It is said that change is an inevitable part of life; it is inescapable. My experience can certainly attest to this old adage. As Gail Sheehy once said, “If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we are not really living.” Well, if this is the case, then I certainly have been doing a lot of living—and hopefully a lot of growing as well!
Change is often highlighted by periods of transition. Isaac Asimov put it well when he said, “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that is troublesome.” Indeed, most of us struggle with the transitions that bring about change in our lives.
We don’t like change. We resist it. Just because it is inevitable doesn’t mean we have to like it. Right? I mean, most of us could really do without periods of transition in our life. And yet they happen all the time, whether we initiate it … or it is initiated upon us.
My life and ministry have been marked by change and transition. My most recent ministry experience was certainly no exception. As I reflect back upon this experience, this story can be best told by four distinct periods of transition, each leading to change:
1. Transition from one ministry to another
I was ministering as a Pastor of Family Ministries for a church on the East Coast. This position was designed to function as an encourager, mentor, and overseer of each ministry and ministry leader in the church. (In many ways, this role was very similar to that of an XP. As I grew and developed in this ministry, I began to see how God had prepared and wired me to enjoy this role.)
However, because of declining attendance and a dwindling leadership pool, it became apparent that the church no longer needed someone to fulfill the job description that they had outlined three years earlier. This, coupled with a change in the senior pastorate—and thus a change in the direction and philosophy of ministry—led me to pursue other ministry opportunities.
This search ultimately culminated with my being hired as the first Executive Pastor at a church in suburban Chicago in March. Since there was a fair amount of change occurring at the East Coast church, my transition went fairly smoothly. The hardest part, of course, was saying goodbye to all of the wonderful people.
2. Transition into a new ministry: The honeymoon phase
At the Illinois church, my honeymoon phase lasted until the end of the first summer. The period was marked by the fact that the SP was on sabbatical (to work on his doctoral dissertation). He took this sabbatical a scant three weeks after I arrived at the church.
Now the fact that the SP was not involved in the day-to-day affairs of the church for the first five months of my ministry was both positive and negative. It was positive in that it smoothed the transition for people who formerly reported to the SP since he was not around. It was also positive because it showcased my administrative and relational strengths in the minds of the whole body since, from their perspective, I “held the church together” during the SP’s absence. Public and private affirmation flowed from the elders, ministry leaders, and congregational members during and after this period of time.
This sabbatical was a negative situation in that it severely stunted the development of my relationship with the SP. As a result, our relationship never really developed during my tenure—we never managed to “hit it off” on a personal level. This seemed to affect the amount of communication we had with each other as it pertained to ministry, as well as the amount of confidence in what each of us was doing.
3. Transition from the honeymoon phase to the end of my second year of ministry
This phase could also be called “settling into the role.” This season of ministry involved getting settled into the various roles that my position entailed—establishing new ministries, evaluating existing ministries, and charting a course for these ministries to be more effective. I also began to develop relationships with the staff and key lay leaders. As time went along, I understood them and how they operated; they also understood me and my style of leadership.
Hindsight is always 20/20; as I look back, one of the key indicators of future events should have been the process of hiring a new Pastor of Student Ministries (PSM). Typically, one of the key roles for an XP is to play a significant role in the hiring/firing of the church’s staff. Shortly before I arrived at the church, the current PSM announced that he was resigning, in order to take a position at a church overseas. After I arrived, a search committee was formed to find his replacement; I was asked to be on this committee.
During the summer, while the SP was on his sabbatical, we screened, questioned, and personally interviewed a number of viable candidates. At the end of the summer, the committee unanimously agreed upon a strong candidate to present to the body for their consideration. We brought him and his wife out for a candidating trip in mid-September. By then the SP had returned from his sabbatical.
The SP had talked with this candidate before he came and gave his approval for the candidating trip. However, once the candidate was here, the SP began to have his doubts about him, culminating in a decision that the candidate not be brought before the body for a vote.
Having gone through this, the committee took a few weeks to regroup. Once the committee began to meet again, the SP decided he should serve on this committee, instead of me. Eventually, this committee found another candidate and presented him to the body for their consideration. As an XP who had had the responsibility to oversee the church’s staff, it was odd that I was not asked to give input on this person—either before he was presented as a candidate, or once he came to candidate.
In many ways, this hiring process served as the quintessential illustration on how this particular church viewed the role of an XP—and certainly served as a clear indicator as to why this role was seemingly never really valued in this church’s culture.
4. Transition out of the ministry of this church
For me, as I look back, my transition out of this church started as I began my third summer of ministry. It was at this time that the SP happily finished his dissertation and graduated with his PhD. He, like the church, was greatly relieved that this was finally behind him.
However, now that he had finished dedicating so much of his time to this endeavor, the real question began as to what he was going to do now that he had so much “extra” time on his hands. Now that he was able to give his undivided attention to the church again, what would that mean for the church, the staff, and for me?
For the church, it meant he had greater availability in his schedule to meet with people. For the staff, similarly, it meant that he was in the office more, and thus more accessible. For me, well, it meant the beginning of the end. While he tried to just focus on his role as preacher and overseer of the worship ministry, he had difficulty limiting himself to just that—he seemed to have trouble allowing an XP to fill the role of “chief of staff.”
This perhaps was most evident during the capital stewardship campaign that was to be launched in the fall of that year. Eager to see the dream of a larger facility realized, the SP and the elders moved full speed ahead into the process of launching this campaign. The committee was formed and all of the key positions were filled within a matter of weeks. This committee had their first meeting and everyone seemed to be very excited.
It was at this meeting that someone apparently asked the question, “What about Jim? Will he have a role in this campaign?” Up until that point, no one had even stopped to consider this. A role was then created for myself—a role that was not defined or given definitive responsibilities—just a role so they could show that their XP was part of the capital campaign.
Now I don’t believe that the SP and others were purposely marginalizing me. They were simply acting the way they always had; they didn’t realize that their paradigm needed to change if they were to grow beyond a small church mentality. (Note: They were averaging around 650 people at this time, so they were not a small church in terms of numbers, but certainly were in terms of structure.)
Shortly after the launch of the capital stewardship campaign, the SP and elders asked to meet with my wife and me. While initially the purpose of the meeting was unclear, we soon found out that they wanted to address what they deemed as inappropriate behavior by my wife, as well as inappropriate response to her behavior by me. After two additional meetings that took place over the following three weeks, I was asked to resign.
The reason I was asked to resign was not because of job performance. How do I know this? Well, ironically enough, the day after the initial meeting, I received my yearly review; the review was favorable and I was given a raise for the following ministry year!
In many ways I was expendable. It was not necessary for them to “fight” to keep me on staff because they did not value the role of an XP in their structure. In fact, the capital stewardship campaign did go on as planned. The culmination of the campaign resulted in the church taking on enough debt that the elders informed the congregation that they would not be able to hire any other staff for at least three years. Thus, for all practical purposes, the role of an XP was deemed expendable for at least another three years.
When you go through a difficult transition, such as when you are forced out, you can’t help but think that you somehow failed. I wondered—if only I had done this, or seen this, or said that, things would have worked out differently. While I have felt like a failure since my time at that church, I realize that failure is nothing more than a pruning process that God allows for His glory—and ultimately for our good. As Chuck Swindoll once wrote:
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company … a church … a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past … we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is ten percent what happens to me and ninety percent of how I react to it. And so it is with you … we are in charge of our attitudes.”
I could not have said it any better.