A change of leadership

September 24, 2012

A common question posed to me these days is, “So, how is it with our new bishop?”

There are so many layers to that question that it is hard to have a better answer than, “Well, it is interesting!”

Those who speak Minnesotan may interpret this to mean that I am too polite to say what I really think. But in this case, I truly mean “interesting,” in the best sense. I am stimulated, challenged, sometimes overwhelmed—and definitely not bored. There is a lot I don’t know yet, there is much we are learning, and there is a zip of energy in the air as we watch our ministry with Bishop Bruce Ough unfold. We are in very interesting times.

About one quarter of our congregations experience a pastoral leadership change in any given year. However you experienced your previous pastor’s leadership, the church and the pastor fell into predictable patterns with each other. The congregation came to know that pastor’s leadership style and language. Pastor and members figured out their roles and expectations in relationship with each other. They knew what could get done and what couldn’t because of history, personalities, culture, and context.

Human communities yearn for homeostasis. We want clarity about how we interact and the norms and mores we will live by. That can be a good thing. Imagine the hassle of getting out of the house each day if you didn’t have your morning routine.

Yet that same status quo that allows us to function without have to rethink every action can also lead to complacency. We don’t look at things from a fresh perspective. We don’t consider other options. We presume too easily how others will react and respond and don’t engage in rigorous debate on key issues.

A leadership change can put us into what organizational experts call an “unfreezing zone.” Everything that was predictable and patterned is now up for grabs. A natural anxiety accompanies the unfreezing zone. We feel disoriented and we long for the comfort of our routine and our knowing what to expect—even if that wasn’t the best of times.

Witness the Israelites in the wilderness asking to return to the fleshpots of Egypt. Since when is slavery and brick building a “fleshpot?” In wilderness times, the past often gets romanticized.

If we can live with the disorientation long enough, however, this can be a most productive time. We can ask deep questions about where we have been, why we do things the way we do, where we want to go, and who we want to be as a people. That was the real work of the Israelites in the wilderness and that is what enabled them to make their way into a new future.

Fortunately, we do not have to leave home and go on a 40-year journey where food and water are scarce. A change of leadership gives us that wilderness experience, and I rejoice for the opportunity. Gil Rendle, in his book Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement (Abingdon, 2011), asserts that to regain its sense of being a movement, the United Methodist Church must focus on building a strong center around our common identity, shared story, clear missional outcomes, and becoming a community. That is wilderness work!

I encourage you, whether in your local church with a new pastor or in our annual conference with a new bishop, to embrace this time of change and transition, and use this window to wrestle with the significant questions I raised above. Every bishop I have worked with has been the leader I believe God has sent us for such a time as this. We have this season, this interesting time, to do some good and deep work about who we will be together as the called and sent people of God. I say, bring it on!

And don’t forget—October is clergy appreciation month. Take some time to offer a prayer of thanks for the leader God has sent into your midst.

Cindy Gregorson is director of ministry for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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