Minister Transitions as a Source of Church Conflict: A Short Guide to Conflict Prevention
Darrell Puls, Professor Emeritus, Pacific Northwest Christian College
Though not often recognized as such, one of the most challenging times in the life of a church is the period between the announcement that the current pastor is leaving and the completion of the first year the new pastor is on scene. This passage is an indeterminate time of uncertainty and changes as the congregation transitions from old to new and continues for several months after the new pastor is brought in. It produces emotional discomfort, and that discomfort has the potential to grow into major conflict within the church. Few church leaders understand the nuances of these transitions, and fewer still know how to shape the process to minimize conflict. This article explains the stages of transition and offers a coherent model of practical steps to create a straighter pathway through it. The author offers insights from group dynamics, conflict management, systems theory, and examples from his experience.
Keywords: transitions, church conflict, change interventions, pastor transitions
Change, whether welcomed or resisted, is inevitable. The effects of change range on a sliding scale from minimal to catastrophic. In faith communities, transitioning from one pastor to another is often an extended time of discomfort that can lead to trauma and conflict. When any church loses its minister, no matter the reason, and seeks a replacement, the church enters a transition process, which is often longer, more complicated, and more challenging than anticipated.
Transitions include the time and process of changing ministers, from the announcement of the coming vacancy through the first several months or even years after the new minister is on the scene. Transitions tend to be a time of unease for the congregation, and sudden transitions due to the forced exit of the minister often lead to organizational chaos (Dogru 2015). The conflict-generating power of transitions may be the least addressed and the least understood problem in the faith community conflict management literature.
Change equals loss and triggers grief: “Grief is an emotionally painful response to loss. The more significant the loss, the more intensely grief is experienced. Losses that result in grief include death, divorce, diminishing health, job layoff, relocations, and dissolved relationships, among others” (Counseling and Psychological Services, Weber State University 2020; see also Bruce and Schultz 2001). The longer the minister has been in place and the better he or she is liked, the more intense and challenging the transitional process will be. Those attempting to lead the transition rarely understand the emotional dynamics of the process. They find it uncomfortable and, responding to that discomfort, may try to hurry through it as quickly as possible, leaving two options: 1) integration through assimilation or 2) disintegration into depression which can develop into a crisis. (Romadona and Setiawan 2021, 158). By not attending to the process, grieving is truncated, which may result in maladaptive coping, triggering conflict (Bateman et al. 1992).
The normal transition period, in my estimation, is about one to two years, although it can be much longer. Without thorough planning and careful preparation, transitions easily become a time of organizational drifting with the currents with a concomitant loss of purpose and direction (Dudley and Ammermand 2002).
According to PastoralTransitions.com, “When a Pastor is moving on for whatever reason, there is potential for taking sides and division.” Likewise, “With growing conviction, we believe that one of the most profound moments in the life of a church happens when a pastor leaves. During this time, a church can embrace transition as a transformative experience rather than allow it to be destructive” (Office of Formation and Leadership Development, Metropolitan Community Churches, NP). Understanding and guiding transitions call for an integrated approach that covers the entire church’s social system from bottom to top. Fortunately, a few pioneers have blazed a trail. Organizational development specialist William Bridges sought to understand how people experience change and what they need to get through it, whether the change is personal or organizational. Bridges was among the first to demonstrate that while change is situational, a transition is psychological. Failing to provide intentional psychological support throughout the process increases tensions and the probability of conflict (Dumond 2014). Bridges segmented the transition process into three major stages: 1) an ending, 2) an indeterminate period of confusion and distress he termed the Neutral Zone, and 3) completing the cycle with a new beginning (Bridges 1998, 2017).
General Tasks during Transitions
Once the coming change is announced, background conversations are a constant source of rumors and speculation, but they can be disarmed. There are seven tasks to calm the background conversations and start new ones: 1) name their fears and discomfort, 2) accept that time-honored rituals will change, 3) acknowledge their losses, 4) expect and accept grieving, 5) mark the endings, 6) expect overreaction, and 7) ensure the continuation of the important (Puls 2018, 21–23).
