The New Pastor: Insights for Transitional Leadership

April 14th, 2012
This article is featured in the Change (May/June/July 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

When discussing transitional leadership, it is imperative that one understands and embraces the words transition, change, uncertainty, and patience if there is a desire to serve as a United Methodist pastor. We take an oath to go where we are sent and to be effective when we get there. The itinerant system that we are a part of dictates that we position ourselves to understand and accept the fact that transition is a very big part of our lives as United Methodist pastors. While there are instances of pastors having long tenures in certain churches, for most, transition will come at some point.

As an Army brat, I was accustomed to moving every three or four years. I have lived in Germany, Kentucky (at both Fort Knox and Fort Campbell) and ended up in Goldsboro, N.C., which is not far from Fort Bragg, my father’s last duty station. There was a great deal of preparation that went into the move. My dad would often have to precede the family to adhere to his orders. He would locate a place for us to live on post (the military base), and subsequently my mom would be responsible for clearing quarters or making sure the place we were vacating was clean and ready for the next military family. Each of my parents had a level of leadership responsibility and surprisingly as I have grown older, I realize that my brother and I did too.

Upon arriving at each new duty station, we had to exhibit leadership when adapting to a new school, new teachers, and new friends. You had to introduce yourself in a manner that endeared you to the culture already in existence. Groups were already formed, friendships already in place, football and basketball teams already picked. So the question for us, was, “How do we fit in and not cause any problems?”

Transitional leadership is just that. How do you fit in and not cause any problems? Many of the challenges arise when we become over zealous and anxious to establish our position as the “leader.” The people are still asking the question, “and who are you?” I clearly remember in one of my seminary classes at Gammon Theological Seminary at the ITC, the words of Bishop L. Scott Allen, the facilitator. He reminded the class that “the bishop may appoint you, but the people make you pastor.” Those words resonated with me and have been translated to mean, love the people, even the unlovable, and let God do the rest!

The effectiveness of transitional leadership relies heavily upon the willingness of the previous leader to affirm the possibilities and promise of the incoming leader. In the book of Joshua 1:2 it is recorded that the Lord speaks to Joshua and says, “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore, arise, go over this Jordan, you and all the people, to the land which I am giving to them—the children of Israel.” While this speaks to a new assignment—transitional leadership if you will, it is important to understand that Joshua is charged with leading the people. He is not charged with establishing his power and authority; he is not charged with letting people know who is in control; he is not charged with finding out who the real powerbrokers are.

He is charged with answering God’s call on his life and leading the people.

However, it is important to understand that while God called Joshua, Moses had affirmed him in front of the people. It is in the book of Deuteronomy 34:9 that Joshua was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands on him; so the children of Israel heeded him, and did as the Lord had commanded Moses. While this passage is largely referred to highlighting “old” and “new” leadership, I would suggest that the focus is placed on the actual process that occurred with a “change” in leadership.

When the appointment is made, the outgoing leader celebrated, the incoming leader affirmed, and the people heeding the commands of God, then and only then will transitioning into a new appointment glorify God. The new leader must be focused on several things.

Prayer. First, the new leader must be prayerful in planning. That is, he or she must make sure that the intercessory prayer team is functioning with the leader as a part of it. We know what the Bible tells us in James 5:16 about the effectual fervent prayers of the righteous. New leaders must provide leadership relative to guided prayer and intentional expectancy for God to answer.

Passion. Secondly, the leader must be passionate about worship. Excitement that is Christ-centered will speak to context in which the church exists. Christ-centered worship means that it does not matter whether the faith community is charismatic or highly liturgical. Jesus is the center of the joy of worship.

Positivity. An effective leader must also maintain a positive attitude. Romans 8:28 reminds us that all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose. Then, when the question is asked, “and who are you?” the response can be “I am a servant of God called to this place to lead his people!”

In his book, Martin Luther King, Jr. On Leadership, Donald Phillips cites a quote by James MacGregor Burns from his book, Leadership. Burns states:

“Leadership is leaders acting—as well as caring, inspiring and persuading others to act—for certain shared goals that represent the values—the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations—of themselves and the people they represent. And the genius of leadership lies in the manner in which leaders care about, visualize, and act on their own and their followers’ values and motivations.”

Phillips examines three points from Burns’ definition of leadership. First, leadership omits the use of coercive power. Leaders, rather, move others by caring, by inspiring, and by persuading. Secondly, leaders have a bias for action and a sense of urgency that are centered around shared goals. And thirdly, leaders act with respect for the values of the people they represent—which are in concert with their own personal convictions.

Jesus teaches that the essence of servant leadership is service, not status. To be an effective leader, one must understand that he or she is called to serve the people. Jesus teaches his disciples humble service, or leadership based on love. In John chapter 13 Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table,   he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:12-15)

It is in this passage of scripture that Jesus teaches that an effective leader must exhibit humility, service, focus on others, and love.         

Despite all that Jesus did, despite all of the miracles that he worked, despite everyone that he healed, despite all that he did, Jesus continuously declared it was God’s will. As we assume new leadership roles in new places, we must continue to serve declaring, “Not my will but God’s will be done!”

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