Most new leaders hear the same phrase in some form: “This is the way we do it here.” Resistance to change is common, and it is deadly to new church leadership. Leadership transition is a critical point for the church and its new leader. Incoming leaders need a realistic perspective and practical ideas, whether their successor was long-term or interim, highly effective or dysfunctional, beloved or unpopular. The author writes from personal experience: He helped transform a small, dying congregation, and later transitioned into leadership at a nationally recognized, historic congregation. He draws from these experiences and biblical examples to focus on practical principles, empowering the new leader to build a solid foundation. The Next leader is calm, determined, and effective, no matter who came before.
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Surviving a Leadership Transition
By Marvin Anthony Moss
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Hi, My Name Is
Who We Are as Children of God and as Spiritual Beings; Less about Accolades and Accomplishments
"Good evening! This is your new pastor, and his name is Reverend Marvin Moss."
These were the words spoken by my district superintendent as he introduced me to the members of the Staff/Pastor-Parish Relations Committee of my first appointment on June 16, 1999. This nine-member committee represents the human resources arm of The United Methodist Church at the local level. I was thirty-six years old and excited to be assuming the position of senior pastor.
The introduction is an extremely significant part of a leadership transition. The only thing more important than the introduction itself is the person who is conducting it. The existing community is more apt to receive the idea of new leadership favorably if the person who is doing the introduction holds some position of accepted authority within the group. I say "accepted" because this means the person has developed enough social capital and earned the respect of the members on such a level that they trust his or her decision to introduce someone new. If the person who is introducing the new leader does not have a good rapport with the existing community, then this immediately positions the new leader in a negative light, despite the new leader possibly having a good track record of accolades and accomplishments. The person who is doing the introduction also needs to be someone who can represent the new leader well. How often have we witnessed the immediate dismissal of campaign managers and other high-level participants of a political party when they have done or said something that did not positively reflect the character of the individual who was running for a particular office?
All too often a new leader may believe that personal accolades and accomplishments, résumés, and report cards will ensure a smooth transition. Far from it. The introduction initiates the process for the new leader to demonstrate a level of emotional attachment when going into a new community. It is through this emotional attachment that possibilities will be opened for the existing members to feel, rather than read about, who the new leader is.
After the district superintendent's introduction, I quickly realized that just because he had introduced me as the new pastor and put the title reverend in front of my name, I was not automatically home free. I had some work to do on my personal introduction before the congregation embraced me as its trusted new leader. This congregation had a strong sense of family, and the members had prepared themselves to endure yet another leadership change. They all seemed to have the same question about me: "Who is this inexperienced unknown who's trying to become a part of our family?"
While it sounds a bit harsh, their wariness was actually quite normal. Every congregation goes through a range of emotions when there is a leadership change. Depending upon the level of the relationship between the membership and the previous leader, the incoming leader must first be prepared to focus more on getting a good read of the membership than on establishing a position of control and authority. Getting a good read refers to accurately assessing the different factors that come together to make up the existing membership or community. While a myriad of dynamics exist, some of the more weighty ones may include personality types, median age of the group, communal values, and level of emotional attachment to certain historical aspects of the church's existence. Many memberships are unable to embrace any type of change because of an entrenchment in the way things have always been done.
At my initial meeting with the aforementioned Staff/Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, I was greeted with blank stares. This meeting was conducted by a subset of individuals who spoke for the larger congregation. I knew the members had my bio and the district superintendent had given me a good introduction, but they didn't know me on a professional, personal, or pastoral level. I told them that, as part of our getting to know each other, I wanted to hear from each of them. I went around the room and listened to what they had to say. Doing this allowed me to hear what was important to them individually and let them know I was a person who would stop to listen to them. That initial meeting afforded me the opportunity to break the ice, calm the members' concerns, and begin to build a relationship. They were not really concerned with who I was; they were more concerned with what I was going to change and what they would have to give up.
Who Am I? Why Am I Here?
Beginning a new assignment is a daunting experience. Try stepping into the footsteps of a longtime leader, and you can easily be overcome with doubt. To truly be able to walk faithfully into the new position, you must remind yourself that God has called you into this leadership. You must let those you will lead know from the beginning that you are committed to creating a positive atmosphere and that you are also a listener. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Admiral James Stockdale, the running mate of candidate Ross Perot, appeared in the televised vice-presidential debate. He shocked the audience and later became the focus of comedic commentary and historical political humor when he began his opening remarks with the questions: "Who am I? Why am I here?" For many transitional leaders, this question, while initially amusing, is one that needs to be examined.
