January 2011
Healthy Practices

Healthy Transitions Part 1

Change in ordained leadership in a congregation creates a time of both challenge and opportunity. As a vestry member you play a critical role in making the transition a healthy one.

Understanding the difference between change and transition is important. Change is the event itself – it occurs at a specific point in time -- an “outward and visible sign.” Transition is a psychological process; the internal response people have to the change. It is “inward and spiritual,” and occurs in three stages – ending (letting go of the old), in-between time (wilderness), and new beginning. It starts when the congregation learns their rector is leaving and continues until it seems as though the new rector has been there all along.

Both the change and the transition need to be managed well. Your diocesan policy tells you how to manage the former – select a search committee, call an interim, develop a profile, etc. The Exodus story provides us with a map for managing the transition. Using Moses as our guide, here are some steps to take.

Pray for God’s guidance

Just as the Israelites followed the pillars of cloud and fire you need to be looking and listening for God’s call. Include a prayer for the search in all your Sunday services. There are examples in the Book of Common Prayer (page 818) and Women’s Uncommon Prayers (pages 55 and 362). Better yet, write one yourself. Ask the vestry and search committee to pray for each other collectively or by forming prayer partners across the two groups.

Help assure a good exit by the departing rector:

The Red Sea provided a dramatic and visible end to Israel’s past, and you need to create some Red Sea events. You also need to assure an orderly transfer of knowledge and tasks from the departing rector to interim leadership.

  • Conduct an exit interview to glean needed information on issues the rector has been handling and seek his/her thoughts on your mutual ministry.
  • Establish mutual expectations for the future relationship of the departing rector with members of the congregation and make them known. This is particularly important if the rector will continue to live in the immediate area.
  • Have the rector create a list of contacts in diocesan, community, and ecumenical groups to which he/she belongs so those connections can be retained.
  • Plan for the rector to pay one final call on those who are housebound or ill.
  • Plan a congregation-wide leave-taking celebration – for example, a festive reception following his/her last Sunday services. Host other events appropriate to your congregation’s culture and traditions such as dinners in people’s homes, a picnic, or special meetings with the rector and key groups or committees (e.g., choir, altar guild, outreach).
  • Don’t forget the rector’s spouse/partner and children. Their life in the congregation needs to be celebrated.

These tasks are more difficult if the ending is sudden or tragic (e.g., death or dissolution of pastoral relationship). In those cases seek help and support from your bishop and diocesan staff.

Celebrate your congregation’s history

When the Israelites left Egypt they took the bones of Joseph, fulfilling a promise that he would be buried wherever they went. While mission and ministry must change in response to changing needs, there are essential pieces of congregational identity that will serve as building blocks for future mission. Holding a history-sharing event allows the congregation to celebrate its past and identify those building blocks.

Invite the congregation to look at its history over the past 50 years. Post three timelines (one each for world, community, and congregation) and ask the congregation to add specific events they remember on each timeline.

  • Divide people into five groups, assign each a decade, and ask them to answer the following:
  • What was occurring in the world and the community during that decade?
  • How did these events impact the congregation?
  • How did the congregation respond?
  • What does this say about the core values and mission of the congregation?
  • What should be carried into the future?

Ask each group to report out. Hold this event when you can get the greatest participation – after Sunday services, at an evening potluck, on a Saturday morning. You can also leave the timelines up so people can add to them.


Moses spent time by the campfires listening. You need to do the same to keep your finger on the pulse of the congregation.

  • Share your understanding of the difference between change and transition through newsletter articles, your Web site, blurbs in your Order of Service – as many ways as you can.
  • Check in with committees to find out what is needed to maintain their ministry.
  • Be transparent about the progress of the search while maintaining appropriate confidentiality. If you don’t know when something will happen, tell people when you will know.
  • Talk to people and solicit their thoughts at social gatherings such as church potlucks or foyer dinners.
  • Monitor your own level of anxiety and do not overreact to feedback or negative comments.

Next month we will explore further the idea of healthy transitions. In the meantime, check out the resources below.

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