Transition and Change
“If agency is indeed an important antidote to uncertainty, people need to understand how they can play their appropriate role.”
J. Russ Crabtree, Transition Apparitions
All Souls Episcopal Church is a smaller congregation of joy and vitality. It is making a difference as it is a place where the Good News of Jesus is being made real and lives are being transformed. What contributed to this sense of joy and vitality? Leadership at All Souls anticipated the retirement of its rector…. three years before his leaving.
No, the congregation was not fully aware of the retirement date. However, the vestry was well aware of the coming transition. Instead of waiting until it the retirement was upon them, they chose to plan ahead in order to ensure the momentum of the life of their congregation. They assessed the strengths and needs of their current ministries and the needs of their surrounding community; they engaged in a thorough audit of their physical plant, their finances, and especially of their congregation’s culture, energy, satisfaction, and priorities for the future; and they created action steps for the next three years. In essence, they created a vision and strategic plan for the transition from their current rector to their next.
A clergy transition in the life of a congregation is not and should not be a disruptive event in the life of a congregation. It should be regarded as a piece of a continuous succession planning mindset; a witness to the nature of our faith life. When part of the ongoing visioning process, a clergy transition can become a key pathway to increased congregational vitality; without this, it may become a time of high risk. The outcome of the transition essentially rests on the intentionality of congregational leaders, the intentionality of their mindset, and the organizational intelligence they gather to make critical decisions.
Decisions as to whether or not to use an interim minister, and about the search/call process have been the typical foci of the clergy transition process. Diocesan resources are available to assist congregations during this part of the transition process. What’s not as common are resources directed at this broader process of planning ahead for a clergy transition. While not all transitions can be planned for, the notion of succession planning should be integral to any congregational leadership system and practice. We need to develop pastoral transition training for resigning pastors, lay leaders, and congregations.”
Succession planning is a visionary and strategic mindset, a strategic view broader than the transition from one clergy leader to the next, beyond the search process for a new rector. With such a mindset, congregational leaders pay attention to the culture of their organizational system, to the experiences of their members, to the strengths and limitations of their communal life, to the articulation of their purpose and how their ministries embody that purpose, and to the needs of the world outside the doors of the church. Attention to these factors informs succession planning: What kind of leaders (both clergy and lay) can take the congregation into a vital future? What experiences and training will prepare leaders to lead in effective ways? What kinds of ongoing data and organizational intelligence are necessary to make informed decisions? These questions form the continuing vigilance of congregational leaders so that when the time of a pastoral transition inevitably happens, there is clear preparation for the process.
Considerations when a transition is imminent
This reflection takes particular focus on the time of transition planning immediately before a retirement/leave taking and the time after a new rector has been called. Leaders need to have a sense of mastery over the succession process and clarity about what to focus on besides the hiring of an interim and the naming of a search committee.
Once it is known that a pastoral transition will happen, leaders have a number of fiduciary responsibilities to consider:
1. How do we manage this transition effectively?
2. How will we effectively sustain our ministries?
3. How do we graciously say goodbye to our rector?
4. How do we prepare ourselves for the next rector?
5. How do we prepare our next rector for the beginning of ministry in this congregation?
6. How do we produce cohesion within the congregation at a time when this is most important?
These fiduciary responsibilities begin with leaders developing a vision for the transition process: How might we imagine a transition that is healthy, celebratory, transparent, non-anxious, filled with gratitude and hope? How do we engage the entire enterprise of this transition from God’s perspective?
The transition work from the time of the resignation/retirement announcement of the rector to planning for the arrival of the next rector has many layers. The following checklist provides some directional hints:
a. What are the needs of the outgoing rector and his/her family?
b. What kind of celebration of ministry would they find most appropriate for a healthy goodbye?
c. What kind of support system would be helpful as they prepare to leave?
a. What are our spiritual resources?
b. How do we keep the congregation engaged and how do we provide them a sense of agency in this process?
c. What spiritual disciplines and prayer life might the leadership and the congregation engage in to direct their hearts toward God’s desire for this transition process? For example, All Souls began a two-month adult forum series where the entire congregation was invited into a recommitment of their spiritual development. A new spiritual discipline was taught and practiced weekly, including Lectio Divina, Centering Prayer, Ignatian Examen, Zen Meditation, and simple Yoga and breathing exercises. These experiences motivated the congregation to create spiritual discipline groups, some were in person gatherings, and others were online groups. They were intentional in their focus on God’s will for the future of their congregation, and participants testified that the most important by-product was the strengthening of their relationships with God and with one another.
