How To Deal With An Unexpected Staff Transition
By: Jennifer Winge
Staff transition is inevitable in any business or organization, and the church is no exception. There are many reasons for a staff transition (some are rather painful and unpleasant) but what about when a rock star staff member is called to a new position and resigns from your church? Whether or not you saw it coming, transition can be scary and unsettling. As a church leader, you are called to navigate this transition in a way that honors the staff member, your team, and the church.
Here are 5 keys to navigating a staff transition well:
1. Don’t Freak Out
As a church leader, you have the responsibility to remain objective about staff transitions, honor that staff member for the years of ministry he or she has served in your church, and be excited to see God’s unfolding plan for his or her life. Trust that God has a big plan for your church and a big plan for your staff member. These don’t have to be mutually-exclusive!
Although there may be some growing pains in the process, God’s big plan for this transition will ultimately prove to be best for both parties. Even if it’s easy to see the long-run perspective here, it usually takes more than a couple minutes to process through it. Don’t make any rash or immediate decisions on your next steps; there is no need to jump into leadership overdrive. Sleep on it, talk it through with a trusted friend, and meet with the resigning staff member when you are ready to proceed.
2. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
The best way to honor your team and the church during transition is to over-communicate: don’t leave anyone in the dark about what is happening! Start with the resigning staff member. Let this person know you will be talking with other staff and volunteers about some ways to fill the gap, and assure that you will keep him or her in the loop as you come up with a transition plan. Remember, this person wants this transition to go smoothly just as much as you do – which is what makes them a rock star staff member to begin with.
It’s important to quickly and effectively communicate to your staff as well. When a staff member is called to a new job or area, the people he or she works with will be excited and want to celebrate the new adventure ahead. Allowing the staff members to tell their stories will allow the rest of the staff to see the reason they're leaving and champion them in the process. You don’t have to have it all figured out, just be honest and genuine, keeping a line of communication open throughout the entire process.
When communicating with the church, each situation will be different in the timing and method for the position and your church culture. The underlying thing to keep in mind is to allow the staff person and their family to say their goodbyes. Allow the people who have done ministry and life with this family an opportunity to show appreciation and love.
3. Honor Family
Working at a church creates an intertwined tapestry of work, faith, friendships, and church. When a staff member leaves, you are losing a family in your church; put aside the fact that you are losing a member of your team. Treat this person how you would treat any family that is extremely involved in your church and moves on to a new adventure. Let his or her entire family know how much they will be missed, but ultimately that you are so excited they are following God’s calling.
4. Long Hellos and Short Goodbyes
I have always been a fan of a long hiring process and a short resignation process. Why? The staff member leaving isn’t going to make any decisions that affect more than the next two weeks. If you allow a resignation to linger, the ministry could (and often does) become stagnant. Figure out what needs to be handed off and allow the staff member the time to do so. Communicate your expectations clearly so everyone is moving in the same direction – a fairly seamless handoff.
This typically should take two weeks to a month, depending on the position. There are always exceptions to this time frame with each situation, but the point is to not to prolong the inevitable. Maintaining forward momentum during a staff transition is essential in keeping a ministry healthy. Don’t feel like you have to replace the position immediately (remember: long hellos!).
5. Exit Interview
I recently heard of a church that has the same group of elders that do all exit interviews, but they never keep notes. Their job was to create a safe place for someone to share their heart on where God is leading them and why (hence the lack of notes). If there were a consistent theme (i.e. not feeling valued, micro-managed, or unrealistic expectations), they would deal with it accordingly.
An exit interview should not be a place where bridges are burnt by being honest. It is a time when feedback should be used to celebrate a ministry season and make the organization better.
If this is the first time your staff member has had the opportunity for candid feedback concerning his or her position, leader, or ministry I would strongly encourage you to champion a systematic approach to reviews for your staff. The benefits reaped are well worth the time spent.
There are many things in a staff transition that you cannot control, but the one thing you can control is how you lead through it. Use these tips to better lead through unexpected staff transition on your church staff.
How have you learned to lead well through staff transition in the past?