To the leaders of OM at the ILM in March 2013 in Bangkok

After considerable thought, prayer, conversation, excitement and anxiety my wife and I decided to leave the south London church we were leading and head towards Pakistan. The spark which ignited the idea in the first place was a rejection by other leaders of a particular initiative which I thought essential and they did not. Anyway, all things considered it was time to go. Our last Sunday in the church was memorable. We said farewell at three meetings and one of them was the Sunday School. With 120 children and many teachers present we were called out to be prayed for. As people were praying one of the teachers started to cry, and within a few seconds tears began to roll down my face. Before long many of the children were crying. Questions flooded into my head. Was I betraying these children? How could I leave and make children cry? What sort of Pastor was I to so upset children? To me this was a demonstration of how these people and crying children were going to miss me. At the end of Sunday School my wife and I took two sisters home in our car. The sisters were about seven years old. As they got into the back seat they started to cry some more. Before we pulled away and with my guilt increasing, I turned around and asked them if they were going to be alright. Quietly they said yes. Then through her tears one of them shattered my image of what was going on when she blurted out, ‘Pastor… My rabbit’s dead’ and through more tears her sister said, ‘now we can get a dog’ and more tears rolled down their faces. A little stunned I turned back and looked through the front windscreen. I thought they were crying about my departure and the chasm that was going to open up in their lives once I had moved on. It was not so. They had felt the emotion in the Sunday School and filled it with their own meaning. Sadly, it was not about me but about rabbits, dogs and whatever else was popping into children’s minds when they saw grown people blubbering in public.

You often don’t know what is going on in yourself or others. Working out what God is doing can be even more difficult.

This can be the nature of leadership transitions. You often don’t know what is going on in yourself or others. Working out what God is doing can be even more difficult. It is also problematic to read the events and changing landscapes of our lives while seeking to work out what they mean. This is that which makes transitions so tricky.

To what do we need to pay attention as we go through these times of leadership transition? I want to articulate two critical Biblical themes; engage two scripture passages and draw two conclusions that should help and bring perspective.

Theme One: Living the Story

Every church and every leader has a story. How fruitful that church and leader becomes connects to how well their story relates to the story of God. Scripture marks out that story moving us from Genesis to Revelation or from Creation to a new heaven and earth. Creation, fall, Israel, incarnation, redemption, ascension, Church and future hope outlines the overwhelming and mighty themes of scripture. The more our churches and leaders are rooted in each part of that Biblical story the more fully alive they will be and the more glory God will have. Irenaus taught us this. For in the end the only thing that matters is The Trinity and The Kingdom of God. The story of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and what God is doing in the world through establishing the kingdom is told in the story of scripture.   If we neglect part of that huge narrative and become selective in the areas we think are preferable a price will have to be paid sooner or later. In other words, if we do not take scripture seriously both in developing church culture and our own lives as leaders we will be bamboozled in ministry and particularly in times of ministry transition.

…if we do not take scripture seriously both in developing church culture and our own lives as leaders we will be bamboozled in ministry and particularly in times of ministry transition.

Let me illustrate. If you, as a leader, neglect the story of the Fall and therefore miss the nature of your own sinful rebellious heart, it becomes very difficult to access reality. Accessing reality is a critical responsibility for a leader. If the story of the Fall is neglected or underplayed you can easily misread yourself. Having done that, it is then much more difficult to discern what is happening around you. Skimming over the story of the Fall will lead you to becoming the victim to your own eccentric biases because you will not have been able to track the true nature of your own heart. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us awareness of our broken lives in a broken world, granting us the humility to enter into glorious acts of refreshing repentance. When we repent and submit ourselves to God and what He is doing in the world our judgement and discernment return or at least has the chance to.

