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4 Lessons from a Painful Leadership Transition

Healthy Leaders

4 Lessons from a Painful Leadership Transition

Niklas EklovNiklas Eklov

It was a dream come true. Our church fellowship had suddenly agreed to take over responsibility for the day-to-day running of the church from the cash-strapped parish. We were free to do what we wanted and hire who we liked. Congregation members worked enthusiastically. In a short space of time they got a handle on the finances, established management routines and helped staff adapt. The wave of change was promising… But it did not take long for divisions to appear. Almost immediately, issues of management, administration, and staffing surfaced. There was a growing lack of trust between the church board and the staff. There seemed little attempt to bridge this trust gap. Factions were forming.

In this gathering storm, I was invited to chair the church board. It was completely the wrong time for me. We had only recently returned to Sweden after living in Kenya; we had young children and we were expecting another baby. But my inner voice challenged me to accept the nomination and attempt to build bridges and restore relationships. I could sense frustrations and conflicts between staff and board and, as a friend of both, I assumed that I could help them find middle ground. So I prayed with my wife. We agreed to be in this together. I was soon selected as board chair.

What transpired was one of the hardest and most painful experiences of my life. There were huge challenges of leadership and organization. But now, some years later, it seems we have weathered the storm, we have survived transition, we have dealt with succession, and our church is in a better place. Here is my story:

In the first seven months, it looked like everything was unravelling. Conflict among the staff escalated, resulting in two staff members leaving. Some church members also left, expressing various disappointments. Financially, things looked gloomy. A budget deficit forced us to plan for further staff downsizing. Within the board, I had failed to create shared understanding of what the core problems were and how they should be tackled. I had not even been able to convince the board of the need to bridge the trust gap with the staff, let alone address the many organizational and management issues. The rift in the board eventually led to four out of nine members leaving the board, triggering a by-election.

No way out?

I felt like a failure. I was crushed. I cried a lot and it was difficult to see a way out. We were trapped in a circle of fear and mistrust. I felt inadequate. All my efforts to create unity in purpose and action seemed to have failed. People I considered as friends did not even want to listen to my views. When we did talk, we were not able to reach each other.

At my lowest point, I felt God breathing in renewed strength to persevere and hope. All was not lost. My wife, a pillar of support, mobilized a prayer network of intercessors. Two people gave valuable mentoring help. Most important, I had support among many members of the congregation, the staff and remaining members of the board.

During the by-election, the existing conflict became painfully apparent to all. It did mean, however that a new board took over. This board was less qualified and more diverse, but thankfully more united and less stressed. We began with peace and a determination to make a difference.

Leadership transition at the core

We prioritized the issues to deal with. The most obvious was leadership transition. Our founding pastor had led the church for 22 years, growing it from nothing to a fellowship of more than 300 members. He was a visionary and entrepreneurial leader with a committed team and was much loved for his simplicity and his way of relating to people. However, there was some dissent over his management and leadership style. Succession planning was long overdue.

The search began for a new leader. A core group of staff and board representatives developed the following search criteria:

  1. A person who would share the vision of the church
  2. A person who loves God (Luke 10:27) and people (Matthew 25:40)
  3. A person who would build the congregation and is a good preacher
  4. A person with experience in management staff development
  5. A person who can build bridges and inspire others

A well-respected retired pastor, the head deacon, and two representatives of the church board interviewed many potential candidates and short-listed three. These potential candidates met the staff and board individually and the core group suggested one of them. The board invited the selected candidate to join as head pastor and he accepted. This process took six months and went remarkably smoothly. We experienced God’s grace especially during this period. A new energy spread into the congregation. The outgoing pastor became more relaxed. Notably, he stepped away from the recruitment process for a new leader. In a final church service, he said that the last year was the best of all his years of service in our church.

I reflected on God’s grace during this transition, trying to work out what made things go so well.

Reflections of a chairperson…

My one-year commitment as chairperson extended to three years. Looking back, I believe I had a role to play to in the whole transition process. During the second year the leadership transition took place, new congregational by-laws, management routines, and agreement with the parish were developed. In the third year, the new head pastor asked me to continue working with him to consolidate his role and adjust to new responsibilities. I believed this continuity was important. We worked together to further establish the work and address some of the relational wounds remaining from the church’s turbulent past.

I am happy for these three years. Clearly, God was with us during the crucial transition process. There were no easy solutions, but God gave us the grace and strength to work hard, build relations and develop sustainable organizational structures. In the process, my faith grew stronger; God makes change possible.

I learned four important lessons from the difficult experience:

  1. An organizational transition process needs time. In our case the transition from the parish to our congregational organization was too quick. Some of the structural and relational problems could have been avoided with adequate preparation prior to the transition. Too much focus on urgent practical, financial, and managerial issues jeopardized spiritual unity and personal relations.
  2. Fear and stress is not a conducive environment for constructive organizational change. In our case the change in the board composition altered the environment. Instead of operating out of fear and stress, we operated from a position of peace. Exactly the same urgent issues were there, but the peace helped to rebuild trust and strengthen a common vision and purpose. It helped recreate positive working relations between the board and staff group, culminating in effective transition and sustainable management structures to support change.
  3. Painful memories can live on for a long time – both in me and in the congregation. We need wisdom to discern when the time is ripe to actively seek inner healing for wounds, not just cover them up. Real healing and reconciliation is essential for a congregation to function effectively. We have taken some steps, but we still have a journey to walk.
  4. It is a great strength not to be alone. It was so important to be together with my wife in this. We drew strength and support from each other, praying together. The help from mentors and intercessors was also invaluable. But it would never have worked without God’s help. He gave me hope that things could change.

To conclude, I believe we sometimes need to take on such challenges to properly understand that: “if the Lord does not build the house, the laborers work in vain” – including in any leadership transition and organizational change.