Transitions: Leading Churches through Change -- Review

TRANSITIONS:  Leading Churches through Change.  Edited by David N. Mosser.  Foreword by Robert Schnase.  Louisville:  WJK Press, 2011.  Xv +248 pp.

            There is no shortage of books dealing with the idea that change is taking place within the church, but despite the plethora of resources there is still room for more contributions.  The fact is, even though change is constant, and the pace seems to be growing exponentially every year, none of us, no matter our age, is truly comfortable with the pace of change.   Just the other day, when Facebook issued another set of changes – pretty major ones – it seemed as if everyone, young and old, was upset.  How dare Mark Zuckerberg change Facebook.  Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that MySpace was the talk of the town, but it didn’t adapt and got left in the dust.  So, even if we don’t always like the changes that come our way, more often than not the only choice we have is to adapt.  

            Like the rest of the world these changing times affect the church, and it either adapts or dies.  Some churches have jumped into the chaos of our contemporary realities with both feet, and then look to see where the whirlpool will take them.  Others build walls, seeking to protect the faithful from the effects of the age, and this adaptation works, at least for a time.  We see this form of adaptation in significant number of Americans who reject the scientific theory of evolution, preferring to hold to the biblical storyline, despite the fact that this storyline is pre-scientific.  How long this adaption holds remains to be seen.

However we seek to approach this season of constant change, those who are called to preach have been entrusted with the job of leading the churches through this era of transition.  In a volume entitled Transitions, we find a series of essays and sermons edited by United Methodist pastor David Mosser.   Mosser notes in his introduction that while change is inevitable, and will impact the church, “too often ‘new and improved’ fails to deliver what it at one time had so hopefully promised”  (p. xv).   Preachers, therefore, are called upon to deal with the fears and the grief that comes with change, including their own.  They will have to help the church discern when to adapt and how to adapt.  With this task in mind, Mosser brings together the thoughts of preachers, professors, pastors and consultants to help we who are preachers to “think through how the church and our faith can help us in our times of high anxiety” (p.  xv).    Some of the contributors are likely well-known to many clergy – people such David Buttrick, Thomas Long, Ronald Allen, and Thomas Troeger.  Other contributors are not nearly as well known, but each contributor speaks to this most important topic facing the church and its leaders.

Mosser’s volume is composed of twenty-six chapters divided into four parts.  Part 1 covers the topic “The Clergy in Chaos.”  Eight chapters explore the complexity and realities of our time.   In seven chapters, essayists and preachers explore the realities that congregants face in adapting to change.  Topics include preaching to the elderly (something most of us do on a regular basis), divorce, death, and change itself.  Part three addresses the congregation in crisis (chapters 16-21), and finally in part 4, five chapters look at the community in transition.  Thus, preachers are guided through a process that begins with looking at themselves, moves to the congregants, and then on to congregation, with the community bringing the journey to a close. 

As with any volume like this different parts of the book will speak to different people.   I’ll mention a few that stuck out to me.  The first essay is a must read for all clergy facing transitions either out of a parish or into one.  E. Carver McGriff and his successor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Kent Millard have written about the nature of their transition.  How often have we seen pastorates undermined by the actions of one’s predecessors?  Theirs is the story of a successful transition, but not all stories are quite as successful.  McGriff writes that to make such a successful transition one must “lay down your life for your successor.”  It can be devastating to see loyalties transferred to someone else, but without this happening “your successor may fail, and so you will have failed” (p. 6).  Although there are differences of opinion on this matter, McGriff is likely correct in stating that “when you move away, stay away.  Stay away unless and until the person who follows you invites you back” (p. 7).  As for the new pastor, Millard notes that it is beneficial to all if one offers appreciation for the history and the ministry that has led to this opportunity.   

Buttrick’s essay on preaching to the elderly is another important contribution.  The future may rest with the younger generations, but if your congregation is like mine, you will have a significant number of members over sixty-five.  Many are strong leaders and givers.  They may have long histories with the congregation, and their spiritual needs are important as well.  The word that Buttrick offers the preacher is that the elderly deserve to hear the gospel and not just therapeutic words.   If Jesus’ message was one of God’s new social order, do we preach this message to the elderly, or do we simply preach death and resurrection, promising them heavenly sunshine?  Buttrick answers – absolutely.  That’s because Jesus’ new world coming offers the elderly a future. 

Ron Allen, who is a friend, writes helpfully about using one’s own story in helping congregations deal with transition.  I must say that I still struggle with this – I’m a fairly private person (despite my public persona) and my family is even more so.  And yet Allen is correct in noting that members benefit with knowing how we deal with change – both our successes and failures.  June Alliman Yoder speaks to a different aspect of the preachers task, and that is persuasion.   She asks a good question:  “What is the point of a sermon that doesn’t try to do anything, a sermon that is a speech about a religious topic rather than a powerful proclamation of the desire of God to make us into a new people? (p. 112).  In other words, though God can use our words in ways we may not expect, it doesn’t all fall on God’s shoulders.  One of the reasons for our problem with accomplishing a purpose is that many have abandoned the idea that preaching should persuade.  It is true, she notes, that preachers can manipulate, but how can we serve as catalysts for change if we abandon this calling and just tell stories or inform people about the content of scripture?  And so she calls for the redemption of persuasion. 

