A New Vision, A New Voice ~ The North Texas Conference
Changing Pastors? Smiling on the Outside, Churning on the Inside
Jim Ozier and Jim Griffith reveal the huge opportunity your church is missing by looking at transition all wrong.
By SHERON C. PATTERSON
It’s about that time of year, when many United Methodist churches say goodbye to outgoing pastors and welcome new ones.
On the surface, most congregations seem to take the change in stride, but underneath is anxiety for both members and clergy — a “we’ll get through this” mentality, as Dr. Jim Ozier, NTC director of New Church Development and Congregational Transformation, puts it. It’s particularly pronounced when a founding or long-time pastor is heading out the door.
Dr. Ozier and Jim Griffith, longtime coaches on church growth, have written The Changeover Zone: Successful Pastoral Transitions to guide clergy and congregations through the handoff. And they’ll be holding a free workshop May 3-4, 2016 for the NTC. Register at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We wrote this book after coaching/consulting with hundreds of churches, districts, and judicatories across the country,” Dr. Ozier said. “Honestly, our hearts break at the pain and grief that comes when there is a poor pastoral transition — when the leadership baton is dropped — no matter how old, big, or good the church may be.”
The idea is to move the attitude from stoicism to “we’re going to grow through this!” he said. It is, in fact, a prime time to impress first-time visitors so that “they walk away saying, ‘These are the kind of people I could hang out with,’ ” Dr. Ozier said.
The book draws heavily on a nationwide study of pastors who followed founders of successful churches into the pulpit. The Lewis Center for Leadership conducted the study, commissioned by the NTC, in 2010.
The authors recently asked Tom Clark, who does statistical analysis for the NTC in its Center for Connectional Resources, to look at average worship attendance for churches that had undergone a change of pastors over the past 4 years.
Cumulatively from 2012 to 2015, those churches that had a pastoral change experienced a decline in average worship attendance the year of the change by 2,336. That translates to an average decrease of 591 in annual conference worship attendance each year.
Data covering a two-year reporting period (the statistical year going into the changeover zone and the first statistical year of the new pastorate) shows the cumulative decline was 3,898 for an average decrease of 974 in annual conference average worship attendance each year.
The good news is that more annual conferences are helping churches pass the leadership baton. And not all churches experience a decrease; in many cases, the change can lead to growth.
Here are Dr. Ozier’s insights on churches facing a leadership change:
What is it like to coach churches going through pastoral change?
Most conferences arrange for us to first come and acquaint cabinet members on our process and how it can lead to a successful transition Then we work with the church and train them on techniques that can turn their changeover zone into a growth zone, even before their new pastor arrives. Most churches never think about how the saying of goodbye and hello can be leveraged into a time to impress first-time guests.
How long does the coaching last?
We coach the church and the departing pastor during the 100 days leading up to the change; then we coach the church and the incoming pastor for the first 100 days of the change to get her/him off to a running start. Usually we coach the incoming pastor for the first 12 months.
Is the UMC slow to embrace this type of thinking?
Yes, but no slower than others. Making appointments is more challenging than ever, and what we find is that district superintendents work so hard to make successful appointments that they simply don’t have enough time to make the appointment they just made successful. This is no knock on superintendents. It is just a matter of time limitations and being so busy with the barrage of issues in their churches that they don’t have the time they would like to have to focus on pastoral transitions.
How can congregations help in the process of a pastoral change?
The most important thing is to think about a change of pastors from the perspective of first-time guests. That’s where growth happens: when a first time guest returns, then returns again, then develops buy-in to the local church. Every decision, every action, every step of the way should be viewed from the point of view of the first-time guest who happens to come during the changeover. We train churches to implement specific, proven practices that make it more likely a first-time guest will return because of the manner in which the church is acting while it is in the changeover zone. These practices are fun, compelling, and shift the morale from negative or neutral to positive.
What is the worst thing that can happen during a pastoral change?
When someone — the supervisor, the pastors, or the church — drops the baton because they simply aren’t being intentional about how to turn the changeover zone into a growth zone. Our book is filled with the specifics on the roles each party must play to maintain accountability and reduce the odds of a baton being dropped.
What is the best thing that can happen?
When the church and guests see the transition as reflecting the kind of succession that is modeled in scripture. God’s church is obviously a marathon (“even the gates of hell won’t stand up against it”), but pastoring the church is a relay race in which each pastor should be preparing to hand off the ministry in a healthy way to her/his successor. For too long we have coasted past the importance of focusing on how we pass the baton in a way that accelerates the church’s growth instead of disrupting it.
Tell us about working and writing with Jim Griffith.
Jim and I partnered four years ago, He is a great friend and mentor. We do training workshops together and solo in over 40 annual conferences and in other denominational and independent church settings. I’ve learned a ton from his work and am always impressed by his spirit of helping churches and pastors grow. Jim focuses more on planters; I focus more on pastors following founders and long-tenured pastorates. We have great fun influencing the UMC to strengthen its culture and fruitfulness.