Pastor Transitions: Uncertainty in In-Between Times

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Part 2 of a 3-part Series


We just don’t know what to do,” were the words of one faith formation director. You’ve begun moving through the good-byes with your pastor and may even have begun the hellos with the new one, but everything feels a little like walking on shifting sand. It’s that “hanging in midair” space where uncertainty reigns. This period between pastors doesn’t seem to have a nice tidy timeline. It starts sometime after the announcement of your pastor’s leaving and will end sometime well after the new pastor has arrived.

Parish leaders will depend on you now, more than ever — yours being the task of maintenance.

■■ Ensure the continuation of essential parish programming and communication, providing
a sense of stability as much as possible.

■■ Be a listening presence in the community. Reassure and engage parishioners who also find themselves experiencing the emotions and uncertainty of change.

■■ Involve parishioners in planning and hosting welcoming events for the incoming pastor, giving them ownership of the welcome. See my book Navigating Pastoral Transitions for suggested activities and rituals. You and others on the parish staff may find this a difficult time. The loss of a sense of control is important to recognize. And how do you honestly handle your responses — sadness if the transition feels like a loss, or delight if you are happy about the change and find yourself energized and happy? Either way, the unknown of future employment looms like a low-hanging cloud. Veterans of pastor changes advise staying present to the moment and not letting yourself worry about a future that hasn’t even taken shape yet.

■■ Be prepared to depend on yourself and your team to get the work done, with little directive at first. Share prayer and conversation with other staff members so you don’t feel alone. Refrain from doomsday conversations and parish gossip as much as possible

■ Pay attention to physical and emotional energy demands, and be kind to yourself if you need time off or time away. If you don’t seem as productive as you normally are or work begins to feel pointless, realize that this is all part of the emotional response to transition. Focus on simplicity and finding meaning in what you do.

■■ Reflect on what you want for yourself in this next phase of your life. Do you have the energy to keep going in this parish? Is it time to take seriously the thoughts about retiring or moving to a different situation? This will be an excellent time to work with a trusted friend outside of the parish, a spiritual director, or a therapist and do a serious self-assessment.

■■ Don’t expect your emotions to keep up with your mental understanding of the situation. They have a timeline and a life of their own, sometimes looping back and beginning again. Recognize them for what they are, and be patient with yourself.

Change experts tell us that it is best not to rush this in-between time. Hold on to it, simmer in it. It is a time for personal and communal self-reflection. The better this is done, with all of its challenges to time, feelings, and energy, the freer you and the community will be to embrace the new. Keep an open mind about what is coming. Allow yourself to be comfortable with not knowing. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, you may feel confused, even anxious. And, like them, you need to process all that you have “seen and heard.” This is the task of transition. Please join us in the next issue as we look at new beginnings.

MARTI R. JEWELL, DMin, is an associate professor in the Neuhoff School of Ministry at the University of Dallas and was recently named the university’s 2017 Haggar Scholar. She is Director Emerita of the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project, a national research initiative studying excellence in parish leadership, and author of Navigating Pastoral Transitions: A Parish Leaders’ Guide.


This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, February, 2018.


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