6 Lessons For Finding The Best Transitional Leader
By: Jay Mitchell
I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review about how Private Equity Firms hire CEOs for companies that quickly need to be turned around. It got me thinking about churches in decline and in need of a new pastor to help lead them into a new season of growth.
Here are six lessons churches can learn from businesses and other organizations about finding a new leader to navigate a season of transition.
1. Experience is overrated
When I’m brought in to help a church find a new Senior Pastor, it’s often after a season of decline. When I ask what they are looking for, they often talk about their hope of finding someone with a significant amount of experience leading a church – someone who has led as a Senior Pastor.
However, the skills needed to turnaround a declining church are not always those built through long-term leadership in another church. Often, the best leaders for a season of transition are leaders who think outside the box and are willing to try new things.
Yes, they should have a track record of driving growth in some setting, but it doesn’t need to be as a Senior Pastor. If you are looking for a new pastor to help turnaround your church, look for someone younger with fresh ideas, but with the emotional intelligence to navigate your unique situation.
"If you are looking for a new Pastor to help turnaround your church, look for someone younger with fresh ideas, but with the emotional intelligence to navigate your unique situation."
2. Team-building skills are paramount
More than top-down leadership or even a big vision, turnaround pastors need to be able to build teams – both within the church and within the community. They can build trust, leverage talent, and find creative ways to mobilize teams in ways that prepare the church for growth. Rather than look for someone with a big vision, find someone with the ability to build effective teams.
3. Resilience is a must
Most organizations – but especially churches – are resistant to change. Even in the face of steep decline when it’s evident that continuing down the current path may lead to a church closing its doors for good, most churches will opt for a leader who will keep doing the same things the church has already been doing, only better.
So when a new leader steps in and starts making the necessary changes that could potentially lead to growth, all kinds of resistance crops up. To navigate this resistance, the turnaround leader will need to be resilient. They need to listen. They need to find ways to continue to cast their vision, but they also need to hold the course in the face of opposition so that the organization can make a turnaround.
"They need to find ways to continue to cast their vision, but they also need to hold the course in the face of opposition so that the organization can make a turnaround."
4. Authenticity is key
Great turnaround leaders are ruthlessly honest about how things are going. They identify problems. They admit failures. They speak plainly and sometimes bluntly about the challenges that the organization faces. Turnaround churches do not need a politician or even a pastor who makes people feel better about how slowly their ship is going down. Nor do they need a mad scientist who works out a secret plan with a few other leaders. They are leaders who are open, honest, and real.
5. Urgency must be balanced with empathy
The Harvard Business Review article suggests that in turnaround situations in companies, urgency is often much more important than empathy. When it comes to turnaround churches, I disagree. For a church in decline, there is a negative momentum that not only needs to be stemmed, but reversed. That will require quick and urgent action. Sometimes it involves re-aligning staff or budgets, starting new programs and/or restructuring old programs or sometimes eliminating them altogether. While the conventional wisdom says don’t change for a year, declining churches can’t wait that long and the right leader will understand that instinctively. But unlike a business, churches are about people. The effective leader will know how to balance urgency with empathy for those who are struggling with change.
"BUT unlike a business, churches are about people. the effective leader will know how to balance urgency with empathy for those who are struggling with change."
6. Don’t expect them to stay forever
It's worth stating: the turnaround pastor will likely not end up being your long term leader. Their unique skill will be in identifying problems and then implementing creative solutions. They will bring a new culture and vision, and with it, a new identity that will set the table for long-term sustained growth. The skills that are needed in a turnaround church are not the skills you will need for your next season. The type of leaders who are good at turning things around will probably want to find a new opportunity to do what they’ve done with you. Don’t despair about it. Celebrate it. And then find the pastor who can take you to the next season of growth.
What lessons have you learned about leadership in your seasons of transition? What qualities of a transitional leader do you feel are most important?