Pastoral Change: Navigating the ‘Transition Zone’

By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (May 17, 2013) – D. Darrell Griffin had a daunting task when he started as pastor of Oakdale Covenant Church in 2000. He was following the 30-year pastorate of Willie Jemison, who had grown the church from fewer than 100 people to more than 1,200 and became an icon throughout the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC).

While the situation presented challenges, they weren’t entirely unique. Every new pastor at a congregation must travel through what he refers to as the transitional zone. In his book, Navigating Pastoral Leadership in the Transition Zone, Griffin writes about this critical phase of ministry, for which he says too many ministers haven’t been trained.

Griffin works with other Covenant pastors through the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program and talks with them about making transitions. He has published articles on transition in the Covenant Quarterly (August 2007) and the African-American Pulpit Journal (Spring 2008). Griffin also has earned certification from North Park Theological Seminary’s Center for Spiritual Direction and is a former chair of the denomination’s executive board.

He recently sat down for an interview to talk about pastoral transitions.

What is the difference between transition and change?

Change is situational. Transition is psychological. If there’s a death in a family, that’s change. How you respond to that death is transition.

So transitions take time, but transitions can’t tell time. Again, if there’s a death in the family, you might be ready to move on soon after, but it might take someone else five years. You have a lot of people who are at different places. They handle things differently. Everybody’s going to handle changes differently. That’s why transitions become so cumbersome, so difficult.

You believe four things have to happen for a successful transition. What are they?

Respect, trust, listening, and then a decision to follow.

A congregation is looking to determine if you respect them. They’ve already shown they respect you when they called you to be their leader. They want to know if you respect them – their history, good or bad – so they want to hear in the preaching and the teaching and the leading that there’s a level of respect. Once somebody respects you, then they’re willing to listen to what you have to say, and then they’re willing to trust you. Once they trust you, then they’re willing to make a decision to follow you.

I was always taught to go in and preach a vision. They don’t want to know about a vision at this point. Again, they want to know that you respect them. You come out saying what you’re going to do. But they’re not listening to you.

That can take a lot of time, but we try to move too fast. You keep walking and you turn around and there’s no one following. That’s why you have to go back to the people and tell them that you respect them. They’ll say, “You left so fast, we didn’t think you respected us.”

Why do you say it is important for new pastors to understand the full history of the church?

We want to write chapter 12 and we haven’t read the first 11 chapters. We’re arriving in the middle of the movie. Don’t act like the movie started with you. Go and read the congregational minutes. You’ll see a pattern of history. Arriving is like an iceberg – only 15 percent is showing. The part that kills you is what’s going on underneath it.

As you understand the history, respect it. Stop trying to avoid it. Don’t bury it. We’ve had some hard times in the life of the church and we’ve had some phenomenal times. Let’s talk about all of it. Don’t judge any of it. People want to know you won’t judge them. That’s why people say that some times were hard, but we made it through. They’re afraid if you know the truth, you won’t stay.

Speaking of history, your predecessor, Willie Jemison, remains an icon in the Covenant even after his death. In your book, while honoring, him, you also point out some of the conflicts and systemic issues that had arisen in the church that you then had to address. Did he read the book?

Oh yeah. I showed him the manuscript. It was the respectful thing to do. He did a lot of wonderful ministry, but not always. It was true, and I tried to couch it in the best language I could. You know the longer you retire, when you are an icon like that, the next thing that happens is you’re John the Baptist, and then you’re Jesus. That’s just what happens anywhere.

What was it like following Pastor Jemison?

It was very, very difficult. But it doesn’t just happen to me. I hear the same story over and over and over again when I’m talking with other pastors who say they’re following a pastor who was revered.

You ultimately gathered a transition team around you. Why was that necessary?

I had to learn that I needed a group of people to help me. That’s where the transition group comes in. I could not do this on my own. It’s very frightening and you bring this group of people – and some might even be your nemesis – and it’s an uncomfortable experience, but you learn there’s no easy way to do something that’s hard. You have to just do it.

When people are brought into the process, then they want to participate. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Pastor, people were telling me you were really difficult and that you’re running the church into the ground. Now that I’m in the transitional ministry group, I see you’re nothing like those people said.”

Did you have some negative views about people in the congregation that proved to be wrong?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. I learned that I had misread people. Some of it was because I was bringing in my own stuff. I arrived at Oakdale, and I’m snapping at people. I’m being defensive when the way some people are acting there is reminding me of my last church. I’m doing flashbacks. And people are saying, “Wait a minute, we love you.”

How long did the transition zone last at Oakdale?

The reason we struggle with this in the Covenant is we do short-term pastorates. It took me about eight years before I had any feeling that I was the pastor of the church. So if I was going to be there for four years or five years, then I’m the hired hand.

When we keep shifting pastors, then guess who’s the pastor – the church board chair. Because he’s thinking I’m going to be here, but the pastor’s going to be gone in the next couple years, so I’ve got to hold this together.

That’s a huge issue we need to talk about. This is why it’s so dangerous in the life of the Covenant and life of many churches that have it. The chair and some of the other leaders don’t have any ties to the broader Covenant.

You’re going to have to train the church leaders. They’re the ones who are leading churches away. They don’t have any ties to the Midwinter. They don’t have any ties to the Annual Meeting. They’re not getting all teary eyed when we talk about the Covenant story. The guy (lay leader) was elected 15 years ago because no one else wanted the job.

You are a big believer in the Enneagram and have used it in your ministry. Why is that?

When you’re a leader, it’s important to know as much about yourself as you can – then you can be in better relationship with others. The same is true for the whole church. I took the whole church through the enneagram because when everyone can apply the same information, it becomes even more powerful.

The more we know about our blind spots and someone else knows about theirs, then we’re not holding on to “It’s your fault,” “No, it’s your fault.” Then it’s, “I know I can be abrasive,” or “I’m not detail oriented,” and then people are saying, “Here’s what we need to go forward, and here’s how we can help each other.”

Editor’s note: Friedman serves as news editor for Covenant News Service, which is part of the ECC Department of Communication.

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