Leading in Times of Transition

Every crisis is followed by a season of transition. There are decisions to be made and questions to be answered. How will life look following the crisis? How will we make the "transition" from the old to the new?

On September 11, 2001, we as Americans faced a grave crisis - the impacts of which are still unfolding. We will never be the same. We can attempt to force the new back into the old - and remembering something I read about wineskins, that is not a wise choice. A new life will not flourish in an old lifestyle anymore than a butterfly can shed it's cocoon and decide it liked the old way of crawling better. The butterfly is a new creature, never destined to crawl again.

We don't know yet, as Americans, what the new will look like. This is true because we are still in transition - a place we may be for some time. And the local church is part of that global transition. My desire within this article is to offer some leadership thoughts about transition that will help you not only negotiate life in these more dramatic and traumatic days, but serve as a leadership model for any ministry transition that you make in the normal course of ministry.

Not every transition is preceded by a crisis, but any level of change involves transition.

My primary source of study is a book I read several years ago titled "Managing Transitions" by William Bridges. I have found myself referring over and over again to its primary theme and principles. I will give this material to you in outline form in case you want to use it in a teaching or training environment yourself.

"Change comes more from managing the journey than it does announcing the destination."


"It's not so much that we're afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it's that place in between that we fear... It's like being between trapezes. It's Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There is nothing to hold onto."
- Marilyn Ferguson, American Futurist

Change is situational - a new building, new boss, new policy.

Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the change. Change is more external and transition is more internal.

America is not fearful of the new, we are pioneers by nature. It's the internal trauma of being in transition and dealing with the unknown. We're not sure what to do. We're not sure what we can do. That's the power of effective leadership. Remember when President Bush addressed Congress on September 20th - and we all felt better? Why did we feel better? Nothing had changed from the time his speech began to the time it ended. We felt better because a leader rose up and said: (summary paraphrase) "I will take you from the old to the new - and we will succeed." He basically, in some 40 master-crafted minutes talked us through this first phase of transition. He didn't pretend to know all the answers, but was confident about the outcome.

Transition involves a journey from one identity to the other (for major changes), and that takes time. There are some things in life you just can't rush. It takes nine months to have a baby no matter how many people you put on the job!

Think about the wilderness experience with Moses and the children of Israel. That took 40 years, not because they were lost, but because the generation that had known Egypt had to die off before they entered the Promised Land.

It won't take 40 years for any change your church needs to make - we hope! But people's outlooks, attitudes, values, self-images, and motives don't change overnight.

Moses caused the ending when he led his people out of Egypt, but it took 40 years of transition to get Egypt out of the people. The transition time is not a meaningless waste of time; it is where the battle of change is fought and either won or lost.

1. Acknowledge that loss is the first step to progress.

Transition begins with an ending. Transition begins by letting go of something. The suffering in New York is largely due to the trauma of loss. Your church transitions may not be that dramatic, but the leadership principles are the same. (Not to mention the fact that we are all affected by the terrorism in New York.)

* Identify who is losing what.

Psychologists tell us that all people perceive change as a loss. Pastors ask people to change their attitudes, their lifestyle, and how they spend their money. One of the first questions people ask is, "What will I lose as a result of this change?"

Transition begins with the letting go of something or someone. For example, relocation involves letting go of familiar surroundings, and the change of a staff member involves saying goodbye to a friend. This process of letting go is tough.

Losing a Sunday School room may be silly to you as the leader, but not for the person who has shared meaningful relationships in that room for years. It's not the new room they resist, it's the insecurity of the transition.

* Accept the reality and importance of the subjective losses.

People aren't reluctant about the change; it's the losses and endings they are reluctant to embrace.

Don't argue with what you hear from the people in the congregation. That will only stop conversation and damage communication.

Don't try to convince them that everything is fine. Losses (endings) are subjective. God is still in control, but people are human, with human insecurities.

It's good to give them hope, proper perspective, and your positive viewpoint, but don't reject their frame of reference.

* Acknowledge the losses openly and sympathetically.

Discuss the pending changes without getting defensive.

Remember, when anxiety rises, motivation falls. Tend to the people's hearts. This doesn't mean baby-sitting, but a little hand-holding goes a long way!

Don't accuse the people of overreacting. Remember, people "overreact" to a change when they react more than you do. This may come in the form of anger, denial, bargaining, sadness, low output, foot-dragging etc. Don't mistake these signs of grieving for low morale or trouble-makers. The key here is to be sensitive and explore their personal losses with them. This may be as simple as genuine listening.

2. Compensate for the losses.

This is not handled with integrity by telling people about how wonderful the future will be. First, they don't know that for sure, and second, only leaders think in the future, followers live in the now. The question is, what can you give to compensate for the loss?


* Genuine concern
* An opportunity to participate in and shape what is new
* Recognition for past contribution
* New programming that is better than the old
* A new staff member that leads them to the next level

(Remember that when making an emotional staff transition, the change is never complete until the new person is on the campus; and the change is never successful unless the new staff member is likeable and has the potential of being "better" than the previous staff member.)

* Opportunity for personal growth
* Good old fashion honesty
(This does not imply lack of truth or candor as routine in your leadership, but emphasizes the value of human connection, understanding and empathy. In short - offer yourself.)

3. Give people the maximum amount of information with large doses of hope.

Hope is the foundational principle of all change.

Information is not a commodity with which you should be exclusive. Don't form exclusive information clubs! Be inclusive - share as often as possible with as many people as possible. But remember, as you lead, always give hope. Don't only give "facts" from your head, deliver hope from your heart. Remember President Bush's speech again - what was the key ingredient? Hope.

Communicate creatively. Communicate clearly. Communicate consistently. But above all, communicate hope.

Again, let me emphasize the importance of leadership. If ambiguity increases so does the desire for answers. That is why people in transition are so prone to following anyone who seems to know where he or she is going. Pastor ...lead on!

4. Clearly define what is over and what isn't.

At times good church people will globalize change. In the process of, for example, a relocation, you might hear things like: "Everything is changing" or "Nothing will be the same." Of course that's not true. So in a non-defensive way, communicate all that is not changing. For the few things that are, honor the endings with an appropriate kind of celebration. And always treat the past with respect.


Rarely if ever is there a clean line between the old and the new. Transition is a challenge because it's gray, it's a blur, it's unclear and unknown. You and your church will not go to sleep one night with the old and wake up to something completely new. You can't turn the key or flip a switch to effect change, but you can cultivate the ground and provide the nourishment conducive to a successful transition.

1. You can explain the need for a basic purpose and outcome you seek. People need to understand the logic of the change before they turn their minds to work on it.

2. You can paint a picture of how the outcome will look and feel. People need to experience it imaginatively before they can give their hearts to it.

3. You can lay out a step-by-step plan for phasing in the outcome. People need a clear idea of how they can get where they need to go.

4. You can give each person a part to play in both the plan and the outcome itself. People need a tangible way to contribute and participate.


Church leader, nothing is more challenging than leading through times of transition. Candidly, you are not likely leading if you seldom face issues of transition and change, for that is the nature of leadership. At the same time, however, nothing is more rewarding than successfully guiding your people "to the other side." Know where you're going, why you're going, and hang tough through the process. God has given you this opportunity to lead His people, according to His plan and for His glory. Lead on!