On the other hand, if you miss the future hope ahead and fail to anticipate what Miroslav Volf calls our ‘eschatological maximum,’ another price is to be paid. The world becomes small and you fail to make decisions in the light of the huge future intentions of God. It is only in the light of an anticipation of a new heaven and new earth that we can come to an understanding of what has happened in our lives and what is happening as we pass through times of transition. Leaders stumble when they do not have this future hope setting their hearts on fire when developing strategies and forging church cultures. Another cost of underplaying this part of the story is loss of patience. If you are leading without a rich anticipation of the future of God it is much more difficult to delay the gratifications of success which leadership often offers. Misread the future and misunderstand the present.

To flourish through times of transition we need to live the story of God and not just particular parts of the story we prefer.

To flourish through times of transition we need to live the story of God and not just particular parts of the story we prefer. All the lenses of the story need to be lined up adequately so we can see as clearly as possible the place where we find ourselves, the transition we are in and what could be the way forward in the future.

Theme Two: Permanent Transition

Walter Bruggemann explains how the Psalms work and in doing so explains how life and spiritual leadership works. He puts everything in a context of transition. He identifies three movements through which we all move.1 He divides the Psalms up into three divisions; Psalms of orientation, Psalms of disorientation and Psalms of new orientation. David G. Firth2 picking up on Brueggemann renames these divisions as Psalms of the ordered world, the disordered world and reordered world. All the Psalms are intended to be prayed as we go through these various stages of life. Ordered is when life is where we want it to be. Disordered usually describes what happens soon after we think it is ordered. Reordered is when through God’s work and word a fresh position is established and we feel ordered again.

The idea is permanent transition both in our conversation with God and in how we engage with life in the everyday.

We are on a continual journey through order, disorder and reorder even if we never move home or church.

This is how leadership in general, and spiritual leadership in particular, work. We think all is under control and we are doing well. Then some wave hits us and the ship begins to roll, challenging the course we have set. Then as Captain we take corrective measures and equilibrium is established until another wave hits or the weather system changes bringing a new set of issues and decisions. I don’t think there is another alternative to this model when it comes to spiritual leadership or maybe any type of leadership. This is the way it will be because we are forever engaging particular persons, fresh conditions and our own complex lives as we seek to lead people forward. We are on a continual journey through order, disorder and reorder even if we never move home or church. The only issue is the intensity of the shifting sea and the particular weather system we are living through at the time. 3

Realising that we are in a place of permanent change is critical in doing well in specific leadership transitions. Perhaps the illusion is to imagine that we are ever in a safe place of orientation, order and stability where nothing alters when in fact the world is swirling around us all of the time and we are in continual change. The time of transition from one church responsibility to another is just a change in the nature of the transition we face continually. Ralph D. Stacey explains, ‘continuing movement towards equilibrium is a failure; success requires the maintenance of a position away from equilibrium.4’ Perhaps he has read the Psalms. The truth is that everything is in transition all of the time be it at glacial pace or tsunami thunder. It is going to be challenging to adapt to transitions and change unless we work with these categories of order, disorder and reorder in one form or another throughout the whole of our lives. The Psalms are key texts for leaders in transition because they are the praises, prayers and complaints of leaders who have gone through it before us.

Story One: Jesus at Nazareth

Transition was intended in Nazareth. The shifting relationship between the leader and the led – or in Nazareth’s case the not to be led – is starkly explained in Mark 6: 1-6. This is how I see the story. Jesus and the disciples arrived in Nazareth which was his home town. Before long the relational and organisational distance between Jesus and the people of Nazareth became apparent. Things had clearly changed. This was not only home town for Jesus it was also small town because Nazareth would not face the big world Jesus was opening before their eyes. It seemed that the people of Nazareth could not adjust to what they saw in front of them. Jesus was the boy to them but now he was returning as the man, or even worse a leader. It appears his transformation had outstripped their ability to adapt to what he now was. Jesus even had a following of disciples and assistants. Home town Nazareth appeared struggled with this. You can hear the relational gears grinding and jamming together as Nazareth tried to work out what was in front of them and who this Jesus was now.

