Congregational Communications-Changing Appointments

A few weeks ago, I got the call.  United Methodist pastors, you know the one.

I see a lot of boxes in my future.

I’ve been in my present appointment for seven years.  We’ve been doing great ministry that’s been growing the church and making a difference in the community.  So this is hard.

I want to see the congregation I’m serving now keep moving forward. And I know that the way a pastor enters and exits a congregation makes a big difference. I want the transition to be as smooth as possible  for my own sake, for the congregation’s sake, and for the sake of my successor.

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this question: what are the right messages to communicate during this time of transition? What are the right strategies for talking to your congregation about an appointment change – both as a whole and one-on-one?

Our conference has a prescribed format for making the announcement of a new pastor (which we used last week). Here’s our announcement, prepared by our SPRC chair from the script. The first two paragraphs are according to the prescribed format, with the third paragraph a self-description written by my successor and the fourth and fifth written by our SPRC chair. This announcement was read during worship, sent via email and posted to Facebook immediately after worship, and then sent via snail mail and posted to the church website this week.  In each case, we used exactly the same text.

In our annual conference, the two announcements – that the old pastor is leaving and that a new pastor is coming – are typically made on two separate Sundays. Knowing that there was a prescribed format for the announcement of an incoming pastor, I was surprised to learn there wasn’t a prescribed format for the departing pastor. I was on my own for that. Here is the text of the email / FB / snail mail announcement I made on February 10.

I’ve only moved twice, so I don’t have a lot of experience with this. And it’s also something they don’t teach in seminary or during the provisional membership process (though they definitely should). So I’m wondering – what are your best practices for communicating the news around a change of appointment? For example, how do you handle it when:

…the appointment is working well and the move is due to a bishop & cabinet decision rather than in response to a request from the church or the pastor?

…the appointment is not working well and you (or the church) have requested a change?

…people have concerns, questions, and challenges to the appointment system in general?

…there is a significant time between the announcement of your departure and the time when your successor is named?  (This is a unique challenge and I wonder how pastors can help people keep faith with the process when it happens.)

I also have begun to think about best practices for reminding the congregation – gently but regularly – that itinerancy is part of the deal for us as United Methodists. This is important because regular communication around that point makes these transitions easier. I always talk about this in new member classes. We also make it a point when our lay representative gives the annual conference report to say, “I’m very happy to announce that our bishop has appointed our pastors to the church for another year…”  (Well, except this year.)

I’d love to hear how other UM pastors remind their people of the nature of our system, and your lessons on what to do and what not to do when communicating around appointment changes. It seems to me that so long as we keep doing church this way, we should learn to do it in the best way we can.

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Leading the 47%

I didn’t set out to do a political blog, so I’m not going to deal with all the dimensions of Mitt Romney’s comments on the 47% here.  As much as possible, I want to set aside the content to see what we can learn about leadership from his mistakes.   (I’m sure that those on both sides of the aisle can agree that as far as political blunders go, this was a big one.)  Unfortunately, as I look at the thought process behind the comments, I see errors I make all the time.

First is the tendency to impute motives to opponents without checking the validity of our assumptions.  For Governor Romney, that meant taking a valid statistic – that 47% pay no income taxes – and using it as a springboard to the conclusion that the same 47% a) will vote for his opponent, b) perceive themselves as victims, and c) are dependent on government.  These kinds of unfair, sweeping generalizations are not far from any of us whenever we open our mouths to say, “You know what your problem is?”

It’s easy for leaders to get stuck in the thinking that our opponents are fatally flawed.  We perceive that they argue against our self-evident wisdom because they are selfish, or immoral, or just too stubborn to change.  In the church, we see this in conversations around human sexuality, worship, spending priorities, and all the questions around how best to reform our institutions.  We make the mistake of assuming that we understand the nature of the opposition – either because it seems to fit a familiar pattern or because we’ve had some conversations with a few people and assume they stand for all.  The problem is, they do not.

In the local church, if we’re willing to invest the time and energy in relating to our opponents, we sometimes learn that there is deep emotional content to their complaints.  Our opposition is not monolithic.  People start out being against our ideas for all kinds of reasons, most of them very personal.  I think it’s only when people realize that they are no longer seen as individuals but a bloc that they begin to react as a bloc.  Partisanship begets partisanship.  If your opposition has developed the trappings of a bloc and you’re relating to them that way, change your approach.  Try talking to them one-on-one.  Listening may not change their minds, but it may begin to re-humanize them for you, so that in your mind they are no longer part of the 47%.  I’ve found that having my own attitude changed is often a victory in itself.

