Let’s look outside our industry for wisdom on succession planning

What religious leadership transition can teach journalism

Journalism isn’t known for its interest or ability in applying lessons from outside the industry. We’ll quote experts from all sorts of places for stories, but when it comes to learning about how other industries work — what makes them thrive and also what challenges them — in order to improve the way we work, our track record isn’t great.

When I first started thinking about the subject of succession planning for digital news, I knew that I wanted to look beyond our profession for inspiration, to work against what seems like a natural default to look within only. I’ve spent considerable time looking at the nonprofit sector, which made a lot of sense because so many of the journalism enterprises launched in the last 15 years have been nonprofits. One part of that sector has captured my attention in a way that I wasn’t expecting: religious institutions.

On first glance, journalism and religious bodies seem to have little in common. We look for multiple sources to corroborate stories and information; whereas religion is based on faith. But if we look deeper, both the work of journalism and that of religion are deeply mission centered. Some journalists even deem their work a “calling,” as priests or other religious leaders do.

Several religious traditions — the Unitarian Universalist and Reform Judaism, for example — have offices and staffs within their institutions that are focused on helping to shepherd a transition of leadership within local religious bodies. The staff are there to support the departing leader and also the congregations they are leaving, as they begin their search for who will come after.

I had an opportunity to talk with two religious transition leaders about their expertise and experience with this season of change in a congregation’s life. Much of what they said translates well to the journalism leadership transition context, and I’m grateful that they shared their time and wisdom.

Deciding when it’s time to go

Rev. Keith Kron is the director of the Transitions Office of the Unitarian Universalist Association. A longtime minister, Kron assists both clergy who are deciding about their next steps as well as congregations looking to welcome a new leader.

When speaking to ministers who are thinking about whether it’s time to leave, Kron said he asks the following questions:

  • Do you feel like you can continue to minister to your congregation? 
  • Do you feel like you can continue to be effective? 
  • Is the work bringing you satisfaction? 
  • Are you ready for something else? 
  • Can you reinvent what you do where you are in a way that both you and the congregation will like?

“In terms of ministry, people can tell when a person isn’t interested,” Kron said. “What we say in congregational life is that the congregation knows when you stop loving them. And really the question is, do you have the self-awareness to realize your impact on people and when it’s having a negative effect?”

The choreography of announcing a departure

Once a minister makes the decision to leave, Kron recommends a tight timeline for sharing the news with all the important stakeholders.

“This is the prescription I give: Talk to your board president on a Tuesday. Have a meeting of the board on Wednesday. Send out a letter to the congregation on Thursday. Preach about it on Sunday. That way as many people as possible hear it directly from you, as opposed to someone else,” Kron said.

Sharing the news with all constituents at the same time is also the advice in the Episcopal tradition.

Rev. Meghan F. Froelich is the director of the Office of Transition Ministry in The Episcopal Church. She’s been a transition minister herself and prior to her church service, she worked in several corporate jobs. She explained that many of the specific decisions around timing and process for leadership transitions are left to the discretion of each diocese, which is led by a bishop. (The church in the United States is made up of 98 dioceses.)

If a clergyperson leaves one parish for another, then best practice is for them to work together with their bishop, transition minister and both congregations to announce their departure and new call simultaneously. The Episcopal Church is a small world, she explained — just like journalism — and it would be bad form for people to learn about a departure from someone else.

Once the announcement happens, the diocesan leadership works to support the congregation throughout the transition process, which concludes when a new clergyperson is called.

A ‘good goodbye’

Froehlich emphasized the need for making time for both the clergyperson and the congregation to have what she called a “good goodbye.”

Each diocese makes their own recommendations about the specific time period, but it’s generally between one and three months, she said. 

“There’s a lot to do in leaving,” she said, “and I don’t just mean logistically but also pastorally.”

Kron echoed that sentiment and added that it isn’t a time to put new things on the to-do list.

“People want to talk about the moments that mattered to them,” Kron said. “This is not about you getting one more thing done. Your one more thing to get done is to leave well. I’ve seen ministers blow an entire ministry by trying to do much too much in the last six months.”

Both Froehlich and Kron said that it’s also important during this time to set expectations for the congregation about the relationship with the clergy going forward. Outgoing ministers should not take on new assignments for weddings or funerals for after their departure, for example. Instead, they need to leave space for the new person coming in — and for that person to build bonds with the congregation.

Kron recommends that this transition time, from announcement to departure, should last no longer than six months.

The role of interim leaders

About 40% of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States have full-time clergy, and when they leave, Kron recommends that they employ an interim minister before bringing on another full-time, “settled” leader. Interim ministers are leaders who come in from outside the organization to help shepherd the congregation through their transition phase. They have no role in the search process for a new leader and are not in the running for the full-time post.

A congregation could have an interim minister for up to two years, as they determine what kind of person and skill sets they need in their future clergy. (Most interim ministries last a full two years, though some during the pandemic have lasted a little bit longer.) The interim period is a time to help them look forward, instead of backward. It can also be a difficult time, as an interim minister may ask uncomfortable questions.

“It’s really about holding up a mirror and going, ‘This is who we are, and this is what we’ve been. Who do we want to be?’” Kron said.

Interim ministers receive specific training to do their work and have often been settled ministers themselves who are now in the later years of their career. They learn that they won’t get everything done in their short time with a congregation, and that’s OK. Instead, they focus on where they can effect change. The role requires a thick skin, Kron said, because the people in it are often the target of a congregation’s grief, which can show up in many different ways. 

To be an effective interim, ministers need to be good listeners and know how to engender trust in a congregation so they will share their stories — stories that will help pave the way for deciding what they need for the future. (This advice echoes what I heard from others in journalism and nonprofits about interim leadership.)

How to prepare for what is next

Interim leadership doesn’t always happen in The Episcopal Church, though it is often recommended when a longtime leader of 15 or 20 years or more leaves. Regardless of whether a parish brings on an interim, a similar process of introspection and examination is necessary for a congregation’s healthy transition, Froehlich said.

What congregations need is a vestry — a governing body akin to a nonprofit board — that is calm and continues to collaborate, communicate and act together.

“There’s room for grief. There’s room for celebration and remembrance. There’s room for dreaming and hoping,” Froehlich said. “There’s room for all of those things. And nobody is going to have them all happen at the same time.” 

She emphasized the need for processing all of those emotions and reactions and to resist the urge to move ahead and just say, “What’s next?” Congregations need to have an honest awareness of what they accomplished and what they need to learn from or improve on. The ones that do that, she said, set themselves up well for welcoming a new leader and for ushering in the next phase of their life.

Conversely, if congregations are stuck in the past, it doesn’t allow them to look for and find a new priest who could be different or more appropriate for their next season.

“If you’re just stuck in, ‘Oh, we miss the last person,’ then you are never going to give the new person a chance,” Froehlich said.

It’s good for congregations to remember they aren’t the same as when the departing priest originally came in and that they won’t have the same relationship with a new person that they did with the last. It could be better or not, but it will be different.

She added: “It’s never a perfect search process. There is no such thing.”

This article was originally published by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. Amy is a member of the RJI Fellows Class of 2022-2023.

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