Time for a change?

Monday, 21 October, 2013

Graham Cray's monthly e-xpressions column.

I am delighted with the appointment of Canon Phil Potter to be my successor as Archbishops' Missioner and leader of the Fresh Expressions Team. Phil is experienced in fresh expressions and pioneer ministry at local church, diocesan, national and international levels and will bring fresh vision and considerable expertise to the team.

His appointment also gives me the opportunity to reflect on the management of leadership transitions in fresh expressions of church as a whole. Leadership transitions are tricky for a number of reasons.

Pioneers are not all the same. Sometimes the founding leader or team has the gifts and calling to grow a fresh expression to maturity. Sometimes their gifts are primarily start-up gifts and it is vital that there be an earlier transition to someone with the ability to mature the fresh expression while not losing its missional edge. This is not a transition from a missional to a pastoral role, but the necessary change to make continuing mission sustainable. Some leaders also find it hard to let go, even for the benefit of the fresh expression they have planted.

One vital transition is from founding leadership to indigenous leadership. If the fresh expression has come into being through cross cultural mission, one crucial evidence that it has taken healthy root in its context will be that it is possible for a local leader or leadership team to take it on. Even when the founding leader or team has nurtured 'local' leaders it can still be hard to hand over the reins. Inevitably any leaders whom we have discipled will be less experienced at the start of their leadership than we are at the end of our time in leadership. Inevitably some things will not be done 'as well' for a while. But how else can new leaders learn?

Different phases of the life of a fresh expression require different gifts. It will often be important to hand responsibility on to people who won't do things our way, because they have different, but the right gifts for the future. At the same time it is vital that there be continuity in vision. Leadership transition should not often involve a change in fundamental DNA. I have seen a fresh expression nearly wrecked by a new leader imposing an entirely different model once they had been appointed.

It is very rare for there to be a right or easy time for a leadership transition. Many of our best laid plans for succession fail because life happens, circumstances change, or key people lapse as disciples. A leader moves on earlier than planned, or stands down for personal reasons, and an unexpected vacuum has to be contained. My advice is not to rush to fill the vacancy. A temporary 'interregnum' draws new leadership gifts out of unexpected people. A leader's departure can reveal both whom they have equipped for leadership and who might have been held by their presence.

Leadership transitions are not a cause for fear. The overall leader of the fresh expression, always there, is Jesus present through the Holy Spirit. He never retires or resigns. He will continue to lead the fresh expression until, and after, a new chief assistant leader is appointed. One of the remarkable things about the growth of the fresh expressions movement has been the number of new, and often unexpected, lay leaders it has produced. So use a leadership vacancy to see who else God might be calling. It is a matter of discernment whether the fresh expression needs a leader from within or from outside its ranks. Sometimes an internal appointment is necessary for continuity; sometimes an outside appointment is needed for the sake of fresh energy and perspective.

Finally: no transition is perfect. There is always loss and gain. The Archangel Gabriel already has a job! The whole story of the church is one of God's grace, through imperfect leaders and imperfect Christian communities. It is the grace of God, nor our imperfect processes, in which we are to trust.

+Graham Cray


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