January 2010

Reaching for that trapeze bar

Through divine intervention and God’s Spirit guiding Moses’ leadership, Pharaoh was finally persuaded to let the Israelites go. After 430 years of living in Egypt, the enslaved Israelites experienced a change when they left the land of their oppressors in one day. But it took them another forty years to make the transition to their new home. The former was a single event; the later was a process.

Congregations experience a similar situation when there is a transition in ordained leadership. It begins with a rather quick change (the rector’s departure) and is followed by a much longer transitional period that lasts until the congregation establishes a new normal, a time of feeling settled again.

Changes and transitions are a part of life for individuals and congregations. Sometimes they are quick and easy; other times lengthy and complex. And our responses to changes and transitions in congregational life vary because our understanding of them is influenced by our experiences and individual temperament.

Transitions produce anxiety
Transitions in ordained leadership usually produce great anxiety in congregations. There are suddenly many new questions: What will change? Who will replace the departing individual in both the short and long term? How long will it take to find a replacement? What kind of alterations will the new persons (including the interim) want to initiate?

As the Israelites did in their wilderness experience, congregations may balk at the changes inherent in a transition. In a quest for comfort and normalcy in the midst of confusion, members may grumble and complain about the changes or even attempt to march ahead in unhelpful ways (building their own forms of a golden calf).

It is also difficult to let go of things that have been comforting to congregations, or that have been the norm for so long, without having something else to sustain them. It is like a trapeze artist letting go of one bar and floating through the air before he or she grabs hold of the next bar. As uncomfortable as that position may be, the space between the trapeze bars has proven to be an opportune time for a congregation to accept the change, to learn new things, to be open to new possibilities and to grow.

It took the Israelites forty years to make their transition. Fortunately, congregational transitions are much shorter. The transition begins when the cleric announces his or her departure and continues until about eighteen months after the replacement is in place, usually resulting in a total transition time of two to three years.

Staying calm
Vestries leading in times of transition can take a few tips from Moses. Their first responsibility is to stay calm in the midst of change, keeping the congregation focused on its mission. After all, the church is still there even though the rector has departed.

There are some specific things vestries can do to ease the transition.

  • Pray without ceasing for strength and guidance, and encourage the congregation to do the same.
  • Help the departing rector make a good “exit,” acknowledging the joint ministry that has taken place.
  • Provide time to share the history of the congregation, identifying those things the congregation wants to carry forward into the future and those that can be left behind.
  • Share their understanding of the differences between “change” and “transition” and prepare the congregation for the time it will take for things to seem “normal” again.
  • Allow for experimentation — it will help the congregation prepare for the changes any new leader brings and may spark new ideas about ways of being “church”.
  • At the same time, avoid unnecessary changes — too many changes raise the anxiety level.
  • When the new rector arrives, plan time to mutually clarify roles and expectations and agree to a Mutual Ministry Review at the end of the first year.

Above all, LISTEN — just as Moses spent time walking among the campfires and sitting down with the people, vestries need to be especially available at this time.

Much like Moses needed advice from his father-in-law, Jethro, search committees, transition teams, diocesan staff members and/or consultants can provide vestries help and advice during the transitional time.

Vestry members can help their congregations manage the anxiety of transition by understanding these issues. They can reassure members that anxiety is a normal part of the process, and promote the wilderness time as one of the best times to learn and grow, to reassess priorities and mission. A good knowledge of the issues of transition will help vestries and clerics be better attuned to the leading of the Holy Spirit while they are reaching for that next trapeze bar.

The Rev. Mike Ehmer is the Assistant Director of CREDO Institute, Inc. and the Managing Director of Fresh Start, a resource for clergy and congregations in transition.

This article is part of the January 2010 Vestry Papers issue on Transition