David Bowie probably hasn’t pondered the United Methodist Church‘s iteneration procedures. Oddly, this phrase from his song, “Changes,” pertains in a very relevent way. And it echoes the scriptural story in which Elijah hands off the ministry to Elisha with advice, admonition, and even a parting of the waters to make a way forward.
We should do more to part some of the murky waters in our United Methodist transitions. But we don’t.
I’ve always been taught that transitions from one church to another should be shrouded in mystery. The current and departing pastor should only provide the successor with keys, charge conference forms, and an admonition to “love them and they’ll love you.”
I decided that was not going to cut it anymore. Too often, we’ve allowed the “hands off” approach that is required in some departures to color the routine transitions.
So when I learned a few months ago that I was projected to leave Liberty and Post Oak, I determined that I was going to do all I could to describe the situation without naming names or describing people. I began the preparations for the new pastor, subject to confidentiality and District Superintendent approval. I did this for several reasons, the first of which I’ve already described.
The second reason was that I had only been serving Liberty and Post Oak a short time. The folks hadn’t seen me goof up too often, and my family is pretty darned great. They weren’t happy about the announcement. Add to that the fact that I was the third pastor in two years, and you have a nearly perfect storm. There was no reason to allow anyone to walk into that maelstrom of emotions without pouring a little oil on the waters.
So as soon as I learned his name, I contacted Jeff Rudy and offered myself as a resource. We had a brief email exchange in which he apologized for doing anything that was out of bounds since this was all new to him. I responded with a quick note to say that we were WAY outside of the norms, and that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jeff took the opportunity on, and immediately began to ask questions. Not just good questions, but great questions. We arranged meetings with the people of the church, above and beyond the normal SPRC introductions. The Rudy family even had a chance to check out the parsonage before we were completely packed. We took measurements, made pictures, opened dialogues, and created a sense of openness that allowed everyone to fully prepare for the transition.
One key element came in the form of social media. I encouraged Jeff to connect with the people before his arrival, and vice versa. Jeff got to know several of the folks at Liberty and Post Oak via Facebook. He was able to follow my blogs and social media posts. We were able to talk theology, ecclesiology, church history AND the particular implications for the two churches he would soon serve.
We traded emails that were so long and so extensive, some of them required breaks for meals, both in the reading and the writing! We avoided conversations about individual personalities. We focused on the broader directions for the churches. I answered questions that no one answered for me as a first-time appointed pastor. Answers begat questions. Questions begat more answers.
On at least three ocassions, Jeff asked questions to which I didn’t have answers. In getting those answers for him, I became a better pastor. And our dialogue gave me a chance to hear some very astute insights from a well-trained, well-educated mind. I learned a lot from the man who would soon be taking over the responsibilities I held.
Most importantly, we prayed. I prayed for my successor and his family. He prayed for me and my family. And I insisted, at both churches, that we pray for him and his family by name every Sunday until his first Sunday.
Did that insure a seamless transition? Of course not. There were cable companies, utilities, and all that other nightmarish mess to deal with. (We actually had to have a form notarized so he could become the new owner of the VOIP telephony account).
Could Jeff have come in and figured all this out on his own? You bet. He’s one of our best and brightest already. But did this save him some time? Yes. Did it create an almost immediate sense of belonging that could have taken months to acheive? I think so.
My suggestion is this: Rather than leaving so many things to chance and happenstance, we should be spending more time preparing our churches and our colleagues for the transitions that are inevitable in the United Methodist Church. We have a method and a protocol for everything else in our denomination. This is one area where the Memphis Annual Conference could make some serious improvements. JFK once said, “A rising tide raises all boats.” Then bring on the waters of change. Let our leaders call for transparency in transition, within our ethical boundaries, and create a sense of openness and cooperation that will teach our congregations that change isn’t nearly as bad as we sometimes make it out to be.