Being able to name their fears and discomfort in a protected environment normalizes both and reduces their power. By openly stating their uncertainties and misgivings, the people find that these fears are shared, bringing them closer to a common area where uncertainty is accepted and normal. By bringing grief into the open, those grieving can “embrace the journey and take time for themselves to truly process and heal. If they don’t, months, and even years down the road, consequences will be felt physically, emotionally, and spiritually” (O’Brien 2019, NP).
GROUP DYNAMICS AND RESISTANCE
Transitions produce significant cultural changes within the congregation (Cameron and Quinn 2011). Naming what is being lost brings potential resistance points into the open. If we are grieving, it is because we have lost something important to us. Perhaps the foremost source of grief during a transition is the loss of relationships. “The loss of a loved one causes the world and the place of the bereaved survivor in it to change irreversibly” (Smid 2020, 1). Some members will pull up stakes and leave at the outset, others will leave when the pastor leaves (Schoonhoven 2019), some during the neutral zone, and others in the first few months with the new minister. People who have been together for years and have formed strong bonds fear the loss of these important relationships. If the exiting minister has been there for any length, he or she will have formed relationships within the congregation that will be severed. This is true even in those cases where the minister is forced out. “A forced pastoral exit is a process by which a congregation, a personnel committee, or individual leader within a church terminates or forces the resignation of a minister from a position of ministry” (LaRue 1996, NP). No matter how many negatives a person may have, there are also positives that people have grounded their relationships upon. For some, the leaving will be particularly traumatic, as the minister was their genuine confidant with whom they entrusted their deepest secrets and received support and understanding. If there has been open conflict, multiple relationships have already been damaged, and a significant portion of the congregation may be already gone.
Talking about what the transition means to them individually at various points in the process produces more personal and honest answers. What is ending, and who is losing what? There may be a generalized sense of loss and foreboding that can be dispelled through these simple questions and question-triggered conversations, such as, “What is over for everyone?” Empowering a large generalized group in place of a small group of leaders assumes that the people “possess great talent and creativity that is untapped. They propose to create a new relationship with them for everyone’s benefit” (Bunker and Alban 1997, 7). This will give a greater sense of corporate loss and create a tighter focus on what is not changing.
In this context,
. . . resistance results from the failure to allay the fears expressed in background conversations, exhibited by unspoken questions that must be addressed simultaneously: Where do I fit in? Will there be room for me? Will I still have a role? What will change? What if we don’t get along? These anxieties inevitably cause resistance and even active pushback until satisfactorily answered. Further, “resistance is a reality constructed in, by, and through conversations. This locates resistance in conversational patterns (e.g., orders of discourse) rather than ‘in the individual.’ Further, resistance is a function of the extent of agreement (conversational support) that exists for it. In constructed realities, the more conversations that support, are attached to, or in some other way are associated with a particular conversation, the more ‘pull’ there is to keeping that conversation in place and the more apparent support there is for that conversation” (Ford, Ford, and McNamara 2002, 109–10).
Grief and Ritual
Perhaps the most important task at the beginning stage is to properly and respectfully unload or let go of the past; that is, to identify, acknowledge, mourn, and release what is being lost. Unfortunately, it seems that very few communities mourn these losses intentionally; instead, they tend to “move forward” by whitewashing the blemishes of the past in hopes that the overall communal narrative will survive intact. Expressed grief honors the past and allows it to leave. Grief marks an ending, which allows the congregation to pivot towards new beginnings that do not compete for space with the old. This is why funerals and memorial services are so important—they are clear demarcation points where the past is honored and the future accepted.
Organizational core values and mission statements can provide a basis for objective fixation of meaning, leading to a shared understanding and acceptance, which then provides a foundation to move forward (Nascimento 2022, 609). Members should be given several opportunities to come together and express what is being lost face-to-face. This is part of the grieving process and tends to depressurize strong emotions (Goffman 1955). Intentional silence and meditation are also parts of grief recovery. “Therapeutic silence in traumatic grief and loss thus takes the theological task of wholeness very seriously.” (Capretto 2016, 356).