Nazareth failed to navigate the transition in a healthy way. They preferred their unbelief. It seems like it was all too much for them to grasp. Many were amazed at Jesus teaching but others – or the same people – took offence at him. It is as though they were paralysed in the middle of the road as the twin headlights of his wisdom and miracles bore down on them. They asked the questions, ‘Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’ (Mark 6:3). It could also be that they just decided to be offended, therefore gifting themselves a way out of dealing with the stunning realities of what was happening through Jesus. If he was what his life demonstrated then the people of Nazareth had deep challenges to face and new thoughts to think. The implications were immense.

We have in Nazareth a community that could not cope with the transition of a boy becoming a man and a follower becoming a leader.

How did they resolve this internal conflict they endured? Who can know their exact motivations of the people of Nazareth? Yet, boxing Jesus up seemed to be the solution. It appears that they needed to put Jesus into a box so they could manage him. They were not aware that the box was ridiculously small and was destined to be shattered by the resurrection. We have in Nazareth a community that could not cope with the transition of a boy becoming a man and a follower becoming a leader. The people of Nazareth had congealed into their final selves and little could be done. Nazareth refused to be mentored by the one they nurtured. It seems that they could not cope with a prophet who to them was a little boy. Their inability to change amazed Jesus and rather than it being described as an adjustment problem or some other minor weakness, he described it in much more challenging language as a ‘lack of faith’ (Mark 6:6).

Story Two: Peter and Cornelius

In contrast to the people of Nazareth are Peter and Cornelius. Their story of transition is explained in Acts 10. Cornelius was a centurion in the Italian Regiment. He was devout, God-fearing and generous. He lived in Caesarea, the Roman capital over Judea. He would have been leading up to 600 men in his Roman cohort who were probably archers. Cornelius would have worked his way up through the ranks being a non-commissioned officer.5 He was helpful to the poor and had healthy prayer habits. Yet, he was a non-Jew leading an army of occupation. He may well have been sympathetic to Judaism, but he was not a follower of Christ until a meeting happened in his house. Cornelius prayed at three o’clock in the afternoon and had a vision of an angel. The messenger spoke Cornelius’s name and filled him with fear while telling him to go and get Simon Peter. Cornelius sent three of his men to complete the task.

Ministry transitions do not come with much greater intensity than the one God offered Peter through his roof top vision and the obedient response of Cornelius. We know Peter well. Here is the courageous walk-on-water Apostle. He was a devout Jew and now leader in the emerging church. God had used him wonderfully, particularly after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He was in the beautiful place of Joppa, which is now Jaffa, part of coastal Tel Aviv. He went up onto his roof to pray. In prayer he had a trance and a vision was given to him. For a Jew this would have been a horrific vision. On a sheet lowered down from heaven came four-footed animals, reptiles and birds. Then a voice said, “Get up Peter, kill and eat”. He replied, “Surely not Lord”! Peter received this vision three times. This is not the first time Peter has had to hear something three times.

While Peter was hesitating, doing his ‘wondering’ and ‘thinking’ he found that God has provided some leverage that gave Peter momentum. A Roman soldier and his servants were outside his house just as the Spirit had said. Peter was now in significant transition. His visionary trance was changing into concrete reality. This experience was now very real and standing in front of him in the shape of three men calling out his name. The centurion’s messengers wanted Peter to come and speak to them at Cornelius’s house in Caesarea. Peter’s world was being inverted and transformed yet he responded positively to this request.

Up to this point [Paul] was a religious sectarian but now he had the radical challenges of spectacular transition pressing against his nose.

Peter went through his normal prayer routine and his ethnical-theological world was shattered in this place of prayer. He was a Jew and was restricted in what he could eat.6 In his vision were clean and unclean animals and it scandalised him. Yet, this was also a staggering vision of future Jew and Gentile relationships to be expressed in the future church. Peter was being introduced to the unthinkable because of the new thing God was doing through Cornelius. This was not only Peter receiving fresh vision it was a picture of the future shape of the worldwide church. Peter said, “it is against our law for a Jew to associate with Gentiles or even visit them” (10:28) but that is precisely what he was doing. Up to this point the Apostle was a religious sectarian but now he had the radical challenges of spectacular transition pressing against his nose. God had just shown him that no race is better than another. Nothing was ever going to be the same again for Peter or for the church.

