Senior leadership transitions are the most challenging time in the life of a church and negotiating them well is critical for the success of the new leader and for establishing a healthy foundation for a new ministry “run.” Where such a transition is done well it can provide the church with significant forward momentum. When it is done poorly it can take years to regain the desired momentum.
Congregations, boards and staff rarely understand the full ramifications of a senior leadership change, particularly when the church has a healthy history and there is excitement about the future. The tendency is to assume that the future will be similar to the past – only better! In reality, in some way, large or small, a great deal changes with the change in senior leadership. The church starts a new journey with a new leader, a refocused vision and five years in it will be a different church.
In the same way, new senior leaders rarely understand the full scope of the challenge ahead of them even in the healthiest transition. They inherit a staff that they did not build, spoken and unspoken values that are part of the church’s DNA, a desire for new vision but at the same time stakeholders in the old vision, and often to their surprise, resistance to change simply because of the built in bias against change among people in general.
This is complicated by the fact that whenever a church must re-in vision for the next ministry “run,” there is a refocus of ministry with the inevitable need to evaluate current ministry paradigms and current staff. Hard decisions will need to be made on both counts that will require ministry and staff changes to some degree – often a greater degree than is anticipated at the time of transition.
The critical period for a leadership transition in a church is the first twelve to eighteen months where the foundation for the next ministry run is being established. The church will experience significant change! The question is whether the change process can be navigated in a way that enhances its opportunities for the future or alternatively, complicates and prolongs the time it will take to get to those future opportunities.
If the incoming leader has not managed a major transition before it is very helpful to use an experienced coach who can help them navigate the inevitable change process. That may be another pastor who has negotiated a similar transition in a healthy manner or an outside consultant. A coach can help the new leader, the board and senior staff understand the issues they will face from a neutral and non-stakeholder perspective.
Transitions can be a wonderful time of envisioning and retooling for the next run - as long it is handled with care so that momentum is gained rather than lost due to transitional issues that are handled poorly. The former launches the church into a new future, the latter can cause momentum and opportunity to be lost.