Episode 31: “Leaving Well and Starting Strong: Planning for an Effective Pastoral Transition” featuring Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 31: "Leaving Well and Starting Strong: Planning for an Effective Pastoral Transition" featuring Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

How can a pastor avoid common pitfalls and make the most of opportunities when moving from one congregation to the next? In this episode we speak with Lovett H. Weems, Jr., about how to plan for a pastoral transition, leave well, and get off to a strong start in a new church.

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Ann A. Michel
Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Announcer: How can a pastor avoid common pitfalls and make the most of opportunities when moving from one congregation to the next? In this episode we speak with Lovett H. Weems, Jr., about how to plan for a pastoral transition, leave well, and get off to a strong start in a new church.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel, host of this Leading Ideas Talks podcast. And I’m happy to be talking again with my esteemed colleague, Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr. Lovett is the founding director of our Lewis Center for Church leadership and he’s now serving with us as a senior consultant. We’re going to be chatting today about the subject of pastoral transitions. When a clergy person leaves one church and begins ministry in another. So welcome, Lovett, glad to have you here today.

Lovett Weems: Thank you, happy to be with you.

Ann Michel: So over the years, Lovett, of course, has been a prominent voice on so many important subjects related to church leadership but the subject of pastoral transition has been one that has received a lot of his attention through research and teaching and various workshops that he’s taught over the years. Let me begin by asking this: why is it so important for congregations and for pastoral leaders to be intentional when a change in clergy leadership is occurring?

Lovett Weems: Transitions are always times of great opportunity and great vulnerability. They’re great opportunities because you have new leadership coming, or a leader is going into a new situation. But there’s also great vulnerability because someone is going from what’s known to what’s unknown and a congregation is going from what’s known to what’s unknown. So, at a personal level, for the pastor, for any family, for any networks of support, it’s a critical time. But for organizations, including congregations, any time there is a change of leadership it’s a very important time and needs to be handled very well.

Ann Michel: I’ve heard you talk in many different situations on how leaders really grow during critical junctures. And I think that probably a transition is that time of a critical juncture when there’s an opportunity for growing as a leader. Do you think that’s the case?

Lovett Weems: Absolutely. But there’s also a tendency for someone to think, whether this is a pastor or someone at a secular job, that what they have done up to that point was good enough to bring them this far and it will be good enough to take them the next step. And it almost never is. It seems like that you’re going to be doing something very similar to what you’ve done before. and you’re going to be in the same denomination. And you may even be going to a church that’s somewhat similar to the church you’ve served. and yet, we have to realize that everything is changing. And so, the very skills that a pastor used in their early days to pay attention, to notice what’s going on, to pick up signals about how they’re being received, you have to do that again. So with time, pastors gain confidence. But sometimes it can be overconfidence. I’ve seen this, I’ve done this, I can do it. And yet, they need to go back into a learning mode in order to be able to make the most out of this new opportunity.

Ann Michel: Yeah, so it’s important for even an experienced pastor to recognize that a change is always going to bring new challenges and new ways of growing, really. I think many of our listeners, whether they’re pastors or congregants, may well have lived through pastoral transitions, perhaps many. Some might have gone well, perhaps some didn’t go so smoothly. So I wondered if you could name what some of the most common pitfalls or mistakes are that a clergy person makes when going through this critical juncture.

Lovett Weems: Well, first of all, let’s think about the phases that we’re talking about. There’s that ending phase, from the time that a pastor and congregation know that a change is going to take place. This may be a matter of weeks, usually it’s more a few months. That’s the leaving time. Then there’s the entry. The first day, the first Sunday, the first week. And then there’s the start-up period. That first six months or so. And then that leads to the first chapter, maybe six months to 18 months or so that helps identify what the key challenges are. And that leads to the first chapter, which is probably the first three to five years in a new place. So let’s go back to the leaving. There, it’s very important for the church to be able to say goodbye and to deal with the emotional factors that are going on. Even if things have been a bit rocky, of late, it’s still very important for rituals to take place and opportunities to say goodbye to take place. Pastors sometimes have good intentions but they really have not thought alot about things that help. So they may feel “I don’t want this to be about me. I tend to be humble, or I see myself that way. I don’t want a lot to be made. I’m just going to ease out and let someone else come in.” But they’re doing a real disservice. There needs to be a time, and maybe especially if things have not always gone well, where each side can say “thank you” for all the positive things and wish each other well. And if you don’t do that in leaving, then it just makes it harder for a new pastor to come in to this unresolved, kind of, grief. So not properly dealing with the emotions of leaving would be the critical thing there. And then, in entering, the single greatest pitfall there is for the new pastor to come in seeing themselves, as I would put it, more as the host instead of a guest. When you’re new, you’re always a guest. That is, you’re really at the mercy of those who are there. You need to learn from them. They will, they have a responsibility to host you, to make sure you know where things are, how things are done, and then, if you take on the role of host, then it’s like going into someone’s home and begin rearranging the furniture to make it more comfortable for you. Your goal is to go in, be a good guest at the beginning, and then, you will gradually build your credibility.

