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Joe Iovino: In United Methodist churches, we are in that season of pastoral change. What I mean by that is lots of churches have had announcements by their District Superintendent or a committee in their church that has told them that their current pastor is leaving and a new pastor is coming.
Recently, I had the privilege to talk with the Rev. Dr. Bob Kaylor. Bob is the pastor of Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church in Monument, Colorado. He is also the author of a book, Your Best Move. It was written for pastors and staff-parish relations committees to give them a step-by step guide of how they can celebrate the past and move into the future with success.
This conversation is really helpful in telling how you and I can participate in a pastoral transition in our church.
Joe Iovino: Today I’m on the phone with the Rev. Dr. Bob Kaylor, pastor of Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church in Monument, Colorado, and author of Your Best Move: Effective Leadership Transition for the Local Church. Welcome Bob.
How did you get interested in the pastoral transition process?
Bob Kaylor: I was in the midst of a transition myself. I was doing my doctoral work, my DMin [Doctor of Ministry] work, at the same time. I was working on a dissertation that had something to do with preaching.
As I was going through this transition I started to look around to see what books were out there. There are a lot of books out there on pastoral transitions, but there wasn’t a lot that was kind of step-by-step. It was more conceptual.
So, I started to look at that, and one of my professors who I was working with—I was telling him about the stuff I was learning and wanting to focus on in the midst of the transition. He said, “That sounds to me like a dissertation project.”
So I did the project where I interviewed 10 different churches—5 churches that had not gone through a transition plan when they made their pastoral transition, and then 5 churches that I’d trained with a transition-planning model that I learned from gathering a lot of these resources (a lot of them from Harvard Business and some other places).
The difference between the two groups was marked from those who did a transition plan for the first 90 days and those who had no transition plan. The pastors were able to integrate much more quickly and the congregations felt much better about the move because they participated in the process.
JI: That’s fantastic. As a parishioner, a lot of us know what it’s like to sit in the pews and find out that our pastor is leaving. What’s it like from your side to get the call, to know that you’re moving from one church to another?
BK: It can be very disorienting. I know when I moved to my current appointment I got the call at 7:30 in the morning. I was just coming out of the shower at the gym where I was working out and my phone was ringing in my locker, and saw that it was my district superintendent. It’s never good when your district superintendent calls you at 7:30 in the morning.
I picked up the phone and learned I was moving. Then suddenly things start to move very fast when that happens. It really creates a sense of imbalance in you. You want to learn as much about the new place as possible because you’re going to go there to be introduced. At the same time, you know you’ve got a congregation that you’re currently serving and they need your full attention as well.
So it’s really a balancing act, I think, to consider, how am I gonna move into this new place while leaving well at the place I’m at. That immediately starts when that...when that happens.
JI: So if I’m sitting in the congregation on a Sunday morning and I find out that my pastor is leaving and we’re going to get a new pastor, what’s the first thing that I should consider doing as a member of a church?
BK: Well, the first thing you shouldn’t do is panic.
One of the things that is helpful is to allow yourself some grief. I think that’s part of the process...is to recognize that something is ending, and to be real clear about that. If a pastor is doing his or her job well in leaving they will name what is ending, and that is namely the pastoral relationship.
But in those early days when you first find out about it, I think the key thing is to really express to the pastor how much you’ve appreciated their ministry and to offer to help in any way you can with the transition, to not hold onto them and say ‘we wish you weren’t leaving,’ or ‘please don’t go,’ ‘is there any way we can fight the bishop to keep you,’ or anything like that. I think it’s a natural process to want to do that. But to really say I want to help my pastor leave well, and I want to express appreciation for how he or she has affected my life.
A congregation will manage that well when they say goodbye well, and that means a goodbye event and really planning that well and wanting to honor the pastor as he or she is leaving, but to really kind of mark the ending of the pastoral relationship.
Sometimes you have a few months to do that. Sometimes it can be very late in the appointment process. So you’ve kind of pay attention to the rhythm of that, but it’s an opportunity to really express your appreciation and love for the outgoing pastor. Those are the kind of things that can launch them into the new ministry with a lot of confidence.
JI: What are some appropriate ways to do that—to say goodbye well?
BK: For individuals, I always encourage them to write a note. I keep those. I know when I’ve received them I’ve put them in a file and I keep them, especially in those early days in a new parish when everything is kind of going haywire and to remember that...some people do like me. It’s a good thing.
I think the other thing you can do is maybe take them out for coffee and express your appreciation to them personally, although their time is gonna limited as they’re trying to make that process work and have a lot to do in the midst of the transition.
For the church itself, I really encourage them to plan an event around food, a real celebration of the ministry time together. I discourage people from doing a roast of the pastor. I know that can be funny, but it can also mask some things that may have been lying underneath the surface. Have a real celebration and appreciation. A love gift is a marvelous thing to give to a pastoral family as they leave, and to remember to also express your appreciation to the pastor’s spouse and children to say, “We really loved having you in our midst.”