Talking about what is happening should be encouraged. During the early stages of change, the flow of conversation tends to be polite, shallow, and non-reflective monologues (Scharmer 2009). Be aware that one of its primary features is attaching negative reasons to the need for change, e.g., the old ways were bad, but the new ways are good. This is part of overcoming resistance to change brought on by the uncertainty principle, which states that even the most secure people in the old organizational structure become increasingly insecure during change, commencing when a major transition is announced. As stated in The American Scholar,
Uncertainty can be a source of terror and anguish. It keeps us up at night. But it is also a generative force and an invitation for deeper exploration. It forces us to earn our certainties, rather than buying them cheaply and wholesale. Indeed, a dynamic, honest search for truth requires us to regard uncertainty as an enduring companion rather than an enemy to be fled or vanquished. To wrestle with it, we must embrace it (March 2, 2020. https://theamericanscholar.org/the-uncertainty-principle/).
Rituals mark endings and new beginnings. “Because rituals promise continuity, order, and predictability, they are important in times of change and transition” (Briller and Sankar 2011, 208). Bridges noted that Western culture offers few rituals to mark safe passage through these stages, leaving the people drifting with unfinished business on an unfamiliar sea where the shortest course to the desired landfall is enticing but littered with reefs of confusion and decline. We want to speed up but need to slow down instead.
Bridges’ work was expanded by C. Otto Scharmer, who charted the flow of dialogue, emotional dynamics, and the tasks of the transitional process, also placing them into three layers: 1) The Flow of Dialogue During Transitions, 2) The Transition Process, and 3) The Tasks of the Transition Process (Scharmer 2009, 246–248). Each layer contains several tasks corresponding to Bridges’ three transition levels.
Address the ending through planning and preparation
Create a realistic leadership succession plan well before it is needed. A succession plan details how the vacancy will be announced, the replacement qualifications required and desired (there are legal differences) in the potential candidates, the process for selection, and a reasonable timeline for completion.
A continuation plan for interim services is also necessary. A well-written continuation plan details who will take on the various roles and responsibilities of the pastor during the interim. Who will call on the sick and dying? Who will perform weddings and funerals? Who will teach or preach during worship services? Who will perform the sacraments? It must be emphasized that normal community functions will continue. The Continuation Plan provides assurance that these important functions will move forward in the interim. “Business as usual” brings about a sense of normalcy and stability. The vacant position may be posted as a temporary position to be filled by a retired pastor, or the responsibilities may be divided among several people. The key to success is assuring the congregation that the functions of the church will continue throughout the process.
As stated above in The American Scholar, questions must be addressed are among the most basic: Where will I fit in? Will there be room for me? Will I still have a role? What am I losing? Will my friends still be here? What will it be like working for the new pastor? What if we don’t get along? These anxieties inevitably cause resistance and even active pushback until resolved. “Change, even if we see it as positive, disrupts the connections that exist” (Gorman 2019, NP).
Navigate the Neutral Zone
The Neutral Zone is the indeterminate crossing point between two clear borders, where false security is found in routine (Buchanan 2001). Bridges writes, “The Neutral Zone is like the wilderness through which Moses led his people” (Bridges 1999, 37). He goes on to say that the purpose was not so much to get the people out of Egypt but to get Egypt out of the people. It took 40 years. The Neutral Zone is the time between the ending (pastor leaving) and the new beginning (new pastor arrives). It is a period of uncertainty and discomfort. We want to speed everything up, but Bridges strongly urged organizations to slow down and not hurry through it, no matter the discomfort. It is helping them birth something new, and, as someone once said, it takes nine months to make a baby, no matter how many people you put on the job.
Routine matters take on greater worth during transitions as they provide continuity, a connection with the old and the not-yet, and routine soothes and assists in coping with the neutral zone. There is a certain dull safety in routines that requires little of us. The Neutral Zone is neither life nor death but a gray place somewhere in between, much like the ancient Hebrew Sheol and Greek Hades.
