Transitions in the Methodist Church

Kevin and Edward Coyne, in an October 2007 Harvard Business Online article, discuss a new CEO’s role in shaping leadership and vision in an organization. In the first 60 days, personnel decisions are made by the CEO. Some executives are moved, some let go, some reassigned, and some promoted. The new CEO makes the call because the CEO gets the credit or takes the blame for the success or the failure of the organization.

In many Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches, staff members keep a letter of resignation on file. When a new senior pastor arrives, the pastor uses the first 60 to 90 days to evaluate staffing to see if they fit into their working style and vision. A few Presbyterian pastor friends of mine have used resignation letters – many times to the relief of the congregation.

The United Methodist Church is different. Pastors are appointed by Bishops, not interviewed by the church (most of the time). This promotes a culture where the new leader of the organization must tread carefully while negotiating relationships and leadership style. Granted, there are times when pastors come into healthy churches with no staff problems – but there are exceptions. Having served on staff at large churches, I have personally seen struggles between a new pastor and staff. In those situations, the struggle caused tension and led to the early delegitimazation of the new senior pastor’s leadership in the eyes of some members.

At one large church I served, a long time staff person walked into my office after meeting with our new senior pastor. The staff person said, “I’ve been here a long time and I’m not changing the way I do things.” The church supported the senior pastor’s vision and it wasn’t long before the long-time staff person departed – but it took time and it was a struggle.

The United Methodist appointive system is the best there is in my opinion. If you disagree, eat lunch with a Baptist preacher. But we do need more consultation between pastor and church in certain situations. Churches with full-time staff should be allowed a conversation between pastor and church/staff before the appointment is made. The new pastor needs to know if the staff and the staff parish committee are fully supportive. The church needs to know about the pastor’s vision and leadership style. Church and pastor may decide it is not a good fit, or they may decide it is a great fit. This in no way undermines the appointive authority of the Bishop – but it can make for more successful appointments. Actually, the process I’m suggesting was used previously in one United Methodist church I know and the result was a tremendously successful match of pastor and church.

I am not advocating turnover with every new pastor. Methodist preachers move too often for that to make sense. I’m just suggesting a conversation between church and pastor about leadership style, vision, and staff – before the appointment is final. Businesses, and the many mainline denominations, operate this way.

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