The Classroom of Ministry Transition
By Les Welk
Two ministers attending a conference were standing in the hallway engaged in an obviously intense conversation. One of them exclaimed, “It’s just that in all of my formal training we simply never talked about it.” They were not debating doctrine nor were they discussing church polity. Rather, they were involved in the same conversation that hundreds of ministers have every month with trusted confidants. One of them was facing a ministry transition with all of its attendant joys and challenges.
Every year, thousands of ministers from all denominations come face-to-face with a ministry transition. Some of these changes come as a result of the minister’s own choosing. A redirection in ministry focus or a planned retirement leads the list of reasons for ministry transition. Some ministers will transition for reasons that are not of their own choosing. Each month, hundreds of ministers face forced terminations. Twenty percent of them will never return to a ministry career again. Properly facing and dealing with a transition can spell the difference between future success or failure.
In a musical composition, a transition is a passage connecting two sections or themes. It often takes the form of a modulation. Though brief, the modulation becomes the bridge between what has been heard before and what will be heard after. A poorly written or performed transition can ruin the whole musical selection. The average minister faces numerous transitions during the course of a ministerial career.
How we face transition not only says a great deal about the kind of people we are, but it serves as passage between the past and the future. Transitions are important to the overall composition of our ministry.
Over the course of my ministry, I have experienced several transitions, each with its own personality. From serving as college intern to my present role as assistant district superintendent, I have witnessed dynamic change. I am still enrolled in the transition classroom. Perhaps my growing list of lessons I have learned will assist you in facing transitions of your own.
Allow Time To Grieve
As a minister, you soon learn that transitions will be accompanied by a sense of grief. Grief is the human response to loss. It happens whether you are leaving under positive or negative circumstances. You, your family, and the church or ministry family you leave behind will experience grief. When leaving a positive situation, you may grieve over losing security, leaving warm friendships, and being unable to fulfill ministry goals and vision. When leaving a negative situation, you still grieve. If nothing else, you grieve over what might have been. Ministers and congregations must expect and allow time for the grieving process.
Expect a Certain Amouont Of Rejection
For some congregation or ministry members, your announcement to transition to another ministry is interpreted as a form of rejection. This is especially true for people who have dealt with rejection throughout their lifetime. As a spiritual leader, you may have become one of the few constant and trustworthy people in their lives. To them, your resignation is nothing short of abandonment. Unfortunately, a common reaction is to reject you in turn. It hurts at the time, but with your reassurance and uninterrupted love, the rejection usually turns to acceptance once again.
Be Sensitive To the Needs Of Your Spouse and Chidlren
The day of our oldest son’s birth was the same day I accepted a new ministry role that would span the next 18 years. The church we moved to was the only church our firstborn son and his two siblings would ever know until the present. Our children were blessed with a great sense of security and continuity in being in the same church all of their lives. Transition was a threat to that. We have worked hard to maintain a sense of normalcy in the midst of change.
As a conscientious minister, you have the task of displaying extra sensitivity to the security needs of your spouse and family during a time of transition. One way to help your family members is to include them in the discussion and decision-making process leading up to a transition.
Attempt To Take Extended Time Off Between Posts
A transition affords an opportunity that may not be available at any other time in the course of your ministerial career. How often do you have the chance to enjoy an extended time away from the demands of ministry? This is especially true during the buffer provided by a transition when you are between posts. You have left the old responsibilities behind and have yet to assume the full burden and schedule of a new post. If the circumstances will allow it, plan extra time off for rest, relaxation, and renewal. Transition may afford you the only sabbatical you will ever see in your ministry.
Assume the Posture Of a Learner
One of the traits I have observed and admired most often in effective leaders is the ability to lead and teach others while still maintaining a learner’s posture. This posture allows you to make adaptations that are inevitably necessary during transition to new surroundings. Although you may be accustomed to being in command, a learner’s posture enables you to submit to the authority of others when called upon to do so. Transition has its own way of calling upon your willingness to learn, to submit, and to adapt to new relationships and surroundings. Only if you are committed to a lifetime of learning will you achieve all God has in store for you. Ernest Hemingway expressed it this way: “There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring.”
Stretch Your Professional and Ministry Boundaries
As long as transition urges you toward the posture of a learner, use the opportunity it affords to be innovative, creative, and even daring. Starting fresh in a new role in a different place can provide just the freedom you need to breathe new life into a stagnant ministry.
Speak Well Of Your Predecessor and Your Successor
You may accept a new role only to be immediately challenged by the congregation’s fond recollections of your predecessor. It is at this point in transition that you must do everything possible to speak well of those who came before you. To tear down a predecessor, especially one that was well liked, will hardly endear you as the new leader to a church body already struggling with the grief of their own loss. Blessing a former leader is a key to your success as the new leader. Equally important is the assignment given you if you are leaving a ministry post soon to be replaced by your successor. Your pledge must be to do and say all you can to ensure the future success of the new leader.
Leave the House in Order
As a conscientious leader, you should do everything within your power to leave a church or ministry in good order for your successor. A minister recently reported that he went to a new church and discovered numerous routine bills unpaid and past due. It was not for lack of funds, because the checking balance was adequate. Rather, the oversight was due to a conscious decision on the part of the predecessor to leave it for the next guy. A responsible steward will make sure the house is in order before leaving.
In moving out of my pastoral role, I assembled a transition notebook for the board and interim leadership. The notebook contained up-to-date information on finances, church leadership, membership, policies, philosophy statements, and other pertinent facts about the history and present ministry of the church.
Transition is also a great time to clean the slate spiritually. Asking for and extending forgiveness for unfulfilled expectations and offenses affords cleansing for both the minister and the church body. During the transition, you can lay down excess baggage that may otherwise be carried into the future.
Properly Prepare the Leaders To Be Left Behind
Another important aspect of leaving your house in order is preparing church leadership to adequately deal with transition after you are gone. In some cases, where there is antagonism toward an exiting minister, this will not be possible. However, in many cases no one is better suited than you to direct and prepare staff, board members, and other church leadership for transition. The critical role of church leaders is magnified during transition. While some staff members and boards unwisely spurn input from an exiting minister, many recognize and welcome it. Avoid abdicating your leadership role prematurely by exerting your leadership right up to the point of walking out the door. This includes properly preparing and training leaders who will handle matters in your absence.
Avoid Transplanting the Past Without Proper Pruning
A successful minister left a long-term ministry to fill a new role elsewhere. Immediately, he faced challenges. Members of the church and even other staff associates seemed to sense a general lack of enthusiasm and freshness. The problem only seemed to worsen, and the new minister was sensitive to being questioned about it. He had attempted to transplant the past without proper pruning and had failed. He ultimately left. Both he and the church were in turmoil. While principles remain constant, methods and approaches must be adapted to fit the new environment.
A small child was instructed to put on different clothes if he was going to go outside to play. He muttered to himself all the way up the stairs until his mother asked him if this was going to be a problem. The boy answered and said, “I don’t mind wearin’ different clothes. It’s the changin’ I don’t like.” The classroom of transition can be rigorous, yet there are few learning environments more profitable. May God give us strength and resolve to be responsible agents of change during transitions in our lives and ministries.
Les Welk is superintendent of the Northwest District, Snoqualmie, Washington.