Four Tasks of the Neutral Zone:
- Collective grieving
- Sensing a new calling;
- Redefining their mission and core values; and
- Creating a culture of transparency.
Congregations in transition may find themselves in this undefined borderland, alone and separated, unable to cross over the chasm to the new land. “Ambiguity increases, and so does the longing for answers” (Bridges 1999, 37; Buchanan 2001). Ambiguity can exacerbate unease, allowing anger to emerge. Known as Organizational Politics, it is “individual or group behavior that is informal, ostensibly parochial, typically divisive, and above all, in a technical sense, illegitimate –– sanctioned neither by formal authority, accepted ideology, nor certified expertise” (Mintzberg 1983, 172). However, if the church has brought in a knowledgeable guide who prepares them for it, and they know that the important functions of the community are continuing, their borderland experience can be accepted as a normal, though difficult, part of transitioning.
Guiding them through the Neutral Zone takes patience, understanding, and honest dialogue. The tension of politeness that marked the outset is here replaced by more straightforward, even accusatory, conversations (Glasl 1998). This is where facilitation skills become particularly useful in keeping the flow going in the right direction while creating a safe space that allows people to express themselves honestly. Normalizing their uncertainty and the resulting tension is one way to make it acceptable.
During transitions, it is natural to want to project a positive sense of welcoming something new rather than acknowledging what is being lost, so open mourning is tacitly discouraged. The failure to mourn ignores a crucial part of the human psyche: one must say goodbye to the past before accepting the future. Endings can be marked through contemplation, discussion, prayer, and ritual. Normalizing this unrecognized grieving process for what it is and seeking a ritual to release them from its grip allows for resolution. It lets the past rest in peace while opening the portal to a new future. When this is done is not as important as that it is done with intent.
Creating group trust requires transparency, particularly where there have been secrets. It seems that many faith communities proclaim transparency. Still, the salary and benefits for the minister(s) are closely held secrets, board meetings and agendas are not announced or are closed to the members, a small group appoints board members without affirmation (or election) by the congregation, and the budget is a secret—or there is no budget at all. Declaring what transparency means allows it to be defined on the communal level.
God is calling them away from the old and towards something new. Leaving behind the old means loss, and loss imposes grief.
Grief and Ritual
All losses are subjective, so one must accept their reality and importance (Gard 2020). Don’t argue with what participants reveal, as it will stop the conversation. We must accept that we are biased even in our “neutrality.” Bridges writes, “Loss is a subjective experience, and your ‘objective view’ (which is just another subjective view) is irrelevant” (Bridges 1991, 22). It does not matter if others perceive the losses as real or not, they are real to the persons expressing them, and naming them brings them into the open for all to examine. In most cases, there will be nods of agreement on hearing it named. Once it is named, it is no longer without shape, form, or substance; naming it makes it real (Rako 2018). Once it is named, it can be claimed as their own, and bringing it into the group also brings it into the circle of corporate grief. But some may lag in deeper grief—complicated grief—and cannot imagine a new future until their grief is resolved (Lincoln 2013). Although it can be argued that everyone will experience grief, complicated grief is a much deeper wound, is a diagnosable disorder, and may require individual therapy (Shear 2010, 10).
Being able to name their fears and discomfort in a protected, nonjudgmental environment normalizes both and reduces their power. By openly stating their uncertainties and misgivings, the people find that these fears are shared, bringing them closer to a common area where uncertainty is accepted. Once named, they can “embrace the journey and take time for themselves to truly process and heal. If they don’t, months, and even years down the road, consequences will be felt physically, emotionally, and spiritually” (O’Brien 2019, NP).