Ann Michel: I want to turn back for a minute to the leaving period, that you mentioned. I do think it’s so helpful that you laid out those different stages of a pastoral move and that it is a more protracted transition, I think sometimes people think it’s a change that happens in a day. You drive away from one place and you drive up to the next place. That’s the transition. But it’s so helpful that you’ve said that it involves a much longer period of transition. But focusing again on that leaving period, I have heard you say so often the important responsibility that a leaving pastor has to prepare the way for their successor. Can you speak a bit about what some of the things a pastor can do to make it a bit easier for the person coming in their wake?

Lovett Weems: The leaving pastor should take the initiative to invite the new pastor to come and to ask them what information would be helpful. For some new pastors, information about the schools might be the most important, or about employment opportunities for a spouse might be more important. With whom would they like to meet when they come? What information would they like to have available on the very first day? And, even for information that’s not asked for, you want to make sure that everything is up to date, bills are paid, notes are left about pastoral issues and concerns, and good directions. Wish them well and continue working until the last day. Then leave and begin somewhere else.

Ann Michel: So those things are on a personal and professional level. How about in terms of preparing the congregation to receive someone graciously?

Lovett Weems: Well the outgoing pastor can certainly help make those connections. To make sure that the new pastor is able to meet with staff, with key leaders beforehand. Also, may even be able to introduce, or at least open the door for meetings with key community leaders. Especially those the church may have a partnership with. The outgoing pastor can be very helpful in giving the incoming pastor all the benefit of the doubt, to stress the positive, especially not do any comparisons between themselves and the new pastor.

Ann Michel: I think that’s so very important. So, I asked about pitfalls, a minute ago, but I wonder about opportunities. If handled rightly, I think this time of change can be a time of opportunity and growth, not just for the pastor, but for the congregation. What are some possibilities and benefits that can grow out of a successfully managed transition?

Lovett Weems: Well, taking advantage of things that only happen once. Such as, your first official day. That’s the day that you do not, as a pastor coming in, need to spend the day unpacking boxes. You can do that, and you want to be responsible in not leaving that to only the other family members. However, you must block out, on that first official day, some time for the telephone, to call those key leaders. You may ask the outgoing pastor to make a list. But you will know who some of the officers are, who perhaps some retired pastors are who live in the community, who an elderly matriarch or patriarch is. You simply want to call them that day and say “This is Lovett Weems, I’m your new pastor and I want you to know how honored I am to be your pastor. How much I’m looking forward to working with you and how much I need your prayers and your support.” This will make more of a difference, because, remember, you have only one first day, the effect is not really the same eight or nine months later when you call the chair of the trustees for the first time. It may be you want to go around to each office of any staff members there may be. Sit down there, just say “I’m happy to be here, I’m looking forward to working with you.” And continue to talk with someone else. It may be in the community. You may want to stop in at city hall. You may want to touch base with some key people. These will help you far beyond what you might imagine. You only have one first day. Then there’s the first Sunday. I always thought that the most important thing on the first Sunday was to preach a good sermon. So I discovered that’s not it. It’s better to preach a good sermon than a bad sermon. But I discovered when I preached one of my two good sermons on that first Sunday, nobody was paying that much attention. They’re really looking for something else. Roy Oswall puts it this way, he says “People are looking for two things: Is this an authentic person? And do they care about me?” But especially during those early days, remember, every word is important. Every gesture is important. Because you’re writing on a blank slate and whatever you put on that slate, it will expand, fill up the whole slate. For instance, three years later, you may make the same joke, or the same offhand comment, and it won’t matter at all because people will have three years of experience in which to put what you’ve just done or said. But in the early days, it’s everything, so you need to be very, very careful and plan what you’re doing and what you’re saying with others in mind.

Ann Michel: I know when I’ve, of course, I’m not a pastor, but when I have found myself as a new person in a new situation, I have found that that gives me an excuse, really, to ask questions. But then again, maybe too much questioning isn’t good. So, how can a pastor go about learning in a way that is not regarded as intrusive or critical?