Cornelius and Peter were both on a journey towards each other, a journey that Peter would find very difficult. But it is Peter’s ability to be shaped by Cornelius that helps change him and in the end changes the world. If Peter had not made that transition the gospel could have been locked up for years in some sectarian scheme and never breaking out into the Gentile world.

What can we take from these two themes and passages when it comes to ministry transitions? What should shape our imaginations from these themes and passages? I want to focus on two areas.

Becoming accomplished in living out of control

I have always enjoyed my times of ministry transition. They have always been fresh places of thought and release but this is not so for many. Each of us has to find the grace, imagination, revelation and practice to find our own way through.

As Christian ministers and leaders we are not living our own story.

One of the reasons why ministry transitions can be so challenging is because we feel vulnerable and out of control for as long as they last. The time of transition is the time of disconnection where everything is being shifted from one place to another. This is the theme of living out of control is summed up by the ever quotable, Stanley Hauerwas who writes, ‘Learning to live out of control, learning to live without trying to force contingency into conformity because of our desperate need for security, I take as a resource for discovering alternatives that would otherwise not be present.’7 Eugene H. Peterson expresses much the same thing in his writing.8 If we are able to let go of the controls of our lives who knows what blessings may come our way that we would not otherwise have noticed if we had kept control. As Christian ministers and leaders we are not living our own story. We cannot live as if we are the sole producers of our own lives. Rather, living out of control, yet rooted in the middle of the story of God opens up our imaginations to all the possibilities offered in times of transition. We cannot control the various events and seasons which come to us as we move through order, disorder and reorder. What we can control is our response to them.

Peter was able to live out of control but the people of Nazareth were not. It was as Peter responded to his vision that revelation happened. Significant breakthrough took place in his imagination and world view as he responded to the vision when he merged back into the material reality of Joppa after his trance. Peter explained later that, through his vision, inaccurate and inappropriate judgements were challenged, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (9:28) and his parochial local world became global, “God does not show favouritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do right” (9:35). This only came to him as he was willing to go with the startling vision of what God was calling him to do and live out of control. Yet, it is remarkable how many Christian leaders, called to follow Jesus wherever he leads, can be so controlling when the process of transition takes place. My guess is that fear quietly injects itself into our hearts and solidifies in our heads so we can’t think straight.

Here is a challenge for this is where we are called to be exemplars. How can we call people to a life of faith and risk if we cannot be schooled in learning to live out of control, which is a prerequisite of the life of faith? It is so easy to be seduced by our own expectations of the institution or denomination for which we work and imagine that it must carry us or always find a place for us. For some it is as though there is a debt to be paid to us by our institution or denomination. We feel we are owed even though these same organisations have given us a place to live out our calling. With this sense of being owed worming around our heads we trust the institution to deliver rather than the God in whom we trust. Never confuse the Church of England with the Holy Trinity, the two are not identical. Fifteen years ago I took a sabbatical from a group I was working with. While I was considering the move one of the leaders said to me, ‘don’t do it, you will lose your powerbase if you go’. I took this as another confirmation that it was time to take the sabbatical. Grasping and clinging on to institutional power will make transitions particularly difficult. To flourish through transition we need to learn to let go. Peter could do this. Nazareth could not.

Walking through transition with others

We are being shaped and mentored in one way or another. All of our assumptions around how life works and our understanding of common sense demonstrate the influence of culture, family and relationships. We are being formed through our choices and what they come to mean for us. Right at the heart of this formation is the company we have kept and now keep. ‘Do not be deceived’ says Paul, ‘God cannot be mocked. People reap what they sow.’9 Our ability to cope with times of transition will be related to the company we have kept before the transition takes place. Who have been the people who have shaped our hearts and minds?

