Friday, September 14, 2012

Planning for the pastor's departure

In my Baptist tradition the announced departure of a pastor is usually a big event in the life of the church.  Some people are cheering the news while others are deeply saddened, but for many of the people in the congregation there is often a sense of uncertainty.  Where will we find an interim pastor during the search for a new pastor?  Who will serve on the search committee?  How long will the search process take, and what will happen to our church during that period?  How difficult will it be to find a pastor who is a good fit for our church?  What kind of changes will calling a new pastor bring to our church?  For many churches today there is often the additional question of will they be able to get a fully-funded pastor or is this the time for them to call a bivocational person?

As an Area Resource Minister in our judicatory I have worked with many churches during their search process, and I find these questions are asked by many of them at some time during the process.  However, this does not have to be such a traumatic time especially if the church has been discussing the possibility before the announcement is made.  I have not understood why a pastoral transition is always such a shock to a congregation.  Assuming the Lord tarries, your pastor will one day leave your church.  He or she may move to another place of ministry, retire, leave the ministry, or die, but the bottom line is there will come a time when that pastor moves on and the church will begin the process to find a new pastor.  Rather than being surprised and caught unawares by the announcement that the pastor is leaving, the church would be better served by having already discussed the process that will be followed when the time comes.  I have found no better resource for this type of strategic planning that the book The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken about Pastoral Transitions (Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series).

The authors write, "Succession planning is the second most important need in every church in the country...and few if any do it or do it well."  Based upon my observations and experiences I would agree with that statement.  This may be due to our fear of offending the pastor or making him or her feel that we are planning to replace the pastor in the near future.  Because churches do not normally do this type of succession planning that would be an easy assumption for a pastor to make.  So, the whole issue of the pastor one day leaving the church is ignored until the day the announcement is made, and then the church goes into crisis mode.  Would it not be better to have already planned for that announcement and made the necessary plans for how to respond when it is made?

One thing that might help churches become more willing to do succession planning is to count the cost of not having a pastor.  Many churches will see a steady decline in the number of people attending services during the interim process resulting in decreased giving.  These numbers will not immediately return once a new pastor is in place.  There are costs associated with searching for a new pastor and relocating one once the call is given.  In addition to the financial costs there are emotional and morale costs to the church. Churches often find that whatever momentum they had for ministry fades during the interim period.  It will take a while for that momentum to return as the new pastor has a steep learning curve before he or she is able to provide effective leadership.  According to the authors, about half of the members of the search committee will leave the church within three years of the new pastor's arrival.  While my numbers are not that high, I have seen a number of search committee members leave their church after it called the person they recommended.  If it turns out the new pastor is not a good fit for the church and ends up leaving after only two or three years, there is a repeat of all these costs and even more as the church begins to wander without capable leadership.

I believe the authors have done a good job of identifying a number of strategies for churches to consider based upon their size and make-up.  They do not offer a one-size-fits-all model for planning for pastoral succession since different churches will have different needs.  I would recommend that the church find which church culture best fits them and begin to study the suggestions associated with that culture and determine how to best implement them in their own planning.  To me, the best of all worlds would be for the current pastor to lead this study.  This removes the fear that the pastor may feel the church is seeking to find a new pastor by engaging in this study.  When the pastor leads such a study, what he or she is really doing is helping ensure the ministry he or she has enjoyed in the church will continue and the church and new pastor will be able to build upon that legacy.  This makes pastoral succession planning a win for everyone.

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