a. What is our vision for this transition time?
b. What resources are available to us as we enter this transition? Who are the key players?
c. Taking a thorough audit of our financial health – what resources do we have now – what resources will be available to us in the future – what resources do we need for the future?
d. Taking a thorough audit of the physical plant – what aspects of our building and grounds need attention and what can wait – what are the costs involved?
e. What additional financial resources might we need for this transition time?
f. What kinds of organizational intelligence do we need to make good decisions throughout the transition?
g. What are our goals for the time between rectors – do we need healing/reconciliation?
h. Are there program or administrative issues that need attention?
i. What congregational strengths can be called upon?
j. How do we ensure open and adequate communication throughout the congregation?
k. How do we care for other staff members?
l. How do we create a healthy boundary with our out-going rector (a letter of separation)?
4. Start up plan for the next rector:
a. How will we assist with the relocation of the next rector and family?
b. Welcome activities/celebrations – internal and in the local community? Office set-up?
c. Communications: internal and external?
d. Orientation to the facility, operations and technology?
e. Organizational data: policies, procedures, congregational assessment results, meeting minutes?
f. Scheduling of introductions: formal and informal gatherings?
g. Vision for the first three to six months, the next year?
A clergy transition in the life of a congregation can be a time of life giving possibility or a time of chaotic, stressful, herky-jerky movement from one leader to another. Who we are and what we do as people of faith is shaped by the nature of our organizational life and the God we worship. Our planning and our processes in times of transition are organizational, interpersonal, and spiritual. How we minister to one another, to the outgoing and incoming rectors are a convincing witness to our authenticity of faith. All of our actions are consequential and reflect Christ. Will we be keenly aware of God in our midst and act out of a commitment to faith? Will be demonstrate love to one another and reach out beyond our zones of comfort to assist the transition process? Will we possess a positive, hopeful spirit? We certainly can be known by our acts of Christian generativity and maturity. It takes our focused intentionality.
Susan’s considers a clergy transition as part of the fabric of a congregation. She counsels congregational leaders to think of – and plan for - it as part of their ongoing strategic thinking and vision. As a vestry, what’s your response to this statement?
“Succession planning is a visionary and strategic mindset, a strategic view broader than the transition from one clergy leader to the next, beyond the search process for a new rector. With such a mindset, congregational leaders pay attention to the culture of their organizational system, to the experiences of their members, to the strengths and limitations of their communal life, to the articulation of their purpose and how their ministries embody that purpose, and to the needs of the world outside the doors of the church.”
Susan Tamborini Czolgosz is a church and organizational development consultant, specializing in congregational and middle judicatory vitality. She has provided consulting to a broad range of organizations – Fortune 500 companies, not-for-profit agencies, and middle judicatories and churches of various denominations throughout the Chicago metro area and the United States. In her work with judicatories and churches, she provides guidance in transition and search processes, leadership development, strategic planning, congregational vitality, and conflict mediation. Susan has 15 years of experience as a healthcare executive and four years as a counselor/therapist. Her graduate work is in counseling psychology, followed by combined graduate studies in business and theology, and holds certificates in conflict mediation.
Susan has worked on the Bishop’s staff in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago and currently serves as consultant to the diocesan program for the Thrive program for congregational development. She is also affiliated with Holy Cow!Consulting. With Holy Cow she is the director of training for equipping for the use of organizational intelligence instruments designed by Holy Cow. She also affiliated with Samaritan Center for Congregations in Naperville, Illinois. There she is a judicatory and congregational consultant and educator.
- The Congregational Assessment Tool, available through Holy Cow! Consulting,
- The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken about Pastoral Transitions, J. Russell Crabtree and Carolyn Weese, Jossey-Bass, 2004.
- Ignation Model for Scriptural Reading (pdf), overview offered by Susan Tamobrini Czolgosz and Joseph Czolgosz
- Lecto Divinia (pdf) offered by Susan Tamobrini Czolgosz and Joseph Czolgosz
- Succession Planning Worksheets (pdf), Holy Cow! Consulting, adapted by Susan Tamobrini Czolgosz
- Transition Apparitions: Why Much of What We Know about Pastoral Transitions is Wrong, J. Russell Crabtree, Magi Press, 2015
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