For Pastors and church leaders times of transition are intensely related to people. The work of being a Pastor or Shepherd means that times of departure and transition are full of emotional, spiritual and psychological fissures. There are high expectations emotionally, spiritually and psychologically when re-engaging with the next group of people we are called to lead. Moving on in ministry is to do with pastoral responsibility being handed over to someone else and picking up a new set of responsibilities from another once the time of transition has ended.10

Without community to teach us who we are we are lost in a desert of introspection and guess work.

Right at the core of ministry transition is mentoring. What ideas have mentored me? What desires mentor me? Who is mentoring me through this transition process? Who am I mentoring? Where am I rooted in my head and heart as the transition takes place? We cannot know ourselves alone. Without community to teach us who we are we are lost in a desert of introspection and guess work. Walking through ministry transition with others is vital to doing it well. I want to identify three areas of mentoring which will help as we navigate ministry transition.

Mentored by God

Jim Houston explains what a Christian is through stating, ‘Becoming a Christian is a demolition of one’s identity from the ruins of self- enclosure as being individualistic – literally ‘in-human’ – whereas to be human is to be a social being. Instead, one becomes more ‘open,’ not only to other people, but also to become radically reconstituted as a ‘person-in-Christ.’11 Becoming a Christian is to do with the shift from just being self-defined, self-focused and individual to becoming a ‘person’ who becomes who they are because of their communion with God and their community with other people.

Understanding ourselves as a ‘person’ in this sense is central to ministry and leadership transitions and to great spiritual leadership. This is at the core of what God is doing in our lives and is our deepest need. Kierkegaard taught us that a human being’s highest achievement is to let God be able to help him (or her). In one sentence he resets the cultural clock of the western world and explains to us what human success looks like. Success is being mentored by God in relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Reading scripture not only for information but for formation shapes the way in which we respond to God, the world and ourselves.

Therefore, right at the heart of leadership transitions are the practices and disciplines of the faith and in particular prayer. Scripture is also central to the process. Reading scripture not only for information but for formation shapes the way in which we respond to God, the world and ourselves. A prayerful contemplative engagement with scripture nourishes us on the journey during times of transition. It was in the place of prayer that Peter was mentored by God through receiving his vision and a whole new world opened up for him. His ordered world became disordered but was reordered as he listened to God.

If God does not mentor us through scripture and prayer then we will be mentored by other things which will shape our heads and hearts. Money, sex, power, fear, time and place will tend to dominate and enslave our decision making processes during times of change. Being mentored through scripture and in prayer by Father, Son and Holy Spirit will keep us nourished and receptive in times of transition and able to spot the serpent’s tail.

Mentored by community

In contemporary western organisational life mentoring is usually seen as a dialogue between two people. The idea is that someone who is a bit further along the road helps someone just beginning the journey. We have many examples of this in scripture with Elisha and Elijah, Ruth and Naomi, Barnabas and Paul, Paul and almost everyone else in the New Testament. But the weight of the mentoring process needs to be communal rather than one-on-one relationships, important as they are.

Keeping the right company is critical when it comes to shaping our imaginations and the decisions we make.

Jesus developed His disciples in community. He called the group into existence and formed it around himself as the teacher. The motivation behind His mentoring was not to discover the potential of each disciple so they could live their lives well or that they may have a sense of fulfilment. They were called together so they may establish the church. Jesus calls, teaches, walks with and releases His disciples so they will become the leaders of the emerging church. This communal mentoring theme continues into the first centuries of the church. Cyprian, Pachomius, Basil of Caesarea, and Augustine all place an emphasis on mentoring the group and not only the individual.12 However, keeping good company in communal mentoring is important. If you were mentored by the Nazareth community it would have been a toxic experience. Keeping the right company is critical when it comes to shaping our imaginations and the decisions we make. However, keeping the right company does not mean keeping safe company.

