January 2011
Healthy Practices

Healthy Transitions Part 2: The Role of Leaders

As a vestry member during a change in ordained leadership you play a critical role in making the transition a healthy one. Both the change (the event itself) and the transition (people’s internal responses) need to be managed. Returning to the example of Moses we used last month, here are some additional steps to take as the process unfolds.

Help People Let Go

One cannot be loyal to two masters, and people need to let go of the past in order to live into the future. Having helped the previous rector make a good exit, reinforce the concept that leadership is changing. Support your interim, if you have one, and strictly enforce whatever agreements have been made about the relationship between the previous rector and members of the congregation.

Encourage Experimentation

The in-between time (the wilderness of the Exodus story) is when people are most open to new ideas. God’s new covenant with Israel was forged in the wilderness – not when the Israelites were still slaves in Egypt or after they reached the Promised Land – because in the wilderness they were most able to hear the still, small voice of God. Similarly a congregation’s interim time is a good time to try something new. Has adult Christian education become stale? Try a new approach. Is the 11:00 am service on life support, while the 9:00 one is flourishing? Try going to a single service that incorporates the best of both. Have you always wanted to try a late afternoon, informal worship service to attract young adults? Do so. Experiment with inclusive language translations of Scripture or the use of alternative liturgies. Engage lay leaders in setting up a pastoral care team (or strengthen an existing one). Try something for a given season and then evaluate it before making any final decisions.

Avoid Unnecessary Changes

At the same time, avoid creating further anxiety by making too many changes – particularly ones that trample on the best of the past. The Israelites carried the bones of Joseph and the ark of the tabernacle with them, which provided continuity and were visible symbols of their history. So be clear about what is not changing. Make sure that the essential elements of outreach, pastoral care, and worship continue to flourish in ways that let people know this congregation is still their “home.”

Lay the Foundation for a New Start

Now is a good time to clean up your organizational structure so everything is in good shape for your new rector.

  • Review your by-laws. Are they in compliance with national and diocesan canons? Should the size of your vestry be changed to better reflect the current size of your congregation? How about vestry responsibilities – should they be changed? If the answer is yes to any of these, begin the process of amending the by-laws. 
  • Evaluate your committee structure. Does it still serve your mission and ministry? Are there overlapping committees? Ones that no longer function? Responsibilities that are falling between the cracks? Propose a revised structure that will strengthen your mission. 
  • Make sure you have a financial audit of the previous year and compile an accurate accounting of all funds to give to your incoming rector. 
  • Deal with any personnel issues that are festering. It is unfair to confront a new rector with the need to fire a non-performing member of the staff!

Get off to a Good Start

When the new rector arrives, help him/her not only get acquainted but establish the groundwork for a truly mutual ministry.

  • Appoint a transition team to help the new rector and family get settled. This group can put together a list of near-by health care providers, veterinarians, banks, dry cleaners, etc., along with maps of the area and transit options; offer meals or move-in help for the first few days; organize welcoming events; and serve as an informal support group during the first year or two.
  • Hold a congregation-wide welcoming event, and arrange a series of smaller get-togethers so people can get to know the new rector, including arranging for him/her to attend committee meetings to meet the members and be briefed on their responsibilities. 
  • Organize a history-sharing session, perhaps based upon the time line used for the Profile. This can be held as an evening potluck, a brunch following the Sunday service, or whatever will draw the biggest crowd. 
  • Arrange for former senior and junior wardens to meet with the new rector and have them share their wisdom and experience. 
  • Schedule a vestry retreat, preferably with an outside facilitator, to establish mutual expectations between the new rector and the vestry, clarify roles, and set goals for the up-coming year. 
  • Set up mechanisms for periodic, informal check-ins to keep mission and ministry on track. 
  • Plan a Mutual Ministry Review at the end of the first year so the rector and vestry can assess how well they are meeting agreed-upon goals and expectations. A good resource for planning a Mutual Ministry Review is Living Into Our Ministries. [This resource may be downloaded from the Tools section of ECF Vital Practices.]

Above all, remember that clear and frequent communication is especially critical during times of transition. Moses put on his sandals and walked among the campfires, stopping to listen to what people had to say and keeping them focused on the journey. You need to do likewise. Go with God on this transition into a new ministry.

Sandra Clark Kolb is the Curriculum Coordinator for Fresh Start and serves as that program's liaison to Dioceses in Provinces 1,2, 3 and 5. An active lay woman, she has been a senior warden and chaired a search committee and is currently an Alternate Deputy to General Convention from the Diocese of Washington (DC).

Organizational consultant William Bridges has a small pamphlet about Moses as a transition leader. Though written with secular organizational changes in mind, the parallels are clear. Read his free article called Getting Them Through the Wilderness or check out his Web site www.wmbridges.com.

This article is part of the January 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Healthy Practices