August 24, 2021

Data-Grounded Discernment for Leadership Transition Planning

As anyone who has been around during a transition to a new pastor or judicatory leader knows, looking for a new leader can be a lengthy and expensive process. So many things to be done and processes to go through. Surveying members, interviewing current and past clergy and lay leaders to gain an understanding of corporate history, holding listening sessions, working with consultants, developing a profile, and more. All these things and more may be part of your discernment process. Juggling all of them can feel overwhelming at times.

All these things may be necessary parts to finding a new leader.
But they may not be sufficient.

They may help us find A leader.
But they may not help us find the leader we need.

If we don’t bring objective data into the process – about ourselves and the communities we serve – our biases, our blind spots, and our desire to make a good impression may lead us to develop an idealized picture of who we and our communities really are.

Over the more than 25 years since I was ordained in the Episcopal Church, I have been a prospective candidate in three bishop search processes and more pastor search processes than I care to remember. And I can’t tell you how many times the search profile looked like it was describing Lake Wobegon: Where the women are strong, the men good looking, and the children are all above average.

If we want to get the right leader, we need to be clear-eyed about ourselves AND our communities. We need to ask the right questions and find objective answers to them using data-grounded demographic and assessment tools.

We call this process “Data-Grounded Discernment.”

What are the kinds of questions we need to ask about ourselves? Things like:

  • How are we… really?
  • Are our vision and mission statements clear and focused on what God is calling us to be and to do? Or are they designed to please everyone and offend no one?
  • How vital and sustainable are we?
  • What are our strengths and weaknesses?

What are the kinds of questions we need to ask about the community we serve? Things like:

  • Who are our neighbors... really?
  • Which of the various populations in the community are we reaching? And which of them are we currently overlooking?
  • Where are the neighborhood opportunities and challenges?
  • What are the local assets and who are the potential collaborators?
  • How might this information help you define who you are and who God is calling you to be under new leadership?

And finally:

What are the answers to these questions telling you about what you need in your new leader? And how can they help prospective candidates discern if they are the right person to lead you?