Navigating Ministry Staff Transitions

By Peter Osborn on August 31, 2015

My family and I recently spent time exploring the beautiful Pictured Rocks in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We chose to experience the rocks from a pontoon boat we rented. After signing the typical legalese, the owner handed me the keys and said, "Be careful navigating along the coast. While the rock are gorgeous, the cost of a new prop or lower engine unit is very ugly." As he said this, I noticed on his wall a half dozen or so mangled props that served as evidence he wasn't joking. I quickly determined to be very mindful during our expedition.

Ministry staff transitions, both for employers and employees, can often be equally challenging. The purpose of this post is to reflect on some things that may help churches and ministry leaders chart a healthy course.

Finding the Right Pace and Path

Although the rocks didn't look very far away from the harbor, I was surprised to learn that Spray Falls was over ten miles away. I quickly realized we would have to keep moving at a good pace if we wanted to see everything on our agenda. We had a full day of boating ahead of us.

In a similar way, many churches and seminary students are surprised when I tell them a typical search process can take 9-18 months. While some search processes go faster they tend to be the exception rather than the norm. It is important to communicate with spouses, leadership boards and congregations a realistic process and timeline. Along the way, search committees should never fear over-communicating because it rarely happens. People want regular updates to know things are moving along. Frequent communication encourages patience and hope.

Churches and ministry leaders will find that websites like the GRTS MinistryConnect and others (ministrylist.com and ministrysearch.com) are great starting points during the early stages of the search process.

Seeking Sound Advice

Prior to our trip, I had never rented a pontoon boat before, so I found it helpful to read online reviews of those who had already made this trip. We also asked the people at the pontoon rental some of the must-see locations (e.g., best place to cliff jump, best caves to swim inside, etc.).

Churches should also seek out those who have experience with staff transitions (e.g., denominational leaders, consultants, members with hiring experience, etc.). Whenever I consult with a church, I encourage them to reach out to human resource professionals, counselors or those with experience using personality and vocational assessments (such as DiSCMyers-Briggs and others). This process and the information they provide is invaluable for helping a search committee (and the candidate) make an informed decision. Even with extensive interviews, visits and reference calls, a trusted and well-interpreted assessment can save a lot of heartache and disruption for everyone on both sides.

Sharing the Opportunity and the Story

When we concluded our trip we didn't just share the facts of "what, when, where and how much" on social media or when we talked with friends. We also shared our favorite stories—like when a huge wave crashed over the front of the boat and everyone got soaked or how we walked to the back of a cave that looked endless only to find a small hole to climb through and emerge on the other side of the rocks. These stories make the trip real and invite others to truly consider if they too want to make the effort to drive to Munising and rent a pontoon boat for themselves.

I always challenge organizations to move beyond just posting the "what, when, where and salary" of their current open positions (although most don't even include these things!). Don't get me wrong. Organizations need to share the basic details, but they also need to share their story. I always advise churches to create the following items for potential candidates to review:

  • Detailed Job Description—This includes a summary of the purpose of the position, expected hours (full-time or part-time), who the person reports to (a senior staff member, the board, etc.), qualifications, and essential duties.
  • Ministry/Church Profile—This includes a history of the organization, why they exist, their greatest challenges, greatest successes, what they hope to see in the future, and how they see the new person fitting into their current and future story.
  • Community Profile—This includes a description of the community around the organization. Applicants typically have spouses and children, and they want to know what the area is like, if the schools are decent, if it's a rural or suburban area, etc.).

Debriefing the Experience

After we successfully returned the pontoon boat in one piece (propeller and all) we climbed into our car and discussed what we liked, loved and could have left behind about the boat trip. While we didn’t write these things down, we do try to make mental notes and reassess these highlights as we plan our next family trip.

Churches and candidates should also practice some type of debrief assessment and feedback on their experience hiring the new staff member in order to continually learn and improve as individuals and as an organization.

Lead photo credit courtesy of Rob Lee

Category: Vocation