In my own experience, after four transitions, I place the timeline for establishing effective leadership at roughly 24 months.
As part of my seminary training, I was blessed to serve two congregations in rural North Carolina. People were not shy in reminding me that I was a “Yankee”. The “Yankees” who did transplant into the communities I served shared with me their experience of taking ten years on average to shake the idea that they were an outsider.
I think the same operational principles are involved with pastors moving from outsider to insider. It doesn’t matter how big or small the congregation is. And while it may not take 10 years to be accepted into a faith community, it does take time. I put the timeline at 24 months. I’ll outline what I think happens during these two years, but first let me define what I mean by establishing effective leadership.
I don’t mean a leader is ineffective for the first 24 months nor do I mean that they can’t accomplish anything during this time. What I do mean is a leader is at a disadvantage during the first two years in a congregation.
This disadvantage comes in two forms. The first is a lack of appreciation and understanding of how a particular congregation functions. There is enormous variation in how congregations function. While I do think they are predictable in terms of their behavior, it takes time to understand these predictable patterns.
Second, it takes time to be considered a leader for the congregation. The process of becoming part of the relationship system takes time. Just like moving into a community or marrying into a family, it takes time for the community to connect at an emotional level. It can have a positive effect or connection. I’ve heard clergy refer to this as their second ordination experience. There is the first ordination one receives by a bishop or denominational representative, but in each congregation there is a sort of second ordination; a confirmation by the congregation at an emotional level, that they have the authority to lead this group of people. The second ordination is significant and most clergy can point to a moment in their tenure when they experienced it.
There is also the negative effect of this experience which is usually the time when a clergy person first hears criticism. Depending on how the negative criticism is addressed, a supervisor, district superintendent, or regional officer may be contacted by members of the congregation. They have reached a point at which they don’t like what they are experiencing in the relationship. The connection has become negative.
Just as congregations vary from place to place, there is wide variation among clergy. Some navigate this process of transition more quickly than others. Because of current realities, some congregations may present more challenges than others. The level of anxiety within the congregation and in the clergy person will influence the amount of time it takes for clergy to become a leader in the relationship system of a congregation.
I’ve had good success in the first 24 months of ministry in about half of the congregations I’ve served. However, even in those places where I was intentional about trying to push the timeline shorter by 12 months, we accomplished big changes in the first year, but it still took two years for me to appreciate and understand how the congregation functioned in predictable ways.
The most important thing any clergy person can do in their first 24 months is to become a good observer of the emotional process.
Clergy, in general, make the mistake of thinking they are there to “save” the congregation by providing answers to their problems. If only the congregation would listen to them and do what they say, things would go much better. The case I’m making is clergy can’t offer real solutions because they don’t understand their context. This takes time. What leads to problem solving is being a good observer.
The easiest way to develop a more observational approach to leadership during the first year is to ask good questions. Asking good questions is a natural way to develop a one to one relationship. It communicates a desire to be engaged in the life of others and a genuine interest in the well-being of the community. At the same time, good questions encourage a more thoughtful and less reactive approach to leadership; something most people want, but struggle to maintain.
There are general questions clergy can ask when entering a congregation in an effort to gather facts of functioning about the congregation. Think about how scientists observe groups of animals out in the wild. What things do they observe?
Who does what?
Who interacts with whom?
Who avoids whom?
What’s the history of the group?
Who is related?
Who makes decisions?
How are decisions made?
What scares the group?
Who takes the lead in identifying what’s scary?
How do they typically react?
What does play look like?
What are the shared values and rituals?
When people share comments with clergy about their likes and dislikes, there are questions to be asked. Is this person expressing their own comments about likes or dislikes, or are they sharing the comments of others? How many people are actually making these comments? Is it “lots of people” or is it really only one or two? Who are they? Does the person reporting this information agree or disagree with the comments they are sharing with you? What gets stirred up in you when you hear these comments? Is this issue reflective of a historical problem in the congregation or is this something new?
Remember that as a new person, at least for a year or so, you can claim your newness. “I’m new here. Help me understand how things work.” Being new is a wonderful opportunity to ask all kinds of observational questions. When individuals come forward to criticize or compliment your leadership, asking them to help you understand how this congregation functions can be a wonderful opportunity to learn about the congregation.
If nothing else, it’s always appropriate to let people know you need to think about what they have said and you will get back to them about it. This gives the leader time to reflect and think about the comment, observe how others are responding, and observe one’s internal responses to the comment before offering up a quick response. Not responding at all will create more problems, but taking time to respond is always an option.
Congregational leaders also will do well to develop similar ways of addressing congregational concerns. Changes in congregational leadership, especially with clergy, are always good opportunities to learn more about how the congregation functions as a whole. There are many lessons to learn during a time of heightened anxiety at a time of change. Taking a more observational position during this time will also help congregational leaders understand better the dynamics of their faith community.
Having predetermined responses to comments is one way to prepare oneself and reduce some of the anxiety that is present during times of change. For example, after firing an employee it may be helpful to say something like, “I’m not able to talk about it because of rules of confidentiality. Has this congregation ever fired someone before and how did that go? Have you or a family member ever experienced firing someone or being fired? What was that experience like?” The purpose of such comments and questions is to help a leader move into a more observational view of the community and understanding of the person they are talking to. The goal of being more observational is to help a leader move beyond seeing specific comments as coming from a particular person to seeing these comments as a reflection of the congregational and family systems that are active and present.
Depending on the leader and their level of functioning, there may be tendency to categorize comments from others into “friends or foe.” A systems view of a congregation moves beyond the comments of the individual to seeing the comments as a product of the way the system functions. A more observational view helps to make this reality clearer. Moving beyond seeing comments as generated by an individual and seeing them as generated by the system will help one determined a better way forward as a leader. At the same time, it helps a leader avoid falling into the pit of blame and taking sides which historically is the root of most congregational conflicts.
Finally, it’s important to remember what one is working on is defining a self. In part 3, which will come out next week, I’ll define what I mean by defining a self. It is a term that was introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen in his theory of human behavior. I’ll also address one way that leaders can work on being more of a self in their congregations. This is an effort of being clear about what one thinks. Through the process of observing, leaders begin to develop thoughts about how the congregational system functions as well as thoughts about one’s own functioning. It includes an openness to receiving new information and ideas. Leaders can get stuck in taking a position like, “It’s my way or the highway.” But this isn’t well defined thinking. It’s a reaction to anxiety. Mature and defined leadership is always open to new ideas and new ways of looking at a problem. It doesn’t mean that a leader is a waffler, going back and forth on issues. It simply means that, while a leader is clear for themselves, they are open to knowing what others think as well.
It is also the ability to stay focused on what is important to the leader. This means having well thought out plans on what one is trying to accomplish as a leader and then sticking to the plan. The ability to define a self is what makes for a successful transition, all of which I’ll discuss next week in part three.