Who am I, and why am I here? Not only is it important for the congregation to know who you are, but it must also understand clearly why you are there. The who and why must parallel each other to the degree that the authenticity of your person is exhibited through your motive. For instance, the person who is motivated simply by position, power, prestige, or money will not exhibit the level of compassion, integrity, and genuine concern that needs to be in evidence to create a cohesive community. When the disciples were called into action, they had to leave their main source of income: "They immediately left their nets and followed Him." (Mark 1:18 NKJV). This particular passage of scripture helps us understand that leadership should emanate from a sincere desire to serve humanity rather than solely from the pursuit of dollars and cents.
In Exodus 3:11 Moses asks God the question, "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" In Exodus 3:13 Moses asks another question: "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" God responds to Moses in the next verse, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'" This scripture passage helps us understand that, with regard to transitional leadership, who we are as people of God is more important than who we are because of accolades and accomplishments. The understanding of whose we are as part of the kingdom of God and as children of God serves to keep us in a place of humility when, as the apostle Paul puts it, we begin to think better of ourselves than we should (Rom. 12:3).
While a level of pride is associated with each individual's personhood, it must be healthy pride in that we are always striving for excellence versus perfection. Excellence always pushes us to do the very best that we can but not at any cost. Perfection, on the other hand, causes us to be more concerned with our name as an individual than with a good name for the community.
I can remember as a child growing up, every time I would leave the house my mother would say to me, "Remember you are a Moss." My father was in the Army, which meant that at each new duty station we lived on post. This meant that if anyone in the Moss family acted in a manner that violated any of the rules or regulations of the community, my father would be the one held responsible for our actions. This meant that the commanding officer would send for him and not necessarily for the one in the family who had committed the infraction. If we did not keep the grass cut, the yard maintained, the trash cleaned up from the yard, and our quarters, or home, in good condition, we would be subject to expulsion from the community. Therefore, the Moss name carried weight.
Becoming the Servant Leader
When addressing a community as a new leader, it is imperative that the members receive you as a person whom God has named, or appointed, as the leader. Such a reception means that the existing community feels your passion and compassion for them and for their values. In some instances, this aspect of the transition is greatly enhanced when the outgoing leader participates in and supports the transition by handing off the baton, or affirming the incoming leader, in front of the community. This is a welcomed gesture, especially if the outgoing leader has had a long tenure with the existing membership and there is a great deal of respect and admiration for that person. One of the key learning points of the naming component of the transition process is that one's accolades and accomplishments are not as significant as one's ability to demonstrate a genuine sense of care and concern for the existing community. Whatever is done must be done in an authentic manner. The new leader must ooze sincerity. Some of the things that leader can do to express concern may include, but not be limited to, hospital visitations, letters of condolence sent to bereaved families if he or she is unable to attend a service, and phone calls to follow up with a family several weeks after a hospitalization or funeral service. I have been extremely blessed when I have taken ten or fifteen minutes out of a hectic day to make a hospital visitation to meet with a family who does not know whether or not their loved one will recover.
One such visit yielded a much different result than I had anticipated. Each day the front office sends a hospitalization census to all of the pastors so that we can keep up with the status of our sick and shut-in members. My administrative assistant had already planned my day to begin with a breakfast meeting, followed by several other meetings on the very same day. Even though I have clergy staff assigned to make routine visitations, I felt God tugging at me to cut my breakfast meeting short and make a visitation to pray with a family whose loved one was not doing well. As I entered the room, I was prepared to "be in charge" and "be the pastor." What happened actually blessed me for the rest of my day. Contrary to what I had expected to find, family members were already gathered around the bed, praying and singing hymns. When I walked in, the wife of the member who was ill exclaimed, "Pastor! We're glad you could come by. We didn't expect you because we know how busy you are." It was at that moment that I felt a piercing in my heart. You see, because while they knew my name, Marvin Anthony Moss, and they knew my position, senior pastor, I had not done a good job of helping them know my heart. They did not know that my greatest joy comes from being with God's people and walking with them through challenging times and celebrating with them during times of joy. The fact that this family thought my busy schedule was more important than being with them taught me a very valuable lesson. The people must know whose you are before they know who you are.