I have been the member of several mentoring groups. Some have been built around a leader and some have been more peer-focused. The relationships built up in these groups often survive after the conclusion of the group. Many of these sorts of groups go on for decades. These relationships are vital at times of ministry transition. They often contain people who love you but are not so interested in what you can do for them or the particular ministry you have. They usually contain people who are more interested in you as a person rather than in what you can deliver. This is what makes them valuable, particularly in times of transition. They are particularly helpful in absorbing the shock of change and in working out the possible options for the future.

Mentored by a person

If you are blessed you may also have a person who is your mentor, this is a person who ‘with God-given capacity and God-given responsibility to influence a specific group of God’s people towards His purposes for the group,’13 mentors you. Church leadership is to do with influencing a group towards God but in times of transition those same leaders usually need someone to mentor them.

A skilled mentor is able to notice our story and see how it connects or disconnects with the story of God.

A skilled mentor is able to notice our story and see how it connects or disconnects with the story of God. They are able to challenge us and call us out of our self-indulgence and fantasies so we may re-engage with God’s story. They are often able to notice where we are in terms of order, disorder and reorder sometimes pointing out that what we considered to be disorder is actually reordering or what we considered as order needs some disordering. They can become Cornelius-like figures in our lives obediently responding to God’s initiative and preventing us from developing Nazareth-like stubbornness when called by God to change. A good mentor leads us out of our boxed up lives and points out the horizons and possibilities ahead. In doing so they prepare us for the next phase of ministry and pastoral responsibility when we will do the same thing for others who are negotiating their way through the labyrinth of money, sex, power, time and place.

Living the story of God, allowing room for our reordering, disavowing the unbelief of Nazareth and being open to the voice of God, is cultivated in us as we learn to live out of control and experience a mentored life. At least this is what I have learned on the journey so far. What is the one virtue that brings this together? Courage. We will need the courage to say no to a little life and yes to the biggest life we can possibly live. If we have the title of Minister, Leader, Pastor or Shepherd our calling demands no less. All this is preparation for the time when a weeping little girl bursts your vain imaginings by telling you, ‘Pastor …. my rabbit’s dead’ and introduces you to the realities of ministry transition.

This article is adapted from a chapter entitled Letting Go and Holding On from the book Moving on in Ministry (2013) SCM-Canterbury Press. Please do not copy without permission.

1 Walter Brueggemann, 1984, The Message of the Psalms, Minneapolis: Augsburg

2 David G. Firth, 2005, Hear, O Lord: A Spirituality of the Psalms, Cliff College Publishing

3 It is possible to live through all of these phases at one time depending on the various spheres of life we inhabit.

4 Ralph C. Stacey, 1993, Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics, Pitman Publishing

5The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein ed., 1981, Richard N. Longnecker, Acts, vol 9 p. 385

6 Leviticus 11

7 Stanley Hauerwas, 2010, Hannah’s Child, London: SCM Press, p.137

8 Eugene H. Peterson, 2007, The Jesus Way, London: Hodder, p. 276, where Peterson describes Hauerwas as ‘my theologian of choice as a conversation partner’

9 Galatians 6:7

10 The intensity of this process depends much on the model, style and ecclesiology practiced. In more collegial models this transition can be easier but it depends on what is really happening underneath the skin of the church and leadership.

11 James H. Houston, 2002, The Mentored Life: From Individualism to Personhood, NavPress

12Edward L. Smither, 2008, Augustine and Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders, Nashville:B&H Publishing, p.90-91. Smither also points out the importance of correspondence and Church Councils as critical mentoring tackle.

13 Robert Clinton, 1988, The Making of a Leader, Colorado Springs: Nave Press, p.245

Viv Thomas

Viv Thomas is the founder of Formation. He is passionate about ‘the spectacular ordinary life’ and seeing people flourish into all that they possibly can be. Viv has a national and international speaking and teaching ministry. He is an Associate International Director for OM International and continues to travel the world seeking to see leaders grow. Leadership, Spirituality and Mission are particular passions. See all posts by Viv →