I’ve been thinking a lot the past several weeks about transitions. Transitions, large and small, are an essential part of life. Birth, graduation, marriage, divorce, death, a new job, a career change and moving are all major transitions which can be sources of great joy and grief, excitement and dread. I am convinced that the way we plan affects our stress level and determines the smoothness of the transition.
A week ago I participated in a triathlon on a Saturday morning. The key factor in a triathlon is making smooth transitions from swimming to biking to running. There are numerous details to consider and prepare for ahead of time, including clothing changes, water bottles, nutrition, sunscreen, computer chip, helmet, race number and the layout of the transition area. Triathlons are often won and lost in the transition area. I wrote down the transition sequence ahead of time and went over it again and again in my mind. It certainly didn’t help my swimming, but at least I didn’t forget anything.
Yesterday I filled in for the organist at First Church, Grand Rapids, at both morning services. I have to practice a lot more than most people because I haven’t played regularly in 25 years. It’s the quick transitions that have the most potential to throw me off kilter: from the prelude directly into the first hymn; from the offertory to the doxology, and from the last hymn to the postlude. I have to switch memory levels on the organ, change registrations, make sure the swell and choir boxes are open or shut, replace one set of music with another, and put my fingers on the right keyboard all in a matter of seconds. I can say with certainty that it is not helpful for the organist to daydream during the service! Fortunately, Gary kept me awake with a fine sermon yesterday.
Or course, the most important transitions right now involve clergy moving from one appointment to another. “I hate moving!” So began my conversation with a district pastor last week who was in the midst of packing. I am acutely aware of the mixture of emotions when ending ministry in one location and beginning it in another.
Every move involves a disruption of some sort in churches, families and in the professional life of the pastor. In my first year as a superintendent, I have discovered that the cabinet spends hours upon hours praying, agonizing and discerning moves. It is a serious and holy undertaking. After appointments are made, there are numerous phone calls about the timing of moves, parsonage renovations, concerns with clergy children, jobs for spouses, and pulpit supply during the in-between time.
The greatest gift pastors can give to congregations is a transition that has been carefully thought out. I have already heard moving stories about last Sundays, wonderful celebrations and tearful liturgies of farewell to a pastor. And I will hear equally uplifting experiences about first Sundays, warm receptions, and tearful liturgies of welcome for a pastor.
For those pastors who are moving out of the Grand Rapids District:
- Thank you for your years of fine ministry in our midst. Thank you for the lives you have touched and the disciples you have formed.
- Thank you for being intentional about planning your leave-taking.
- Thank you for providing a vision for the congregation to move confidently into the future at the same time as they celebrate the past.
- Thank you for publicly supporting the ministry of your successor.
- Thank you for the time you spent with that person to pass the baton.
- May God grant you peace and joy in your new appointment.
For those pastors who are moving into the Grand Rapids District:
- There is only one chance to make a first impression. Be intentional about how you begin ministry in your new location.
- Move slowly with changes. Build upon what is already healthy.
- Listen carefully and often before talking.
- Love your people.
- Don’t be afraid to call me or a colleague if you need assistance.
- Honor the ministry of your predecessor, and allow your congregation to grieve that loss. Your ministry is built on the foundation of many who came before you.
For those pastors who are moving within the Grand Rapids District:
- We’re glad you’re staying in our district!
For those pastors who are not moving this year:
- Pray for your brothers and sisters in transition.
- Make a point to call or visit a new colleague in a nearby church as soon as possible.
- Invite him/her to join your covenant group.
- Think about how you might be able to engage in collaborative ministry with your new colleague.
Transitions, wherever they take place in life, have the potential to be life-giving and a source of grace. Prepare for and practice transitions well, and your ministry will thrive. As we remember our colleagues and congregations in transition, I close with a prayer written by Bishop Michael J. Coyner of the Indiana Area of the United Methodist Church.
O Lord, help us to be in ministry together,
and help us to build upon each other’s foundation.
Let us proceed and succeed each other in ministry
with a deeper sense of appreciation.
May our ministries build and expand together,
may we be colleagues with one another;
May our people be blessed by our mutual efforts,
and may we treat each one as a sister or brother.
Lord, watch over those who are moving these days,
keep them safe and help them to adjust;
Since moving and packing is our Methodist way,
help them to move and to grow in Your trust.