It’s just a marvelous way for the congregation to celebrate what has taken place and to do that well before you move onto what the next thing is and to when the next person comes in. Because when you’ve said goodbye well, then you can really welcome the new person with open arms.
JI: Let’s talk a little bit about the ‘hello.’ What are some good tips of how the average person in the congregation can say hello to a new pastor? What are some things we should be doing?
BK: The first thing I would tell congregants is to suspend your judgment. There tends to be initially... First impressions can be lasting impressions. So to say, you know, this person is coming in cold. They don’t know you. I mean, to stand in front of a congregation full of strangers.
If you’ve been at your previous congregation any number of years you know where everybody sits. You know faces. You know stories. That first Sunday when a pastor stands up in front of a congregation, they don’t know anybody, and they don’t know the stories, and they don’t know where the landmines are. So, to give them some slack in those first days is really helpful. And to recognize they are going to make some mistakes.
My first Sunday here I didn’t realize that the congregation had a tradition of holding hands during the benediction response. And so I said the benediction and started to walk down the center aisle and suddenly I was blocked by all these people holding hands. It was like a liturgical game of ‘red rover’ there for a minute. It was very embarrassing to have that happen. But people understood that and they forgave that.
So, to really kind of suspend your judgment and give the new pastor a chance to become your pastor because they are your pastor now. The previous pastor is gone.
This person is going to need to know you. So help them get to know you. Wear your nametag. Introduce yourself. Don’t expect them to remember your name right away, but to really introduce yourself and do your best to welcome them and to make sure that their life is finding meaning in this new place.
One of the great things the congregation did for me and my family was to have a ... They put up a Christmas tree in July and they festooned this Christmas tree with gift cards to local businesses and restaurants because with us moving we didn’t know the area very well. So, we now had this opportunity to go explore all these restaurants. There were Home Depot gift cards on there for stuff we needed for the house.
That was an incredibly welcoming experience for us, to realize these people really wanted us to settle into their community as well as into the church. So to think about those kinds of things.
What I would say not to do as well is to show up at the pastor’s door with a list of complaints about what went on before. I always tell pastors to beware of Greeks bearing casseroles because you never know what the agenda is when someone comes into your office.
So, to really give them some space to learn about the congregation on their own. If they follow a transition plan they’ll be working with members of the congregation to do that well. Just to be welcoming and to make yourself present. To be in worship, to come and experience what he or she was to say, to just be open to what they bring to your congregation.
JI: As a United Methodist pastor you get moved every several years, do you ever get used to it?
BK: It always seems to me that...it’s always new, and it’s always strange. It’s hard to describe, I think. It’s not something you really get used to. I think you can adopt patterns that can be helpful. But I always learn something new in the midst of a transition.
Doing this transition planning, though, has really been helpful because it gives you a model to work from, and it gives you an opportunity to do it kind of systematically so that you’re learning about the congregation in a short amount of time. You’re also helping them to learn about you and to become integrated and to add value to the congregation right away. So before it was always kind of probing in the dark, but with a transition plan it can really make that transition easier each time you do it.
JI: Let’s talk a little bit about the transition plan. You wrote the book Your Best Move, which is for pastors, and staff parish relationship committees. It’s available as a packet now where you can get a webinar and there’s all kinds of things that are available. We’ll put links to that on the website. But tell us a little bit about the transition plan and how that helps with all of this.
BK: One of the things I discovered in my research was that the first 90 days of a new position are the best opportunity you have to launch momentum in a new organization, in a new church. The transition plan is designed to have the pastor and the congregation work together in order to make that happen effectively.
The first thing that I encourage pastors to do when they get on board is to develop a transition team: these can be members of the pastor parish relations committee, members of other committees of the church, some people who are thought-leaders in the church—not necessarily formal leaders, but people that others look to. Developing them into a team and then meeting with them monthly to share with them what you’re learning about the congregation and to hear from them what the congregation is learning from you.
It’s a great connecting point for exploring how the transition is going together. That’s the place where expectations can be stated and allowed to be shared with both, so that there’s a clarity around the transition itself.
Another thing that I encourage pastors to do and in congregations, is to set up some home gatherings where people can meet in homes, in small groups, in neighborhoods, and the pastor can go in there with the agenda of wanting to learn. It’s almost like a research project. They’ll come in as an anthropologist.
Get Your Spirit in Shape
I recommend that they use some appreciative inquiry questions—try to figure out what’s going well and what the hopes and dreams are of the people for the church.
Basically my job there is one, to hear their stories. I tell my story. But then I also want to hear from them about their hopes and dreams and what they value. And all of that data, then, I collect and put into a matrix and bring back to my transition team to say, Here’s what I’m hearing; does that sound accurate? And they say yes or no or these are things that are common threads I’m learning through all these groups.
