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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Clergy Transitions

cocoon and butterfly
Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

’Tis the season for clergy transitions in many of our congregations. I am one of those clergy who happens to be transitioning. After a decade as a denominational executive, I am heading back, full-time to consulting, coaching, trainings, and psychotherapy. I am ready and excited!

While I was ready and excited, I forgot that major transitions are hard. Once I made and communicated my decision, the machinery of major life transitions rolled into motion, and I found myself on an intense roller-coaster ride with some unexpected dips as well as highs.

Nancy Schlossberg’s Transition Theory identifies three different types of transitions: anticipated (what we can prepare for), unanticipated (sudden or unexpected transitions) and non-normative (transitions that do not follow the typical life course). Schlossberg stresses that transitions are complex and multidimensional. We all experience them differently depending on four major factors:

  • Our individual situation—external circumstances such as the reasons for and timing of the change, and external social resources available to us.
  • Our personal resources—internal strengths and abilities, including self-esteem and resilience, and our ability to benefit from social support.
  • Our coping skills—our ability to use strategies and behaviors to manage the transition, like problem-solving skills, emotional regulation, and social support.
  • The meaning of the transition—our interpretation and understanding of the transition and its impact on our identity, values, and beliefs.

These four factors, separately and in interaction, constitute a person’s way of dealing with transition.

Ministry Transitions

Ministry is a unique profession, in part, because we often use the language of a call instead of just a job. Ministry is also relationally focused. Clergy are involved in the most important moments in the lives of others—such as birth, death, and key relationship rituals. These factors and many others make clergy transitions tricky because clergypersons don’t just leave a set of tasks or duties behind.

Layfolk, as well, sometimes describe their congregations as their family. The bonds are deep and often long term. Some congregations get very attached to their pastors, even dependent on them. Other congregations know that pastors come and go.

How to Leave Well

What does it mean for a pastor and congregation to leave each other well? Here are some guidelines for healthy transition:

Be intentional. Even if this transition is anticipated, it is important for the clergyperson to separate their own feelings—of relief, excitement, pain, or grief—from the needs of the congregation. This applies to the congregation that the pastor is leaving as well as to the new workplace. Clergy need a place, separate from their church people, to process feelings about this transition and get support.

The needs of the congregation and its future well-being are primary. With leaders of the church, create a transition plan so everyone will be on the same page as the transition unfolds. Plan for regular communication to the whole congregation. It’s important to be clear about what information is confidential and what it is important for everyone to know. It should also be clear what kind of contact, if any, the pastor will have after they leave.

Understand who is being impacted and how. It’s not possible to predict how everyone in the congregation will react to a transition. Surprises along the way are to be expected—I remember being surprised when I left my first church. One member was blaming himself for my decision to leave because he had endorsed the start of a big, exciting project and worried that I was leaving because I didn’t want to lead that project. Nothing could’ve been further from the truth! I was surprised because I was unaware of how he was interpreting my leave-taking.

Be strategic. What is the best use of your pastor’s time in this transition? What does your pastor need to start letting go of or passing on to others? How can you use the trust that you and your pastor have built up over time to accomplish a major initiative (i.e. fundraising for a special project or to retire a debt)? Choosing strategically how to use the limited time left to make progress toward fulfilling the congregation’s mission.

Get help if this departure is due to, or is causing, conflict or trauma. Are you as leaders and pastor humble enough to ask for outside help if this departure is going to be distressing, shocking or inordinately painful? I’ve consulted with many congregations during challenging transitions. I know how tempting it is for folks to play the role of the victim. I’ve seen people lash out, create more conflict during the transition, get mad, and abandon their congregation, withhold giving, and leave a great deal of wreckage in their wake.

We are all human and therefore vulnerable at times. If you believe you or your pastor have been hurt, disrespected, or bullied, then managing this transition well is even more important, so that the congregation and individuals (including the pastor and pastor’s loved ones) can find healing and learn from the experience.

Transitions are a hard but necessary part of the human journey. They are inevitable and provide rich opportunities for growth. The more we can manage our reactivity, learn about ourselves, and learn from these transitions the better off everyone will be in the future.

Susan Nienaber brings a background as a psychotherapist and mediator and combines compassion with independence when working with congregations. She embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church and consults with congregations on issues of conflict, crisis, personnel matters, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.

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