Lovett Weems: Questioning is so important. It’s a way of honoring the people who are already there. It’s also a way of buying time. People will say “pastor, what’s your vision?” They’ll also say, “We’re so ready for change. We’re ready for you to lead us.” And some pastors are foolish enough to believe that. No. What you want to do is say, “Well of course, I have ideas and values. But I need to understand this context. Tell me: What’s been most important to you about this church that you’ve been a part of it? If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change? If you were to tell a neighbor about your church, what would you say? What’s so good about your church you hope it never changes?” These are the kinds of questions that you need to keep asking, over and over. Because you begin to see recurring themes. So in those early days, some of the key challenges become: love the people, learn the history, and read the culture. Every church has a culture — that is who we are and how we do things around here. We will tend, as pastors, to gravitate to what we’re most used to. And so that means that, initially, we will quickly see the things that maybe aren’t quite as good as we’ve been used to. But it will take a while to understand why some things are done the way they’re done. You want to not use up what credibility you bring with you in those very small, more aesthetic things. And learn the deeper story of this new place that you call home.

Ann Michel: You know, I have often, many many times, heard people say that an incoming pastor shouldn’t change anything in the first year. That they should just go with whatever systems and approaches and worship styles and music, and whatever else, they should just have a one year moratorium in terms of making any changes. Do you adhere to that advice?

Lovett Weems: Well, there are two ends of the continuum. One is what you’ve just described. Don’t make any changes for a year. The other side of that is that you need to make many changes in the first six months, or you won’t be able to ever make them. Which can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, I think. I would say that, obviously, you work somewhere between those two. I would gravitate more toward delaying change. However, sometimes you can sense that this is the moment. It’s something that really does need to be done, there’s really some consensus for it. Why don’t we do that? Or at least give some benign neglect to something and see what happens. But here’s the problem with making changes too soon: When a new pastor goes in, they have what I call, prevenient credibility. That is, they have some basic credibility just by their office. And it may be high or it may be low, based on their last experience with pastors. But it’s enough that they get keys to the church, that they can conduct the first worship service. There is some credibility. But that’s not leading credibility. Leading credibility is what you earn on your own. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. And in every interaction, you’re either adding to or taking away from that leading credibility. So often, what pastors will do is they will operate out of that store of prevenient credibility. And out of that, they will change the order of worship, change the bulletin, change the newsletter. Perhaps rearrange the furniture in the chancel. And then, about six months in, they will have discovered what the big challenge is. Yet, they’ve used up all their credibility just rearranging the furniture — that is, making things more comfortable for them. And then, they have nothing left. Whereas, if they had used those early months to build up their leading credibility by saying “Tell me your story.” “Tell me when you became part of this church, what do you see the greatest opportunities for this church?” Then they’re more in a position to say “thank you so much for indulging me in all of my questions and for spending so many hours with me. You’ve been so gracious and so open. Now, with your permission, I’d like to reflect back some of what I’ve been hearing, to make sure I’m hearing correctly. So, for instance, I get a sense that, with all of our strengths as a church, we don’t have a lot of young folks.” And then they may go to something else. And people will start nodding their heads, and they have the opportunity, if this is not true, to tell you it’s not true. But it’s a way of opening that conversation. And it begins with the people, instead of beginning with the new leader saying “Here is my vision. Your role is to help God’s people take their next faithful step. And so you have to know God’s people, you have to know the context of this group before you can raise possibilities. And then it’s certainly appropriate to do that.

Ann Michel: So what are some other ways that a new leader can develop that credibility, earn that political capital that they’re going to need to make the changes that might eventually be called for?

Lovett Weems: Well, the building blocks of that foundation of trust, of credibility, begin with relationships. Remember, every email, every phone call, every personal encounter, every committee meeting, every time there is a relationship, that’s either adding to, or taking away from the trust and credibility. Is this someone that cares about me? A second thing is, character. Do you do what you say and when you say you will do it? Are you saying the same thing to this committee that you’re saying to the other committee. Is there character? And then competence. That you are doing what people feel like they have a right to expect. So come Sunday morning, you’re prepared and people can sense that. When you go to a meeting, you understand the purpose of that meeting. You are conferring with leaders who have specific roles within the church. You’re helping the address their major challenges. So those three things flow into building up this credibility. And so, what happens is, it’s like someone having a credit card with a very low credit limit. They can use that card, but they have to be very careful. Whereas someone else may have the same credit card but they have a high line of credit. They have a lot more flexibility. So it is a leader who has not developed this high credibility, they will make a suggestion, and the response will be “I think we’ll table it.” Whereas someone else who has built up high credibility will make the same suggestion and people say “well, let’s give it a try.” And that looks unfair. Well, what’s different is what you can’t see. For one, there’s low credibility. For the other, there’s high credibility. So when you’ve not built up your credibility, it’s like carrying a heavy weight all the time. Whereas if you have high credibility, it’s like a nice breeze at your back.

