Pastoral transitions can be anxiety-ridden times for congregations. Congregations that go through an interim period without pastoral leadership need to navigate transition without an organization’s chief resource: its leader. That transition involves many challenges, including, disruption of homeostasis, a shift to inward-focused tasks, and a leadership vacuum.
Disruption of homeostasis
The presence of a pastoral leader often is the linchpin in the primary systemic triangle who facilitates balance for homeostatic forces. The leader can do this by empowering the healthier elements in the system while providing correctives, if not containment, of the toxic and willful elements in the system. Second, the leader’s capacity to articulate the vision that keeps the system moving forward, and getting people behind that vision, facilitates purposeful homeostasis. Third, often, non-reactive homeostasis is maintained merely by the leader’s presence.
But once the pastoral leader is off the scene the influence he or she provided for healthy homeostasis is disrupted. Things become uncertain, the focus on vision wanes, and other forces or dynamics move to create a sense of homeostasis. Often, anxiety related to a sense that the homeostasis has been disrupted results in willful reactivity. Persons or groups seek to “get control” of the situation. Some call for immediate action. Others call for “going back” to the way things were before the previous leader. And others will call for a quick fix to identified problems (“The problem around here is… (getting a new church sign, changing the worship service, targeting a new group, get people to give more money, etc.”)), or, to identified patients (IP) (“The problem is we have to get rid of staff (the organist, the deacon, the associate, the youth minister, the church secretary, a church member)).
A change in equilibrium yields anxiety, and congregations (especially those with the lowest tolerance for uncertainly and ambiguity) want a quick return to a sense of homeostasis. It is difficult for congregations to appreciate that with pastoral transitions it will take up to five years for a congregation to “find a new center” that allows for a return to equilibrium.
During times of pastoral transition congregations, of necessity, need to turn to inward-focused tasks. Pastoral leaders help congregations stay focused on a vision that draws them outward and facilitates creative commitment to the mission. But with the exit of the pastoral leader, congregations need to shift to internal tasks—one of them being the search for the next pastoral leader. Other tasks include, self-assessment of organizational effectiveness, staff needs, cultural values, clarity of identity, and clarity of future goals.
Many of the inward-focused tasks will be more immediate. Congregations will need to decide on what to do with staff. They will likely need to reorganize staff assignments and responsibilities. They will need to make decisions about interim pastoral leadership (Will they get an interim pastor? What will that person’s role be? How much authority will that person have? Will they get an intentional interim?).
One danger congregations face is that an extended interim period between pastoral leaders will leave them inward-focused for too long. That can result in a loss of effectiveness in outward-focused mission enterprises necessary for their effectiveness, if not survival. The issue is not so much shifting to being inward-focused during a pastoral transition (that’s just necessary), the issue is not getting stuck there.
Perhaps no other challenge is as great for congregations experiencing pastoral transitions than that of a leadership vacuum. Two statements can help frame this challenge:
1. All congregations are clergy-focused.
2. As much as we would wish otherwise, congregations are highly dependent on paid clergy and pastoral staff for their effectiveness.
That’s not to say it’s the way things should be, merely a confession that it’s the way things are. Given the reality of those two points, congregations experiencing the in-between time of pastoral transitions are in for a challenge.
For congregations that have support staff (associate ministers or program staff) those persons often need to “step up” and take on pastoral leadership functions formerly provided by the designated if not de facto pastoral leader (the senior pastor). This can be challenging and scary for staff, but also very exciting and fulfilling. Most congregations will call an interim pastor to provide some of the leadership functions of the office, but that does not guarantee that the interim will be able to fill the leadership vacuum.
Someone recently asked me what a congregation needs to do during the interim to prepare for the coming of the next pastor. And, they asked what staff can do in the interim to help the congregation prepare for the next pastoral leader. My interpretation is that given the nature of congregations, there’s really not much one can do that will determine the outcome of the transition, or the outcome of who a congregation gets as the next leader. But, “do something,” is a better answer than “do nothing” in this case:
- Do some congregation-wide education on ecclesiology, the nature and mission of the church, It will facilitate discernment and provide correctives to less fruitful conversations during this time about models, strategies, methods, styles, trends, programs, etc.
- If you get an interim get clarity about responsibilities and roles. Re-organizing church structures, cutting programs and starting others, and making staff decisions should not be included. Those actions tend to (1) be more about issues of the interim, and, (2) will likely hinder rather than help the next pastor.
- Resist trying to fix problems in order to “make it easier” for the next pastor. That’s just taking responsibility for part of the job of the pastoral leader. Let the next pastor fix problems the way he or she deems necessary.
- Resist overfunctioning on the part of staff. Hearing comments about a staff member like “He’s the glue that held us together,” are flattering, but ultimately not helpful for the health of the system.
- Help pastoral staff remember that they are not “the pastor” during the interim. I’m not sure why this happens. During pastoral transitions associate staff need to “step up” an provide new leadership functions, and that’s appropriate. But I see too many staff get in trouble when they get confused and believe that means they are “the pastor.” Often, it results in a battle of wills with congregants and a loss of effectiveness.
- Avoid the temptation to keep staff from leaving by overpromising, creating a new position or title, bribing, cajoling, wooing, or enmeshing. Times of pastoral transitions are times when a lot of things shift, and staff need to work on taking responsibility for their own calling. Convincing a staff member to stay through seduction may be the worse thing a congregation can do for that staff person.
- Remind the congregation that the church belongs to the members. They have a say in what direction the church will go, what values the church will embrace, and how they will respond to God’s calling to be the church of Christ. They are responsible for their destiny; no other is, including, the next pastor.
Remember that no matter what you do in the interim, it likely will not determine the outcome of who you get as the next pastor, or whether or not it will be a good fit.
The fact remains that times of pastoral transition for congregations is a time of acute anxiety. Few organizations or individuals can make good decisions when anxious. Sometimes, we just need to depend on the movement of the Spirit. And sometimes, that’s what being Church is all about.
From, Perspectives on Congregational Leadership: Applying Systems Theory for Effective Leadership, by Israel Galindo. Check out the Perspectives on Congregational Leadership blog.
Date posted: Monday, March 9th, 2009 12:07 am | Under category: bowen family systems theory, congregational life, leadership, second chair
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