Rituals connect the past with the present and the present with the future and connect people with each other and God. Rituals give comfort and continuity (Briller and Sanker 2011). Understanding that some rituals are likely to change simply because of the personality and practices of a new minister allows them to institute incremental change with minimal resistance (Gino & Norton 2013). No matter what denomination, religion, faith community, or organization it is, even if the rituals stay the “same,” they will be different. They will never be the same as they were because the people conducting them are different. They will have different styles, voices, gestures, and tonalities. These will be unfamiliar, though the constancy of ritual will mollify the negative effects to some degree. Even though congregants may wish to return to the way things were, they cannot because everyone has changed.
Simple rituals seem to be the most effective for alleviating grief and restoring self-esteem and trust (Berinato 2020). For example, this writer performed several brief ceremonies for the mothers of aborted babies. Many of these women were wracked with guilt, leaving me with the delicate task of memorializing their repentance in the spirit of hope and forgiveness. I asked each woman to bring something to memorialize the child. They each told the group what it was, why it was significant, and named the child. Some struggled through their tears, but they knew they needed to do this. There was a short and gentle homily about forgiveness from God—and from their aborted children, who would someday meet them in heaven with joy. We then shared Holy Communion as the sacrament of forgiveness and reconciliation. It ended with a blessing. The process took about 30 minutes, but the women were different when they left. Many experienced an instance of catharsis. They stood straighter, laughed more easily, and made clear eye contact. Several contacted me later to say how the ceremony had helped them turn a pivotal corner from grief and guilt to light and life.
Coaching people into a deeper conversation is generally most productive when led by an outside facilitator with no stake in the outcome. “Practitioners operating from a dialogic mindset tend to encourage leaders to confront and push the system close to chaos while expanding and enriching the networks amongst stakeholders, rather than pursuing diagnostically induced planned change from a current to a desired future state. It is at the close to chaos boundary that self-organizing changes can emerge” (Bushe and Marshak 2015, 5).
There may be emotional outbursts that make little sense to the interventionist. What one may see as an overreaction isn’t an overreaction when the perspective changes to theirs. They are losing part of their world, while the interventionist is losing nothing. “Being reasonable is easier if one has little or nothing at stake” (Bridges 1991, 22). They don’t have to make sense to the interventionist to be real. Some will struggle with the changes and push back against them (Bridges 1998, 2017). Those who cannot accept the changes may leave.
Anxiety over what may happen tends to compound itself into two streams of fear: open and sub rosa. Getting people to talk about their private fears is not difficult if they feel safe. They often find that their fears are shared, normalizing them and taking away much of their power.
Successfully navigating these steps greatly eases change. Helping them accept what they are experiencing as normal and that they are on this journey together will greatly help in suspending the angry voice of judgment and redirecting the discouraging voice of cynical resistance toward positive engagement.
The Future Search
Church consultant Reggie McNeal writes, “We think we are headed toward the future. The truth is, the future is headed toward us. And it’s in a hurry” (2003, XIII). The transitional congregation is at a Y in the road and must choose which branch to follow. One way leads to a new direction, while the other surrenders direction by clinging to the “old ways.” What does the future look like? What could it be? This is a time of dreaming and finding their new place in God’s story. It requires something deeper than conversation. It requires dialogue. Isaacs (1999) defines dialogue as the art of thinking together. It is more of a nonjudgmental soul-to-soul connection that seeks a new future. The language moves from conversation to reflective dialogue, a deeper call and response between souls, much the same as “deep calls to deep” (Ps. 42:7, NIV). They are dreaming of the future, and now they can co-create it with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Rather than letting go of the past, the group dynamic shifts to “letting come.”
This is the best opportunity to capture a new direction to be memorialized in a new set of core values, and a new mission statement based on those values.
Invite everyone who wishes to participate in a full day “core values search.” Punctuated by prayer at appropriate intervals, they seek God’s vision for their future with the foundational question being, “What do we value as God’s people?” This will elicit multiple value statements. Once these are enunciated, cluster them together by uniting parallel or similar values until you have 6 to 8 statements that begin with “We value. . .” Values tend to be universal. Still, some will be more strongly supported than others. This allows the statements to be ranked.
