Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash
Three letters every leader must remember. DNF is a term primarily used in racing which stands for “did not finish.” The phrase indicates the result of a participant who does not finish a given race either because of “mechanical failure, injury, or involvement in an accident.”
It was the unfortunate result for the US Men’s 4 x 100 Relay team at the 2008 Olympics. Although our sprinters had the individual talent to compete with the best teams in the world, they did not manage to qualify to run the final heat. Why? There was no accident or injury– they simply dropped the baton. DNF.
Baton-passing is what makes the 4 x 100 relay so fun to watch. It’s also what makes it so difficult to perform. If a team plays it too safe, the exchange will take too long, and the overall time will be mediocre. However, in pursuit of the best time, teams can make hasty maneuvers resulting in the worst possible outcome: DNF.
Leadership transitions in the church are similar. There are key moments in the passing of the baton from one leader to the next that can either result in success or snafu. In our work with churches across the Province, we’ve discovered two common mistakes parishes and leaders make during the transition process.
First, leaders simply fail to realize this is a relay race! No matter how integral a pastor or rector may be to their local congregation, healthy organizations embrace and plan for the reality of transition at the top. In their remarkable book, Next: Pastoral Succession That Works, William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird proclaim, “Every pastor is an interim pastor.” Indeed, the average tenure of most pastors in the US is approximately four years, yet most churches simply don’t have a plan for replacing their senior leadership.
Just bringing up the topic can be perceived as negative. If the pastor broaches the subject, people may wonder, “Is he/she unhappy here?” Worse, they may ask, “Have they done something wrong?” If the people bring it up, the pastor may wonder, “Are they unhappy with my leadership, or do they maybe want to get rid of me?”
This negative view of succession planning reveals our struggle to see the reality of the race: This is a relay. Therefore, it is wise and loving to everyone involved to plan for transitions. One helpful way to change the tone of the conversation is to ask, “If our rector were called by the province or diocese to serve in some other role…,” or, “If something were to happen to our Rector (a family emergency, accident, illness, etc.), are we prepared to fill in the gap?”
When leaders fail to plan for the inevitable transition of their senior leadership, they will likely drop the baton and cause harm to their congregation.
The second most common mistake occurs when leaders don’t treat the transition process with care. The most critical moment in the relay race occurs when the baton is passed from one runner to the next. Similarly, the most critical leadership task of a church is to get the transition moments right.
The late William Bridges was the preeminent authority on change and transition. His research and coaching transformed the way people think about change. He famously said, “Unmanaged transition makes change unmanageable.” You see, there is a big difference between change and transition. A change is external while transitions are internal.
“Fr. Smith will be retiring next year” is a simple announcement of an upcoming change. As soon as it is announced, however, it introduces a major transition the parish will undergo in the months and years that follow. Change focuses on a specific outcome (finding a new rector in this instance), and transition deals with where people are (feeling a sense of loss, fear, hope, etc.). Change is easy; transitions are hard.
A biblical example is found in the book of Exodus. The Israelites went from being slaves in Egypt to a nomadic people in search of the Promised Land. Their official status changed: slave to free. The change in status also included a geographical change. They left Egypt and started a journey towards a new beginning, but these changes were only a small part of the story. As you’ve heard it said, it was easier to get the people of God out of Egypt than it was to get Egypt out of the people of God! The transition work— the internal side of things— always requires more effort and leadership.
Most leaders and congregations struggle to handle the transition process with care resulting in abrupt departures, failures in creating a strategic plan for the transition or in partnering well with the diocese, or hasty search processes. Baton-passing is a complex process that requires a lot of preparation and teamwork.
Leadership transitions can be challenging– especially when a team makes one of these two common mistakes; however, you don’t have to go it alone. As the old Home Depot slogan states, “You can do it, we can help.” The team at the AAC’s Anglican Revitalization Ministries is here to help. If you would benefit from having an external, third-party partner in this process, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We would be delighted to serve your diocese, parish, or leadership team as you navigate transition.
To schedule a brief 30-minute call, email The Rev. Brian Pape at firstname.lastname@example.org to get started on your journey through transition and into lasting change! You can also read more information on transition management at this recommended link here: wmbridges.com/resources/transition-management-articles/getting-them-through-wilderness
Brian serves as Senior Consultant for Anglican Revitalization Ministries. He previously served as a Rector for 8 of his 20 years of ministry experience. He knows the challenges of leading a church through revitalization and has a heart to walk alongside pastors and ministry leaders— helping them move from frustration to fruitfulness. In addition to leading churches through the revitalization process, Brian also possesses more than 10 years of coaching and leadership development experience in a corporate setting. His business experience includes facilitating strategic planning and team development training. He holds a variety of church consultant certifications and is also a Certified Trainer with Fierce, Inc.