I think in the first 2 weeks after I came here I did 8 of those meetings. And that was the most fruitful time I could have spent because I learned so much about what the congregation valued. And they learned from me because I was very different than my predecessor about how I operate and what I value as well. It was great informal time and a great time to learn from each other.
JI: If I’m going to one of those as a member I should come prepared to talk, to listen, ask questions...?
BK: Yeah, a little bit of both. I would come willing to share what you think has gone well.
A lot of times pastors will go in there and say, ‘Well, tell me how things are?’ and people will go back to the past and dredge up a lot of things. I want to get the congregation thinking forward. So what are your hopes and dreams? What do you hope for your church? What do you love about your church? What is it that you are excited about when you get up to come to church on Sunday morning, or to come to that Wednesday night bible study or whenever. Those are the kind of things that I want to hear as a pastor.
But then I also want to listen carefully to the pastor’s story to find connection. Where has this person been? What kind of life experiences have they had? To be able to ask good questions. Sometimes people ask very tentative questions: Are you gonna change X or Y? That’s not the time of that kind of conversation. This is more a get-to-know-you kind of conversation and to learn about the person who is coming to be your pastor.
JI: What are some things you are trying to do as a pastor in the first 90 days at a new appointment?
BK: One of the most critical things you can do when you come into a new appointment is to see where you can add value right away to the congregation. What I mean by that is that in every congregation there is some early wins that the pastor can achieve that will help people see, ‘Wow, there’s some neat things happening there, and there’s some momentum that’s building. They’re really trying to help us become the best congregation we can be.’
That’s different than coming in and saying, ‘I’m gonna change everything.’ And it’s also different than the old way of looking at it where...people used to say, ‘Don’t do anything; don’t make any changes for a year.’
I think you can make changes, but the best way to do that is to learn from your transition team, and in those listening sessions, where you can add the most value right away.
So, for example, when I came to this appointment one of the major problems we had was a sound issue in the sanctuary. The sound would bounce all over the place and a lot of our older members couldn’t hear well. Someone said to me after the first couple of Sundays, ‘Well, your voice is kind of high and squeaky, and it bounces all over the place, and we can’t really hear you. I’m sure it’s great, but we don’t understand what you’re saying.’
So I looked at that and I started talking to the transition team about it and said, ‘Is there a way for us to be able to fix that problem?’ I was looking at the church budget and there was some money that had been laying there for another purpose, that had been there for quite some time. I thought, ‘Well, if we could put in some sound panels and maybe get a hearing-assist unit that would help people to be able to hear what’s going on in the sanctuary.’
I called the donor and they agreed to allow us to re-purpose that money for new sound panels and system upgrades and things like that. Within the first couple of months, we did that. That was a huge early win because people could hear. I had one of our older members come up to me in tears saying, ‘I’ve finally heard a sermon; I haven’t heard it for several years. So this was great.’ And that was a huge win for us.
There are lots of different ways you can have early wins. A spike in worship attendance, a financial sort of windfall that the congregation has, maybe, when giving increases. When you do that first big funeral or that first big wedding, those can be early wins as you’re getting into a new church.
Anything you do that adds value to the congregation where people can see you as someone who has come to be helpful and not just draw value from the congregation is a huge way to start out in those first 90 days. That’s probably the number one thing I would focus on if I was a pastor.
JI: So I don’t have to brace myself that everything’s gonna change really quickly, but there are some changes I need to be open to.
BK: I think so. I mean, the very fact that you have a different person now standing in front of you is gonna be a change in and of itself. They will not be the predecessor, whether that’s good or bad. They will not be the person that you expect them to be. You’ve got to learn from them and what they value and to look at that.
I think from the other side a pastor has to recognize that the change has to be given time to marinate. That’s where the transition team can be so helpful. You can make some changes, but I would do so only with their kind of blessing on it because the congregation should know these are people who are helping to manage the transition.
One congregation I served they did the prayer requests on Sunday morning. And we were a fairly large church. There is value in that, particularly when you’re in a smaller church, but in a large church you could kind of watch people, especially those who were visiting, kind of tune out during that time. And I said, there’s got to be a better way for us to do this where more people can share. So I proposed that we do a card system, have a card in the bulletin—a little tear-out card—that people could use for their prayer request. I said I’d really like to make that change. And the transition team said, ‘Well, some people will be against that, but we think it’s a great idea. So we’ll back you up on that.’
We made that change and yes, a couple of people were upset, but the transition team was able to say, ‘We talked about this. We’re behind the change.’ It helped to settle things much more quickly.
On the other hand, the same congregation, this congregation, you know, did the hand-holding thing. I’m not a big hand-holding guy. And I said, what about the hand-holding thing? And they said, ‘You don’t want to die on that hill.’
