Managing transitions

Did you see Doonesbury a couple of weeks ago? G.B. Trudeau spent the week telling readers that the focus of the strip was going to change from the founding generation to the younger one with Alex Doonesbury taking the lead. It got me thinking about how we in the church hand over leadership to the next generation. 

And now, with the Olympics, the track and field relays are under way and I realized that the transition, handing on that baton, is its very own skill, something that can be practiced and learned, both for the giver and the receiver.

Too often I think we in the church are sanguine that transition will just happen. We tell ourselves that people will step up when they're ready, or people will step down when they're done. But I think this is much more likely to happen if we can practice the transitions, even in small things, and even if we mess it up. Rather than snatch back leadership, maybe we need to spend more time on the transitions. Maybe people are perfectly ready; they're just on a learning curve. We're losing out on a lot of great people with energy to burn and skills to share if we require everyone to Already Know before we even let them start. 

Ask yourself this: What are the ways your church allows people to practice leadership? Is it all right to make mistakes? Do established leaders train others to do their jobs? And do we welcome new leaders even if they don't know the norms and practices? If we don't have an answer to any of these questions, the chances are we need to practice the transition.

I think we can work on our transitions in ways large and small. As one example, we can make sure more voices are heard. And I'm not talking about providing extra credit for those who raise their hands in class. This is something that needs to be intentional, otherwise all the usual voices will chime right in and some of the quieter ones will not be heard.

Here's one possible way to approach this: Make a list of people you haven't heard from who might have something to say and find ways to get their input. Maybe it's an online survey, or a lunch, or a special project, but look for ways to bring in those new voices. Bear in mind these may be people only tangentially attached to the congregation; sometimes it's those with the outsider's perspective who have the most to offer. 

Leadership is one area where we can improve our transitions; life changes are another. Too often I think we simply assume people will navigate changes in role or status with no assistance from us, and often they do. But we can make it easier for people and help our churches in the long run if we ease the way for people to move from one state to another.

Here are some areas where I think we can work on our transitions:

Sunday School-->Youth Group Have the kids coming into youth group gotten any information introducing them to the experience? Or are they simply added to the mailing list with no introduction? What can you do to pave the way to make that entry as smooth as possible?

Kellor Smith, whom you may know from the blog, has a great program for the 4th & 5th graders of St. John's called Pizza Club. Kids meet after church once a month to get together, socialize, and, yes, eat pizza. This prepares them for the experience of youth group plus building the friendships that are such a big part of being in a youth group. What else can you do to pave the way for this transition?

After Confirmation I have written about this before, but here are more questions for you: Is there any plan to keep people engaged in the church after Confirmation, or is Confirmation considered an end in itself? The Confirmation process itself is a great time for people to discover their gifts and ministries; how are you working with people to make sure the community gets to benefit from the gifts they bring? Who is already part of this ministry that can work with those being confirmed, sharing knowledge and responsibility and preparing a next generation of leaders? 

High School Graduates-->post-graduation Are your seniors headed to college? Send a letter or email to the priest in the town where they will be going, offering an introduction. Don't leave it all on the shoulders of the graduate! I'm a former college chaplain, and I tell you it was very useful to receive information from priests and pastors letting me know someone was coming to town so I could invite him or her to kick-off events. 

What about your graduates who are staying in town? Simply asking them what would be useful might be a good first step. This is a huge transition for people; reach out to them!

College Students-->home Again, I refer you to Kellor, who has a great blog post on welcoming people home after time away at school. The short form is, "They'll come if they want to" simply isn't good enough. Active welcoming is the key even for those who have grown up in our church.

Congegational leadership-->Denominational leadership This came up a lot at the Episcopal Church's General Convention this year, and I doubt we are alone as a denomination. How can we make it possible for those with the gifts and insights our churches need to become denominational leaders when representation often depends on familiarity and long service? Do we need long-term leaders to vouch for up and comers? Are we willing to take a risk on someone new? What do new leaders need to have more success out of the gate?

It's not enough to think that if people are good leaders they can make the transition from phase to phase. It's up to the whole church to aid in transitions. Passing leadership from one person to another is a task in its own right, and we would do well to pay attention to that. It may be a bit tedious and technical, but passing the baton without a hitch makes all the difference.