Leading the church through crisis including the Minister’s sudden departure
Transitional ministry is where a minister temporarily enters a church that is experiencing instability following but not necessarily caused by the unexpected departure of the previous pastor. This study has attempted to explore the experience within the context of a Christian denomination that has a Congregationalist polity. Empirical research of this phenomenon is extremely limited, therefore elements of grounded theory have been utilised to understand the situation transitional ministers entered, the goals of their ministry, the approaches to leadership they brought to the role, and the processes they adopted to progress the church.
Six transitional ministers were interviewed to gain rich, relevant data. Through the iterative processes of grounded theory, concepts emerged through open, axial and selective coding, which allowed for the development of theory from the substantiated contexts of the participants. This resulted in the generation of theoretical propositions, along with a model that seeks to explain the phenomenon.
Data analysis indicated that transitional ministry environments are preceded by conflict, organizational dysfunction and/or a loss of direction, which leads to financial and numeric decline of the congregation, such that it threatens the future viability of the church. This results in denominational staff being asked to intervene, which in turn leads to the appointment of the transitional minister.
The core category that emerged through the research is that transitional ministry is concerned with the restoration of health to the congregation. To achieve this, a philosophy of pastoral leadership including instilling hope, listening, learning, building trust, serving, engaging, envisioning, taking decisions, teaching and communicating are identified as being important.
Due to the nature of the congregational crisis, five different processes are then identified to assist transitional ministers achieve their objective. (1) They enter their churches by actively affirming their parishioners and offering hope for the future of the church. (2) They establish structures that ensure the church is operational. (3) They identify and resolve underlying conflict, and/or dysfunction. (4) Having sought to facilitate healing within the congregation, they move to working with the church to envision its future. (5) They establish a Call Committee that recruits and nominates to the congregation the name of its next settled pastor.
Findings of this study were then compared with literature and research that focussed on leadership, organizational development, and ecclesiastical polity.
While this exploratory study is confined to the context of transition in a dynamic environment within the autonomous church, the model and propositions it has generated may offer some small measure of insight for religious practitioners of change management. At the same time, it may provide a basis for future empirical research in the specific area of transitional ministry but also the leadership of change within the wider social sector.