Transition Workshop Addresses Casting a Vision and Changing Church Culture

By Rick Wolcott*

On the last Sunday of March, many families enjoyed Easter dinner outdoors thanks to the bright sun and 70-degree temperature.  The following Sunday brought snow and temperatures in the 30s.

Spring is a time of transition.

United Methodist congregations across the denomination know this all too well.  During the early months of the year, Cabinets announce intended appointment changes that will be effective on July 1.

Change is not easy.  It is not easy for the blooming flowers that suddenly are covered by snow, and it is not easy for the congregations that didn’t ask for a new pastor, or for the pastor who didn’t ask for a move.

“I would encourage you to identify folks who are spiritually-grounded, emotionally-healthy and whose goal is build the kingdom of God.”

Rev. Bruce Hartley, of Lakewood UMC (North Coast District), offered those words of advice to clergy who will be transitioning to new appointments in larger churches come July.  He was speaking from experience, having been appointed to the church in 2007 to change its culture.

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Hartley was one of the presenters at an April 2 workshop for clergy and laity of churches, with larger staff systems, who are preparing to receive a new pastor.  The workshop was designed so clergy and laity leaders can work together to navigate the move.

“Building relationships with, building trust with, and discovering the gifts of your staff are key to the church’s success,” Hartley said.

The nine churches invited to the workshop heard from East Ohio Conference (EOC) staff about the resources that are available to them.  They also received valuable information from clergy and laity of churches who have lived through what the attendees are about to experience: readying the congregation to take the next step in its mission, while preparing for the struggles that will come with the changes that are needed for growth.

“You are going to confront some long-standing expectations within the congregation of the roles of the staff, which is probably what brought them into the situation they are in,” Hartley said.  “You cannot ignore the expectations but you can redefine the expectations by building relationships and building trust.”

EOC Director of Connectional Ministries the Rev. Steve Court told the group, “You are all about to go through a similar transition, at a similar point in time, and we want to create a network where you can help each other work through the nitty gritty of problems and struggles, and of successes and celebrations.

“Because teams are the key to maintaining values in a larger system.  In a smaller system the values are pretty evident and you are close to the action.  The larger the system gets the more separated the pastor feels from the people and the more important it is to convey a process,” he said.

“We have translated across The United Methodist Church that the mission is forming disciples, and the vision is to increase the number of vital congregations.  And I like to add, for our congregations to become healthier and for more congregations to be vital,” Court said.

He explained that a vital church is one that is healthier today than it was 10 years ago, and one that will be even stronger and healthier 10 years from now.

“A healthy church has a team that is implementing the vision,” Court said.

Mark Strang concurred.  The chairperson of the Adult Discipleship team at Mentor UMC (Western Reserve District) said, “It is important that the church has a vision because without a vision where does God want you to go?”

Strang, a former lay leader and a former chairperson of the Staff Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) at Mentor, speaks from experience.

“The vision should be short, attainable and communicated often to the congregation.  All leadership must buy into the plan,” he continued.  “If you are a leader of the church, whether you are clergy or laity, you need to buy into the plan because we are all representing the face of Christ in this effort.”

“Today is about taking the time to focus on gaining momentum to move forward and having the church be about mission, and not personal agendas,” said the Rev. Kelly Brown, EOC director of Congregational Vitality.

“Everything we’ve shared this morning points out where we are trying to migrate towards: program, committee involvement, and broader vision,” said John Stika, SPRC chairperson at Orrville Trinity UMC (Canal District)

“This workshop is for planning with laity how we transition and lay the groundwork for implementing vision and shifting direction,” Court said.  “On August 17 we’ll reconvene with pastors and staff, so that staff understand their role in implementing vision.  Then in the fall the pastors will meet together and answer the question, ‘where do we need to go next?’”

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.