Effective Pastoral Transitions in the Time of COVID-19

How can a pastor moving from one congregation to the next make a successful transition, given the unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis? Lovett H. Weems Jr. says the challenges of the day demand creativity and flexibility. But it is also more important than ever to follow normal best practices for making a right start.

Leaving Well

For pastors, the first step in an effective transition is drawing to a close the ministry in the church they are leaving. COVID-19 adds layers of complexity to an already emotional time. The sense of grief and loss that accompanies transition will be heightened for everyone. It is more important than ever to attend to the emotional dimensions of transition and to communicate strength, comfort, and hope.

It is still important to say goodbye to church members and community leaders. But the conversations may need to happen in different ways — by phone, letter, Zoom, or video. Similarly, a farewell celebration or closing worship service may need to be conducted virtually or with proper social distancing, depending on local safety protocols.

Parsonages, Offices, and Moving

Pastors and congregations understand the importance of having clean space ready for a new pastor’s arrival. However, this year the preparation of a pastor’s office or living space has become more important than ever. In cleaning and sanitizing the pastor’s office and parsonage, congregations should follow the procedures regarding COVID-19 on the CDC website: “Reopening Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting Public Spaces, Workplaces, Businesses, Schools, and Homes.”

It might be beneficial to allow a buffer of time between the departing pastor’s move out and the new pastor’s arrival. Where there is no parsonage, remember that it may be more difficult for an incoming pastor to sell a previous home and/or find a new one. Alternative housing options may be necessary in the interim.

Entering a New Congregation and Getting Acquainted

One key to a smooth arrival in a new church is spending as much time as possible getting to know members. Learn as much as possible about the church, the community, and the people. This listening and learning often happens in face-to-face meetings, social events, or house parties. Some of these early visitation practices will need to be replaced by other forms of communication — a video introduction, phone calls, Zoom gatherings, personal notes, and so on.

People may be experiencing displaced grief, especially if they did not have the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to the former pastor, so be gentle with yourself and others. Given the state of flux, many things you need or want to accomplish will take extra care and extra time. Be patient with people, systems, and processes.

Preaching and Worship in the First Months

In a time when many congregations are not worshiping in their buildings, stepping into the “pulpit” for the first time comes with a whole new set of challenges. Depending on your location you may need to begin worshipping online, so be prepared!

If the congregation is worshiping online, continue to use whatever video/virtual platform was used before transition. Work closely with the those responsible for putting together online worship and give them plenty of lead time. Remember, congregations have already experienced seismic shifts in their worship due to COVID-19 restrictions, and more change is coming. It is even more important to be sensitive to the ability to absorb change.

An incoming pastor’s early sermons are an important way for the congregation to become familiar with their new pastor, especially in this time of limited face-to-face interaction. Use the first several sermons to introduce yourself. It is also essential in light of the collective experience of COVID-19 to speak hopefully about the future. Preach trust, faith, and the importance of caring for people and community.

Congregational and Community Financial Stress

Coming to understand a church’s financial picture is always a priority for an incoming pastor. The COVID-19 era makes the subject more urgent. There is little time to waste and the stakes could be quite high. Because the pandemic is closing churches for months and stressing the economy so profoundly, it is critical to learn all you can as quickly as you can about the church’s financial heath and stability. Do not assume the new situation is like that of your former church.

Clear communication and sensitive leadership are required in this time of financial uncertainty. It is important to be attentive to how COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have impacted church members and the larger community, and it is important to affirm whatever the church has done to continue ministry under difficult circumstances.

Article from Lewis Center for Church Leadership

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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