Re-humanizing our opponents is important, because it can save us from overreaction.  I have some sympathy both for Governor Romney and President Obama.  As thick-skinned as politicians try to be, it has to be incredibly difficult knowing that every day, half the country is talking about you in unfavorable terms.  It feels very personal and usually is.  I hope the opposition you face isn’t at 47%, but even at 10%, the constant drip-drip-drip of criticism is maddening.  It’s an incredible challenge to be unemotional and see opposition as a natural part of the process of change.  Both advocates for change and preservers of tradition have a role to play.  We have to remember that.  If we don’t, we’re likely to react to our opposition from an irrational place of anger and hurt.  That anger might take the form of a public exchange we’d rather take back, or it might slip out as frustrated exclamation in a room of like-minded people.  The problem there is – and you can ask Mitt about this – not everyone in the room is as like-minded as we think they are.

I’m not sure where Romney goes from here.  It is, of course, possible to be elected president by 51% of the people, or even 50.1%.  But leaders in the church don’t have the luxury of functioning that way.  It’s not possible to be pastor to only 53 out of the 100 people in worship (unless you’ve set a goal of having only 53 in worship).  So somehow we’re going to have to learn to lead the 47%.

Next time you’re faced with opposition, talk with your opponents and then pray over this question:  Even though I don’t agree, can I understand why they would hold the positions they hold?

Until we can understand what’s at stake for the opposition, we’ll never learn to lead the 47%.

We’ve Got Trust Issues

“We have huge trust issues.” – Adam Hamilton

Finally I’ve calmed down enough to do some thinking about GC 2012 without getting worked up.  Like a lot of folks, I spent a few weeks angry and depressed.  So I threw myself back into the work of the local church…confirmation, new members…and again God proved to me that the actions of GC don’t change anything about Jesus or about the community I pastor.  For that, I’m so grateful.

Adam Hamilton is absolutely right, building trust will take a lot of conversations.  Not just among Methodists in the US but around the world.  I’m convinced American Methodists have no clue about the structural, spiritual, or cultural realities of the Church in Africa or Europe.  I know I don’t.  In fact, I doubt those in the Southeast Jurisdiction really understand the situation in the Northeast, or vice versa.  So conversation is definitely important.

I want to remind us of another key component of trust:  transparency.  Hamilton alluded to the issue in the interview linked above, when he touched on (hidden) “agendas.”  He said, “Sometimes there IS an agenda going on and sometimes good people are trying to make the next best decision.”

We all have agendas.  Let’s start there, because the statement implies that good people don’t.  I disagree.  I hope all of us – and I imagine at least most of us – are good people who want what’s best for the Church.  But we all have different visions of what would be the best Church and hence different agendas.

Usually when we use the word “agenda” it’s a pejorative to describe a preferred outcome that is driven more by ego than by big-picture, what’s-best-for-the-Church thinking.  No question, that element is always present, even in “good people.”  We’ve got to ask God’s wisdom to recognize it.  That said, much of what we derisively label an “agenda” is simply someone else’s preferred outcome based on someone else’s vision for the Church.

In other words, when we do it, it’s “wanting what’s best for the church.”  When someone else does it, it’s an “agenda.”

If we want to build trust, we’re going to have to find the courage to bring our agendas into the light of day.  I can work with someone when I know where they’re coming from and what they want – even if we disagree – because then I understand what might make for compromise.

Here’s the catch.  Revealing our agendas often means revealing either:  1)  that we fundamentally distrust the other person; or 2) that we believe they’ve failed to do their job.

An illustration:  it’s hard for me to look at the restructuring proposals and counter-proposals without seeing them as a clash of agendas between (primarily) the bishops and the agency executives.  We talked about the various plans in terms of efficiency and adequate representation but my sense is that what we really should be talking about is 1) why these two groups distrust each other and 2) why someone feels someone else isn’t doing their job.  Of course, this is what we’re not doing.

Ugly, I know.  Personal, I know.  Best done one-on-one, in private, behind closed doors.  But I don’t see evidence that it is happening.  Because if it were, where people were coming clean on their agendas and working out their interpersonal stuff, I’m guessing we wouldn’t be slugging it out on the floor of GC.

The problem:  the only alternative to working things out in private is speaking them in public.  Maybe this can be done, but it strikes me as incredibly risky for everyone involved.  What’s spoken at arm’s length seems harmless enough until you suddenly find yourself in the same room with the person who’s been insulted by something you’ve said.

I’ll leave you with a few questions to ponder and pray over:

Do we value transparency – in ourselves and others – as foundational to relationships?

Are we willing to reveal and articulate our agendas, even if they paint us in a negative light?

Can we develop trust without first revealing the dimensions of our distrust?