Churches, like all organizations, inevitably face moments where they need to bring in new leaders. That transition period is critical and tough. There are a multitude of factors and moving pieces that play a role in how well that transition goes. The hand off of responsibilities, authority, and leadership can be challenging, even when done well.
In churches, there are two stereotypical extremes of leadership transition that are talked about most, and they create a spectrum that all transitions fall on – ‘Sink or Swim’ or ‘False Handoff’.
On one extreme, you have leaders who are thrown into leadership with little to no training or preparation. Now, maybe it’s because the outgoing leader had no formal hand off, and so they don’t know how to hand it off themselves. Maybe the church just assumes ‘people can figure it out well enough’. Or maybe the leadership is so desperate to get out of there that they leave the proverbial door swinging as they leave. So when the new leader arrives on the scene, they have no idea what to do, and no one to help them figure it out.
This is kind of like throwing a kid in the deep end of the pool and letting them figure out how to swim. It might work. Or they might drown.
In reality, the leader will do one of two things: 1) Quit or 2) ‘Swim ugly’. People who are thrown in without guidance feel set up for failure, a feeling no one likes. So they will often just quit or check out as early as they can. The ones who decide to stick it out though learn to swim. But it’s not a good stroke. It’s just treading water. They have learned how to keep their head above water, but nothing else. They, as leaders, are much less likely to thrive and be their best because they’re just trying to survive.
On the other end of the extreme is the false handoff.This is when the leader never really lets go of the steering wheel. Sure, someone has the official title of ‘Worship Team Leader’ but they never get to make a decision. Either one person (former team leader, pillar of the church, etc.) or a group of people subvert their authority by never really letting go of the handlebars or steering wheel.
The leader wants to make a change to the worship space/mission projects/budget/etc, but can’t because someone(s) won’t let them. They need committee approval to throw out twenty year old books. Or they want to try to quickly make some changes to streamline a process or meet a need, but can’t go any faster because “someone might get upset” or “need committee approval and we don’t meet until next month”.
A leader who doesn’t make decisions or set the pace isn’t a leader. They’re a figurehead.
Every transition falls somewhere on this spectrum. Somewhere between being hamstrung to thrown into the deep end. Here are some things that I think help with a transition.
Have a clear plan – I remember learning how to ride a bicycle and drive a car. My dad talked me through the basics of both, then physically demonstrated both to me, before I ever got on the seat of a bike or behind the wheel. Then we went to a safe area for me to practice. Finally, I was given the authority to try it out on my own.
Every transition needs to happen in steps. There needs to be a period where each leader is given authority incrementally, until they finally have it all. And the outgoing leader or committee need to have a plan for being a part of that.
Have clear expectations – Kind of touched on in the last point, but worth mentioning. If you as an organization don’t clearly state your expectations for your leaders, you set them up to fail.
Let them fail – There comes a point when pillars of the church or old leaders will see the potential mistake/disaster brewing. You know it. The team knows it. The congregation knows it. Only the leader doesn’t see it. And like a parent trying to help their child succeed, you step in and rewrite their english paper or finish their project for them.
Ask the leader for permission to give them guidance. Say “Can I make a suggestion?” If they say yes, then give them your advice. If not, then be quiet. It’s tempting to rush in and save the day, and it undercuts the leaders growth and maturation. Some of my biggest leadership lessons weren’t learned from successes; they were learned from my failures.
There you go. Three thoughts on having a good transition into leadership.
I love y’all, and there’s nothing you can do about it.