So, we still do it. We’ve been doing it for 6 years, and we’ll continue to do it probably as long as the congregation is here. They’ll be doing it long after I’m gone.
That was one change that they said, ‘No, you don’t want to make that change.’ So it’s helpful if you make the right changes, changes that add value, but at the same time you’ve got a cadre of people in your congregation who can help you to do it effectively and not step on a landmine that you’re not aware of.
JI: I hear you saying that part of this is the congregation taking some ownership and saying, We’re moving forward. I mean, it’s good to look back and it’s good to remember, but our focus is ahead of us.
BK: Yeah, because you’re starting your future together and that’s a really important thing.
My first appointment I had a lady meet me at the door on the first day and she said, ‘Young pastor, you’ll do well,’ she said, ‘but remember I was here before you came; I’ll be here after you’re gone.’ She was right about that.
We’re all interims in some sense. But the question is, ‘How is this person going to add value to our congregation in this season where we’re in?’
They’re not going be here forever, but in this season we need this person and we’re excited about them being here. What can they bring to us in this season of ministry? And to expect that things are gonna be different, but also to kind of roll with that a little bit and recognize it’s not gonna be the same, but it could be so much better if we allow ourselves to lean into the transition.
JI: Not all change is bad.
JI: I want to ask you—this may seem like a silly question, but—what about my social media relationship with my former pastor? What’s the rules there?
BK: You know, in the United Methodist Church we always kind of sever ties to some degree when we leave a congregation.
When I have left a congregation, I always write a letter that states the parameters of what I will do and what I won’t do. I name the fact that I’m no longer going to be their pastor, that they will have a new pastor who will be available for weddings and funerals and all the things that they need, that they’ll want to be involved in their lives.
At the same time I say, I’ll not be your pastor anymore, but I will be your friend. I love to see when you have babies and graduations and things like that. Don’t expect me to respond to that a lot and certainly do not expect me to respond to anything you have to say about what’s going on in the church. I will not receive that. I won’t respond to it. That’s the parameter that I will draw.
So, I still maintain social media relationships with friends from former churches, but it’s strictly on a personal level and has nothing to do with the church or the pastor who replaced me. I think that helps to keep the boundaries clear.
I also think it’s good to not have any interaction for the first year simply because that provides space for the new pastor to really get traction in a congregation.
JI: Fantastic. So, as we conclude, what would you say to encourage every member of a congregation experiencing a pastoral transition this year?
BK: It’s going to be okay. It’ll be okay. And I think the key thing is it will be even more okay if you approach this with a plan, if you really say we’re gonna be intentional about doing a good transition. We want to welcome our new pastor and make him or her successful. And we’re gonna do everything in our power to make that happen. And we want our new pastor to help us go through the transition as well so that we can learn together and start well together. That is critical. If you have that attitude I think the transition will go well.
JI: Tell me about your book and the learning package and how staff/parish relations committees and pastors can get a hold of it.
BK: I wrote the book after I did my dissertation and I culled it down to a small book that you can read in a couple of hours. It’s a very useful, practical, step-by-step guide for an SPR and a pastor to use together. Seedbed, out of Asbury Seminary has published the book and a couple of years ago they put a package together where you can get copies of the book, as well as an online workshop that’s been recorded that I’ve done, that will take you step-by-step through the transition.
So for $50—I think it is...49.99—you can receive copies of the book and this video workshop that you can work through together even as you’re getting ready to start the transition so that you kind of have an idea of the plan you want to work together going forward.
It’s been a real helpful resource. We’ve had some district superintendents who’ve bought enough copies of the book for all the clergy in their districts. Conferences have adopted it. So it’s been a real surprising resource—one that I never thought I would write in my career. It’s turned out to be a real powerful thing and been very helpful to a lot of folks. I hear from folks all the time that it’s been helpful. I know it was very helpful to me when I did my transition, and I hope it’ll be helpful to you, too.
JI: Thanks for being with us today. I really appreciate it.
BK: Thank you.
JI: I hope you enjoyed that conversation with United Methodist pastor the Rev. Dr. Bob Kaylor who’s the author of a great book on pastoral transitions called Your Best Move: Effective Leadership Transition for the Local Church.
On our website, UMC.org/podcasts, you’ll find a link to where you can purchase his book, or the transition package, which includes copies of his book and webinars that an entire staff-parish relations committee can go through together.
While you’re on UMC.org/podcasts, leave us a comment about how Get Your Spirit In Shape is helping you, or maybe leave a topic that you would like to hear more about. My email address is also there, if you’d prefer to communicate that way.
Well, that’s it for this episode. We’ll be back soon with more conversations to help keep our spirits in shape.
I’m Joe Iovino with United Methodist Communications and UMC.org. Peace.
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