Thoughts on Ministerial Transitions

We live in a mobile society. People move. They change jobs and positions. Job researchers reported in 2010 that the average worker will make seven career changes in their lifetime. That doesn’t even take into consideration how many times they will work in the same “career” in different places. Our work takes us to different places and changes often.

It is no different in the field of ministry. Ministers move and change churches. If you’re lucky, some might have longevity in a particular clergy position. When I began in ministry, however, the average length of tenure in a local church was 18 months. Thankfully, and gratefully, I have outlasted that average several times over. Nevertheless, change happens.

Each denomination has their own way of making those transitions. Some clergy are assigned and are moved depending on a hierarchy of leadership. Others get to make their own decisions and work directly with a particular church to move to another congregation. For Baptists, the process also can be different depending on the church and it’s governing principles and guidelines.

In that particular process, the selection  and transition of calling a minister will always involve two congregations. One will lose a leader, the other will gain one. Within each congregation there will be those who will be excited and those that will be saddened by the process. Yes, you read that sentence right, in both congregations at the same time. Remember, we’re talking Baptists.

It is the way of it. It’s the process. There are great things about the process, and, well, there are things that just stink about the process. As a minister, there is always excitement about a new location. It’s a new challenge, a new opportunity, a new possibility for growth and learning. Since we live in a mobile and transitional society, a church will need new leadership at times, so the search would begin and there’s always excitement about someone new to lead the charge ahead.

For the church losing their leader, there will always be a range of feelings. For some, there will be deep sadness and even despair at losing someone that is loved and respected, who has led them for a period of time. This is always amplified if the particular person is charismatic and well-loved. Sadly, there will also be a few that will be excited about the departure. It’s human nature.

The calling of a church leader, in the denomination I serve, is a process that is often times long and emotionally exhausting. Interviews, conversations, forms to fill out and questions to answer are all part of the process. All this while knowing that the process could be halted at any moment. The small group of people that are conducting the search are watching, listening, praying, and seeking to find the best they can to fit a profile that has been determined. It truly is not unlike a secular search, with a few exceptions. While this process is taking place, the church where the minister is currently serving normally has no idea this is taking place. There are all sorts of challenges in telling anyone while this is happening, the main reason being the emotional toll being carried on the shoulders of the minister during the process itself.

At that particular time when the final decision has been made by the new congregation and minister, a time is set up for them to come and be presented to the new church. For my denomination, this process is called “in view of a call.” It is taken from the Biblical model that ministers of the Gospel are set aside and “called” into ministry, that God is in the process and there is a divine calling upon their lives. The difficult part is that the current congregation often never knows this is happening. When the vote has been taken by the new congregation and the call has been accepted by the new leader, they will go back to their former church, tell the leadership and congregation, formerly resign, and begin to make preparations for moving. It is always an emotionally charged and exhausting process. More often than not, the former congregation now feels betrayed, lost and rejected. They experience the same feelings often felt during times of grief and loss. These would be anger, grief, sadness, acceptance, moving on.

For the pastor leader, more often than not, telling the former congregation is a difficult challenge. Some choose to tell the congregation before they leave, preparing them for what’s to come. Others choose not to tell anything, for remember, the process is never complete until it’s finished. Something could happen and it could be halted or stopped at any point, even at the very end. For that reason alone, many ministers choose to remain silent until it’s a fully completed process.

In years gone by, it was much easier to choose silence and keep under the radar. In these days of social media and technology, this is no longer the case. Nothing can be kept secret, especially if it deals with the public. And churches are very public entities.

One thing remains constant through this whole process. God’s divine calling and mission upon a local congregation. My particular congregation is 142 years old. No, none of us are that old, we just happen to be along for the journey at this particular time. God set apart a group of people years ago to begin a ministry in this particular place. Through generations, this mission continues to be carried out. At this given point in time, we have a body of believers that make up this congregation and we are carrying out this mission that was set in place long ago. I fully expect this to continue for generations to come. I fervently pray that it will continue long after I’m gone. It is by the faithfulness of those who are here that this will be fulfilled.

Until then, we look for God’s divine hand and blessing to be upon us. Amen.

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