Situations like this hospital scenario serve to keep a person grounded and truly focused on the foundational element of being a great leader. That is, expressing genuine concern for the people you are leading and sincere passion for serving them. It is through this servant leadership model that people will begin to know not only who you are but also whose you are. Careful attention, however, must be given to the fact that not everyone will be able to receive this kind of personalized attention. Depending upon the number of individuals for whom you have responsibility, you may need to be creative with adding that personal touch. This means handwritten notes may not necessarily be written by your hand, but their message should still be given by you, and you should be diligent in trying to sign them all. Again, the intent is to express sincere care and concern, which in turn will allow the people in your church to embrace your heart.
Less about Accolades and Accomplishments
Some people feel more comfortable when they know that their leader has some level of demonstrated ability. In this instance, accomplishments, accolades, and academic achievement do play a role in establishing a platform from which you can operate. But others are put off by leaders who make much of their past successes. Therefore, a delicate balance must be established in which individuals are aware of your status but not intimidated by it. With the passage of time, they will become even more aware of your intellectual skill set.
While the natural inclination is to position yourself to intentionally advertise who you are, I would caution against leading with this technique. It has been my experience that in this highly technological age, before you have even reached your assignment, someone has already Googled you and is keenly aware of what you are bringing to the table. Therefore, I would strongly suggest you lead with your heart first, in case they have Googled the wrong person, someone who happens to have the same name as you. On a more serious note, just be comfortable with not giving in to pressure to prove who you are and instead show them who you are. As The Consolers sing, "May the work I've done speak for me."
You should place more focus on operating in such a manner that the respect and admiration you receive are earned rather than demanded. I had one of my mentors tell me that if you have to tell the people you are the pastor, then you are not the pastor. Similarly, one of my seminary professors, the late Bishop L. Scott Allen, reminded our entire class that, while the bishop may appoint you to a church to serve as its pastor, it is the people who make you the pastor. This statement exemplifies the point I referenced earlier regarding leading with your heart and not your accomplishments. As I started settling down in my first appointment, I realized that people clearly understood that the bishop had appointed me, that I had graduated from Gammon Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree, that I had graduated from Hampton University with a Bachelor of Science degree in business management, and that I had graduated from the Navy Reserve Chaplain Officers Training School. While the congregation was aware of my accolades and accomplishments, the expectation was that I would roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty, just as the members did when it came to taking care of God's house called St. James United Methodist Church.
When I arrived at St. James, I found the members joined together as a family to take care of the needs of the church. For example, facility maintenance, which included janitorial duties, administrative duties, and landscaping, were all taken care of by a few of the members. These were the members who had been at the church for quite some time and were descendants of the people who had built the church. Basically, when the going got rough, they were the tough ones who stuck it out to ensure the church survived. So to them, accomplishments and accolades were not important. The important questions they had for me were, "Do you love my Jesus?" and "Do you love my church?" Having fully embraced the culture that existed there and sincerely desiring to be a part of the family, I took the initiative to get things done. The day after my first Sunday preaching, I went to the church early in the morning to help with cleaning up from the day before. I was the first to arrive and took advantage of the opportunity to start working. This demonstrated that I desired to be a part of their level of commitment to the church and to the people whom I had been called to serve. I chose cleaning the restrooms as my first task. As I was wrapping up, a couple of the members who came regularly to clean showed up and expressed their surprise at seeing me there, moreover at seeing me cleaning the restrooms. One of them exclaimed, "Pastor, you do toilets?" To which I replied with a smile, "It's easier now than it was when I was a child. At least now I don't have to use a toothbrush to do it." That gave us all a good laugh. I then told them how blessed I felt to be a part of the family.
After I had put away the cleaning materials and taken out the garbage, I returned to my office and began checking my voice mail messages. Somewhere around the third message, I thought, "What a nice gesture it would be to go and buy lunch for those members who are here cleaning." But when I asked what I could get them, they replied, "Oh, no, we're going home for lunch. Would you like to come with us?" My initial reaction was to run down a mental list of all the things I had to get done that would prevent me from going. Then I realized that it would be a better use of my time to go and eat lunch and fellowship with them in an informal setting. I must admit that while at lunch, I had to struggle to let down my guard so I would be in a more relaxed state of mind and better able to get to know who they were and not worry about what they might be up to.
Excerpted from Next by Marvin Anthony Moss. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Former UN Ambassador Andrew Young,
1 – Hi, My Name Is,
2 – From Moses to Joshua,
3 – Excuse Me, Where's the Bathroom?,
4 – Are We Related?,
5 – Are We There Yet?,
6 – I Need You, You Need Me,
7 – I'm in a Different Place,
8 – Spies in the Camp,
9 – Celebrating Small Victories,
10 – We've Come This Far by Faith,
About the Author,