As uncomfortable as a ministerial transition can be for a church, the opportunities that open up are exciting.
Stable churches are comfortable churches. They don’t reinvent themselves. They don’t “rock the boat.” They don’t ask unnecessary questions. The status quo is protected, even venerated.
But churches in transition don’t have those luxuries. Much of the status quo–what churches assume about themselves, what they are comfortable with–goes out the window when the announcement is made that a minister is leaving.
Transitioning churches–are by definition–uncomfortable. They have to reinvent themselves. Their boat is already rocking. And, to survive and thrive, they must do the difficult work stable churches rarely attempt: look at themselves honestly, ask the right (and the hard) questions, think carefully about the church’s health and effectiveness, reset goals, and heal old wounds.
Consider the opportunities available in the interim season–when leaders are wise enough to take advantage of them. As someone who works with churches in transition all the time, here are my personal top 10:
1. Celebration. The interim season is a time for churches to remember who they are and who they want to be. I’ve seen churches wandering in a fog of self-doubt and aimlessness “wake up” to their better angels and higher hopes when a minister leaves. They discover that, rather than wallowing in regrets and second-guesses, losing a minister is a golden opportunity to remember the past (recent and distant) and celebrate the good things God has done through the church.
The interim season is a time to tell stories about the church, recall the people who shaped the church, and trace God’s hand in the actions and attitudes of the church. In doing so, churches can rediscover their congregational DNA and identity–touch base again with the reasons the church exists, the core value of the church, and the “heart” that has characterized it through the years.
2. Listening. A transitioning church is more motivated to do the hard work of listening to God, hearing his call, and discerning his will for the congregation. Prayer, discernment, and seeking God’s spirit involve hard work–the spiritual equivalent of digging ditches and chopping wood. Such gritty foundational work is more likely to happen (or, at least more likely to happen intentionally) during the interim season. There’s something about uncertainty and anxiety that makes us hungrier for God.
3. Mission. The interim season encourages a church to embrace its mission. Rather than assuming the church has a mission (even if no one can express it), rather than perpetuating a mission that has grown stale or lost traction, transition invites a church to reassess where it is going, what its goals are, and what God expects it to do and be. Stability is hard on mission. Ministries get musty. People entrench. Churches lose momentum. Transition can jump-start churches, challenging them to build a fresh sense of unity and identity around an invigorated sense of mission.
4. Leadership. The loss of a pulpit minister frequently exposes a vacuum of congregational leadership. I’ve worked with many elderships who–needing to make a change in their pulpit–discover they lack the leadership skills necessary to move a church forward themselves. Vision, planning, implementation, evaluation–common concepts in the business world–are radically different creatures in the environment of the church.
Elders can find themselves flummoxed by the complexity, diversity, and difficulty of leadership in a church context. Transition is a great time for a church’s leaders to assess their strengths and weaknesses, identify their leadership style, recognize the skills and aptitudes they have (or need), and seek help to develop more effective leadership for the church. It is also a great time for new leaders to step forward and fill gaps in the front ranks of God’s army.
5. Change. Transitioning churches are more willing to recognize and address “church culture” issues hindering growth and preventing the church from being an effective outpost of the kingdom. Self-assessment is never easy for any church. But comfortable churches rarely engage in meaningful and honest evaluation.
It takes something a bit stressful (like worries for a church’s future) to give churches the courage and motivation to kill a few sacred cows. I remember one church that started with a very informal, highly personal style of worship–anyone could get up and say anything at any time and at any length (And, they did!) Great for a church of 20 people–death for a church of 50 that wants to reach strangers.