Last night I was reading about the transition problems that the mega church Chrystal Cathedral in southern california are currently undergoing. The renown pastor Robert Schuller and his handing off the reins of the church to his son and then the financial deterioriation of the church are all part of the symptoms of a church that has not been successful in handling the transition of leadership as well as the imploding economy that every house of worship is contending with these days.
Many of us remember his sunday morning TV show "Hour of Power." It spoke a positive message to millions of Christians across the country. The church grew and the presitge of the church with it as Dr. Schuller became one of America's great Christian preachers. They also built the Cathedral and the other buildings that eventually took their financial toll on the church.
But it is the problem of succession that I focus my attention on. The recent newspaper article spoke of the tradition of passing off the mantle of leadership from fathe to son. In this case the son of Dr. Schuller ultimately resigned and due to a number of reasons cited in the article the impression I received was that the son's style of managment and spiritual leadership demonstrated that despite the familial connection as heir apparent he was not a good fit. Now one of the daughters has taken over with a series of guest preachers on Sunday mornings.
Well, it doesn't really matter whether the successor is the son or whether a search committee goes out and finds the individual. The transition to the next generation of clergy is a difficult one. Getting the right fit is not so easy. I am reminded of the attempt to succeed King David and King Solomon. With Solomon his two sons Jereboam and Reheboam started a civil war within ancient Israel and thereby created the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel and Judea.
Even with the best of intentions finding the right person to succeed is a tricky business. In today's world the invention of transition clergy is a good way for the lay leadership to take a step back and reassess the community's needs includng strengths and weaknesses. I wonder if lay or volunteer leadership really understand how a clergy person's influence really impacts the culture of the congregation? Many a congregation and clergy who succeeded someone beloved or not but one who served a long time do not see how challenging it is for the successor to establish their own imprint and fit into the culture of the congregation. Surely there is a balance that the new clergyperson must respect between stretching themselves to fit into the prevailing culture versus establishing their own identity and helping to bring their gifts and contribtuion to shape the future of the community.
This is a process that takes a lot of time and energy on all sides. This especially applies if there is a retired clergyperson, the emeritus, who is still part of the culture fo the community. That person can make or break the transition by providing feedback and respecting the relationship of the successor to the community. Or that person can undermine in very subtle ways and not so subtle ways the successful transition. I have heard and seen all these dynamics occur. Somehow the clergy and the volunteer leadership must establish safe and clear boundaries for everyone involved in the professional and volunteer leadership. Only then can there be a hope that the successor will have a chance to carry on the mantle of leadership.