Healthy Practices for Transitions
By David Brown, Pinnacle Consulting Coordinator
Transitions are difficult. They can feel like earthquakes - the ground underfoot shaken, weak areas exposed, and familiar surroundings in disarray. Or maybe transitions are like wandering in the wilderness - unable to see clearly what lies around the next bend, stumbling forward with little confidence or direction. Or perhaps transitions are like crossroads - offering opportunities for significant, even life-changing, decisions about future pathways.
There is nothing quite so disconcerting to a church as a change in pastors. Even under the best circumstances, the pastor’s leaving can bring dismay, surprise, confusion, and uncertainty. When a pastor leaves, members ask questions about themselves, about the church, and about the future.
When a change in pastors comes, the congregation needs time to adjust. This means grieving the loss and moving on. It also means readying the congregation for positive engagement with the next pastor. The transition period is a critical time in the life of a church, dramatically influencing the next phase of congregational life and ministry.
Having experienced pastoral transitions from the inside (as a minister) and the outside (as a consultant), I’ve noticed a number of healthy practices for churches engaged in transition periods.
Just breathe! Take a moment. Stop. Look around. Listen. Be aware of your heartbeat. You are still alive - and so is your congregation. God is still at work in your midst. God knows how to lead God’s people through transition. So, catch your breath, be on the lookout for God at work, and get ready for all that is to come.
Transitions provide unique opportunities for spiritual growth and discernment - to deepen your trust in God and in one another. Think of the transition period as a spiritual discernment opportunity rather than an organizational change process. Whatever you do in the transition, surround it with lots of prayer. In your congregation, there are those who are gifted, passionate prayer people. Empower them to guide your congregation in praying through the transition.
Finding the right answers begins with asking the right questions. There is great power in asking good questions. So, be curious. Ask foundational questions: Who are we? What does it mean to be disciples / to be the church in 2018? What is God up to in our community? What is God calling us to do and be? What is keeping us from living into that calling?
Enter the transition period with a posture of curiosity and openness. Rather than jumping to conclusions, acting out of prior assumptions, or reacting critically to different perspectives, cultivate a willingness to learn from others within your fellowship as well as outside your wall. Create opportunities for meaningful conversations with the other disciples in your congregation. Intentionally engage your neighbors in conversations about the state of your community - its needs, its assets, its hopes and dreams.
As you move further into the transition process, clarify identity and mission. As a group, work to articulate who you have been, who you are, and who God is calling you to be. As clearly as possible, map out where God is leading you as a community. The more focused your congregation can be in terms of its identity and mission, the more prepared you will be for the pastor search process and for integrating a new pastor into your life and ministry together.
Do one hard thing.
Transition periods offer an opportune time to address lingering issues, difficult conversations, or outdated practices. Nearly every church has some of these unresolved issues that may be keeping it from reaching full potential. Choose one of these - just one - and take some specific, intentional steps toward resolution. For a church that I served, this was a conversation about baptismal practice; for a church I was consulting with, this was clarifying worship style. Maybe your congregation needs to consider a new organizational structure or engage in conversation about a divisive topic. Whatever the specifics, commit to addressing one difficult issue. Your church will come out healthier and more focused, and you will give your next pastor the gift of one less challenge to face early in her tenure.
In case you haven’t noticed: we all live in a world experiencing rapid change! It seems that every church is experiencing transition - whether you are in a season of pastoral change or not. The ground underfoot is quaking; we are standing at a crossroads; we are wandering in the wilderness. In these times, every church is in transition and every pastor a transition pastor. If you are experiencing congregational life in this way, if you are ready to engage the changes in our culture and in our churches, maybe these transition practices are a place to begin!
Pinnacle Associates specialize in guiding congregations through transitions. If you’d like more information or a free initial consultation, contact David at (803) 984-6964.