Jennie Barber —  June 19, 2014

JBarberChange two letters to the opening song of Fiddler on the Roof, and you’ve got a theme song for pastoral ministry—“Transition!” (Are you picturing yourself belting it out through the streets of your city?) Much of pastoral ministry occurs at the intersection of life’s transitions—birth, marriage, death, etc. We are privileged to stand with people and witness God at work, watching for the movement of the Spirit in those thin places where earth and heaven meet. Transition occurs not only in the lives of those in our congregations and communities, it also happens as we continually seek God’s call. Any time of transition in ministry can be challenging, marked by grief and confusion. Leadership transitions provide an opportunity for pastors and congregations to experience healthy and unhealthy change. No transition will be easy and seamless, but I’m going to offer a few very practical suggestions I believe help smooth some of the rough patches on the rocky road of transition.

Clean up, clean up… Remember that box of 1970s VBS curriculum that was sitting in your office when you arrived your first day? My guess is it hasn’t done much besides collect dust. If you’re able to find someone who wants it, make the donation. If you can’t, find your way to the nearest trash/recycling facility. It may seem obvious, but you will be doing a huge favor to the person stepping into your role if they don’t have to spend weeks sorting through the junk you inherited.

…but leave some trace: Don’t take the purging process too far. If you’re a type A personality like me, direct your organizational impulses to arranging some key resources. Lists of volunteers, past calendars, information on important events and traditions, and multiple copies of the church directory are just some examples of resources that can be a gift to someone treading the waters of a new position.

Wrap it up: It’s impossible to tie up every loose end. Transitions can’t be complete and perfect. However, through conversations with colleagues and personal experience, I’ve discovered we often leave four feet of slack or a tangled mess. If your position involves communication with outside organizations, let them know about the leadership transition. If you’re in the midst of a major project, invite volunteers to greater leadership roles. Beware of setting forth grand promises you won’t be able to keep. Making things completely smooth won’t be possible, but you can avoid creating major bumps.

Prepare your keys: You should still keep looking for the key to the weird cabinet in your office that you lost three months ago, but I’m talking about a different kind of key. Work with leadership, staff, and volunteers to prepare the congregation for a pastoral transition. God will continue to use these faithful men and women long after you are gone, so it is important to partner with them.

Pray: Gold star for the Sunday School answer. But in all honesty, prayer keeps us grounded in the midst of transition. Prayer invites us to be still and trust in God’s guidance when it feels like endless storms rage. As we pray, we’re invited to relinquish control and the plans we grasp so tightly. As we pray, our eyes are opened to the hopeful work of the Spirit.

What I’ve offered by no means speaks to every situation involving transition in ministry. My hope is that I’ve shared something that will encourage us to think practically about transition and how we as pastors can help each other out.

What have you done to prepare for transitions in ministry? What resources can you share?

Jennie Barber

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Jennie is currently serving as the Associate Pastor at Rivermont Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is a wife, mother, lover of Asian food, and a pastor seeking to be a faithful disciple of Jesus.