “What does our community need?” Stable churches tend to be insular—the only people who have a voice at the table are insiders. But churches in the interim have to consider their “neighbors” as they think about their future. They have to keep the community in mind as they consider their calling and focus and opportunities.
- The interim period also (obviously) is the time when a church decides on a new pulpit minister. Churches have the relatively rare opportunity to ask questions like: “What do we need in a minister?” … “What skills are we looking for?” … “What kind of minister will ‘wear well’ with the church?” … “Do we need a comforting or prophetic presence?” … “Are we looking for a speaker or an evangelist or a discipler or a community activist?” The decisions made by churches on such matters will affect the future of the church for years to come.
Of course, opportunities are not the same as realities. Though every transitioning church could experience these opportunities, not all of them actually will. The difference boils down to leadership. Wise leaders look for and grasp the opportunities that present themselves during the interim season. Foolish leaders ignore or fumble those opportunities. That difference determines whether a church’s foundations for the future are built on rock or on sand.