Ann Michel: In all that I’ve read of your work in this area of pastoral transition, I think one of the big, broad brush takeaways is the need to be intentional and really plan carefully for a transition that’s going to, really, occur over an extended period of time. And so, I wondered if you could just speak to that element of planning? How might a pastor who knows that they’re going to be making a transition in a couple of months map out the things that they need to be thinking about?

Lovett Weems: One thing we know is that, pastors don’t spend a great deal of time doing the planning you’re talking about. It’s more something to endure, or something to go through. They may have done it a number of times before. It’s not that they set out not to do some best practices, it’s that they’re just not paying that much attention to it. So, if you think of each of those stages, say “what is it that’s most important that I accomplish in this particular stage? And how am I thinking about the other people that are involved? Not just myself. What about the leaders? What about the various constituencies? What about family? What about the community? With whom should I be communicating? Who should I talk with personally? Who should I write personal notes? Who should I send a more formal communication to?” And then, having a plan for that first day, that first Sunday, that first week. The first six months. That will give some guidance because it’s easy to get a bit of disorientation. Now, my experience, as a pastor in moving, is that, in those early days, the phrase “stranger in a foreign land” always fit well. I used to think that that would be the best time to be a pastor, in those early months because you’re new. But it’s not. Because you have left the place where they know your strengths, they’ve forgiven your weaknesses, and it may not have been as much of a place, but at least you were somebody there. And now you’re in a new setting where they don’t know how wonderful you are. And it really can feel awkward. So if you don’t have a plan, you can really get into a, looking back in a way that’s not helpful. William Bridges makes the distinction between change and transition. Change is an external event. Today you’re single, tomorrow you’re married. Today you’re pastor of this church, tomorrow you’re pastor of that church. Transitions begin long before and continue long after. So the transition from one church to another, both for you and for those congregations, that’s not a one day thing. If you go on over a period of months, perhaps even years, so being attuned to that and being sensitive that there are lots of people going through this transition can really be helpful.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I think that last way is so important, right. It’s so easy to think of this as a personal career change and not realize the impact on so many other people. And so your emphasis on relationship has been so, so helpful. I thought we might end with this: if you had one word of advice for somebody who is leaving one ministry setting and beginning in another one, what would it be?

Lovett Weems: I would say, always be positive. In leaving, be positive. There may have been rough patches, but be positive. “It’s been an honor to have been your pastor, I’ve had opportunities here. You have been gracious, you’ve cared for my children.” Whatever positive you can say. And “I wish you well.” And then, be very positive going into the new setting. People may complain about their former pastor, don’t jump into that. You may see a lot of problems, a lot of things that haven’t been done correctly, don’t focus on that. Focus on how proud you are to be the pastor and how much you’re looking forward to getting to know each of them. They do know that every church has challenges but what you’ve been struck by are the great strengths. Tell that story, be positive. Assume the best until people prove you otherwise. That will bring out the best. Don’t make it about you, keep focusing on the congregation. It’s not about you, it’s about the people God has given you. Leadership is always about a group and in this case it’s about helping God’s people take their next faithful step.

Ann Michel: Well, that’s good leadership advice in any situation, for somebody who’s new, or somebody who’s been at it for a very long time. So I want to thank you for sharing that, Lovett. I know that you have helped so, so many pastors get off to a right start. And so, I hope that our listeners will also take this wonderful wisdom that you have to offer. So thanks so much for talking with us today.

Lovett Weems: Thank you.

Announcer: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by The Right Start. If you’re a pastor preparing to begin ministry in a new setting, this Lewis Center Video Tool Kit will show you how to end your current ministry well, develop a personal transition plan, and make the most of your first days, weeks, and months in your new congregation. The Right Start is available in Pastor’s and Group Training Versions at churchleadership.com/shop.

On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with Rev. Matt Miofsky, the founding and lead pastor of The Gathering in St. Louis, about his co-authored book 8 Virtues of Rapidly Growing Churches.

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.