After 12 years leading one of Colorado Springs' larger churches, Pastor Matt Heard was due for a break. But upon returning in September from a summer of study and planning, Heard had big news for church elders. He was resigning.
The elders were surprised, but sprung into action in an effort to make the transition a success.
"After considering several timelines, it was mutually decided that the announcement should be made sooner rather than later," says Doug Olsen, executive pastor of Woodmen Valley Chapel, which reaches 5,500 souls at its weekend services at two Springs locations.
Heard gave his last sermon Oct. 26. Over the subsequent three Sundays, Olsen and the transition team provided members with an overview of their plans and biblical background on the topic of leadership change.
Pastors come and pastors go, and even when handled well, such transitions can cause disorientation, anxiety, grief and even trauma for church members, says Bob Kaylor, a Monument pastor who helps churches undergo leadership changes.
"Pastoral transitions are times of acute vulnerability for congregations," says Kaylor, author of "Your Best Move: Effective Leadership Transition for the Local Church."
"And the stakes are higher the bigger the church."
When handled well, pastoral transitions can energize a church, says Kaylor, the lead pastor of Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church in Monument.
But it's not unusual for attendance and giving to decline by 15 percent. And when the process is handled poorly, or when a pastor leaves due to moral failure or a church schism, the transition can be jarring and destructive.
Few church leaders receive specialized training in leadership transitions. That's why Kaylor leads workshops on the subject and wrote his book to guide elder boards and transition teams trough the process.
"A new adventure"
Kaylor says 40 percent of pastoral transitions fail when new leaders spring into action without first getting to know their new congregations.
"The pastor in the early stages of a transition has to be equal parts anthropologist, detective, psychologist, and historian," he writes.
That's what the Rev. Patti Agnew has been doing since she was named the first female pastor at St. Paul's United Methodist Church, which was founded in 1890.
"In a lot of ways, I think church is like a family," says Agnew, who has served eight congregations. "You come in, and you hope you can fit in and find ways to get along. One way to do that is learn people's stories."
Agnew also has shared her own stories, starting with the first sermon she gave at St. Paul's on July 7. Entitled "My Faith Journey," her sermon quoted Lamentations 3:22-23: Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
"People are hoping for a competent spiritual leader and pastor who is going to care for them, learn their story and walk through hard times with them," says Agnew, who faced stress in moving her family from Aurora.
Transitions can be tough on everybody, but they also can bring "a new adventure," Agnew says.
"I just do what God has called me to do, and I don't worry about the rest," she says. "Change takes us out of our comfort zone enough to depend on God, who is faithful."
Interims fill the gap
When churches can't transition seamlessly from one pastor to the next, interim pastors answer the call. Interims, who typically serve one to two years until full-time pastors are appointed, currently lead both First Baptist Church downtown and Bethany Baptist Church on West Colorado Avenue.
Rick Foster, the interim pastor at Bethany Baptist, compares the interim pastor's role to that of the trail boss on a wagon train.
"You look out ahead, you know where you're going, you use the whip on the oxen and, if necessary, the people, and you take a few arrows in the process," he says.
Foster doesn't sugarcoat the dire scenario he faces at Bethany, which had nearly 700 members during its heyday in the 1970s but now serves about 60.
"We've got a great debt-free facility that's mostly empty," says Foster, who hopes to bring both healing and challenge to the congregation.
Why does he do it? He says he loves churches and hopes to see them grow healthier and impact their communities.
"I am absolutely convinced that the only hope for the world and for people's lives is what the church has to offer, which is the good news of Jesus Christ," Foster says.
"My passion and vision is to be a catalyst for churches in transition to experience a new level of spiritual health."