Next is the “future search” that begins with the question, “What are we as a body being called to become?” And, “Where do we fit into God’s story?” These open-ended questions will elicit a series of general statements that lead to more specific inquiries such as, “What would that look like? What is the purpose?” And so on. The goal is to narrow the various points from general concepts to more concrete proposals.
This is also the best opportunity to streamline programs and reprioritize budgets. Churches tend to take on various “programs” over time, but not all are necessary. They may have been useful and productive, but now are more like a collection of barnacles that encumber the ship. It is likely that some are redundant and being done better by other churches. A discussion that identifies less-than-productive programs allows them to be jettisoned. As the Apostle Paul said, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us . . .” (Heb 12:1).
The voice of hope now permeates the air; the voices of fear, cynicism, and judgment are largely dissipated, and the background conversations begin to coincide. “A background conversation is an implicit, unspoken ‘backdrop’ or ‘background’ against which explicit, foreground conversations occur; it is both a context and a reality” (Ford, Ford, and McNamara 2008, 108). Their task becomes one of crystallizing their vision and intent into solid planning and preparation (Scharmer 2009). The tasks are in many respects easier as this is where the process-oriented people tend to step back, and the product-oriented people (git er done!) can take the forefront.
Observed from this angle, the Neutral Zone allows opportunities to emerge. Seemingly unresolvable polarities between opposite proposals may arise (Johnson 1996). Still, these tensions can be normalized as a natural phenomenon where the answer is neither yes/no, but yes/and; how do we do them both (Block 2003)?
THE NEW CALLING
This is perhaps their best opportunity to redefine who they are and who they feel called to become, and it normally will not occur until the new minister has been in place for at least a few months. This is taking stock, identifying, and assessing the effectiveness of existing practices in the current reality, and offloading ineffective practices (Scharmer 2009).
The next part is creative. In sensing their new calling and direction, it is useful to identify their core values, particularly if these have not been defined previously or were defined long ago. The people define the core values, which will define the community in creating a road map into an uncertain future. From the core values, they can create a short and simple mission statement that describes their new course and trajectory.
Creating a culture of transparency is more challenging than it sounds, but a healthy community requires it. This means that difficult decisions are made in the open, everyone knows how much the minister is paid and the benefits, personnel decisions are open as much as possible under various privacy laws, and so on (Coker 2016). There seems to be a natural tendency to close things off from the “lower echelons” over time, increasingly encouraging an atmosphere of separation and distrust, making transparency an ongoing commitment.
If all has gone well to this point, there is a time for reflection and spiritual fine-tuning between the neutral zone and the next segment, but it is difficult to define. It is Co-Becoming. The process involves ever-deepening dialogue to share fears, hopes, aspirations, and dreams of what can be (Isaacs 1999). It requires that they be fully present in all ways as it is largely a time of silence, dialogue, meditation, and prayer as they seek the heart of God rather than answers. Co-becoming poses a fundamental question: What questions lie at the heart of whom we are called to be? This existential examination has no clear or concise answers. As the question states, it seeks deeper questions of who they are as a community. If they are transitioning successfully, they will create a new community (Peck 1998, Block 2008).
Few groups will be willing to take on this task at this point. It may even seem ridiculous to some, but it will intrigue others who want to explore what this means fully. Those captivated by the possibilities can be encouraged to set aside time over several weeks or even months to work their way through the deeper questions.
THE NEW JOURNEY
Journeys into the unknown can be unsettling or exciting, the difference between them being planning, preparation, and attitude. They have accomplished much, but there is still a journey of discovery ahead.
The most interesting marvels I have seen when a faith community has reached this point are high levels of courage and entrepreneurship in prototyping new models of ministry. They keep what is good and jettison unproductive programs and practices with proper ceremony and respect. Much higher energy levels propel a new sense of freedom throughout the community. They embody the voice of freedom to be what God created them, and their community, to be.
This is not a panacea that cures all ills, meaning there will still be problems, but the goal is a better set of problems (McNeil 2009).
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