Robert Reid offers an essay dealing with ways in which the preacher can respond to resistance during the process of transition and change.  He notes that while reason has its place, it’s unlikely that logic will win the day.  Thus, the preacher must appeal to the heart, do the research necessary to explain one’s reason for change, and their call for change must resonate with the majority of the constituency.  It’s not easy work, but change happens when leaders become vision bearers. 

The final essay I’ll mention is written by Mary Alice Mulligan, who speaks to the task that many of us struggle with, and that is finding a way to embrace transitioning neighborhoods.  Many churches find themselves in neighborhoods that are changing dramatically.  But, if the congregation ignores its neighborhood it will die, and many are dying as a result.  She speaks of acknowledging from the pulpit that God is in the neighborhood, offers ideas for lay leadership, and then offers a suggested sermon series rooted in Jeremiah that might help prepare a congregation for being present in a redemptive way in the neighborhood.   She writes prophetically:

In all the changes our congregations and communities face, by trusting that God can bring life in all circumstances, we can preach messages of embracing the transitions.  When the surrounding neighborhood is deteriorating, with God’s holy power, we engage in ministry with the neighbors, for we are co-responsible for the welfare of the community surrounding our church building.  In fact, we are part of the community.   (p. 217).
Mulligan speaks primarily here to congregations finding themselves in urban and perhaps rural situations where change is happening that challenge the church.  I would add that there significant changes and challenges facing churches (like mine) that are present in the suburbs.  Are we ready to address the changes happening there, especially as economic instability hits these bastions of middle class life?

            In closing this review, I’d like to give heed to Wesley Allen’s point that we as preachers will fail in our calling if we do not connect the story of Jesus with our own stories of change.  He writes that “the hermeneutical move we preachers must make is to resist always stressing the unique aspects of the story of the Christ event” (p. 242).  If we take the idea of incarnation seriously, Jesus lived a real life that can connect to ours, and like us, he faced the realities of change, and out of his life and his message there is a word of hope.

            This is a book for preachers, and preachers would be wise to give attention to its contents.  One can read it from cover to cover or dip into areas of interest.  It will be, however, a helpful resource for all who pick it up.

And to purchase a copy, check Amazon here:


Gary said…
Most "churches", so called, would be better off to shut down than to continue leading people astray and teaching false doctrine, which is what most churches do. Those "churches" that reject the Bible as written, who teach evolution, gay rights, etc. would be much better off to close their doors and everyone do something else on Sunday.
John said…

So if the doctrine you espouse is wrong then your church should shut down and your faith life should be discontinued as well?

Will you agree that God and God's workings are a mystery? Would you agree that humans are inherently deficient in their ability to grasp and God's ways and that the divine mysteries can only be known through the operation of the Holy Spirit within us, helping us to overcome our human defects so that we can understand scripture and the working of God in the world around us in the way God wills us to?

Those others with whom you disagree also believe their understandings are as close to the truth as the Holy Spirit working within them can bring them. I would guess that you would also claim that your beliefs are likewise as true as the Holy Spirit working within you can bring you.

Would you agree that the quality which makes your beliefs more likely to be true is the depth of your personal conviction and faith? The Holy Spirit has also convicted me. But in so doing the Holy Spirit has also informed me that God speaks to each human being in a language, idiom and cultural context which will be understood by each person - "each in their own language".

We cannot know the totality of God but only those parts
which God chooses to disclose to us, and God may choose to disclose different aspects of God and of God's truths to different people.

For example, to you has been disclosed God's wrathful side, the side that hates untruth, that hates lies and that feels compelled to mete out just punishments and rewards to the deserving. To me has been revealed the side of God which repents of God's vengeful intentions out of a deep and abiding love for the sinner, a love which was made known in the Incarnation, who laid down his life for the sinners among us.

So we both have a significant part of the truth of God, and yet neither has the whole of it. Should we both give up on our faith life or should we both continue to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling?

Along this line, how would your define the admonition to theologize in an attitude of "fear and trembling"?
Gary said…

If people are believing and teaching things that contradict the Bible, then it would be better not to be doing that. A heretical church would bring more glory to God by shutting its doors than by continuing in heresy and apostasy.

What we should believe and practice is laid out for us in the New Testament. So no one has the excuse that they did not know, or could not know what Christian doctrine is. The problem is that people refuse to believe the Bible and do what God said to do.
Brian said…
That sounds like a promising book. I love that Mary Alice Mulligan and Ron Allen do so many projects together, because they have differing approaches.
Anonymous said…
Your uneasiness about Ron Allen's chapter is similar to my own sense that the use of autobiographical material needs to be done with caution and care. Ron and I discussed this point, without finding agreement, back in the early 1990s before I retired from the faculty where I taught worship and he teaches New Testament and preaching. My views are formed, in part, by one of the wisest books on preaching that I know: "Presence in the Pulpit: The Impact of Personality in Preaching" by Hans van der Geest (John Knox Press, 1981). He writes: "Preachers do not make themselves personal by telling about their private live. Being too personal is basically a disguised form of being impersonal. Only the appearance of sincerity is given" (43). I'll try to resurrect a review of this book that I published soon after it was published and post it on my website.
Robert Cornwall said…

Thanks for your thoughts. I have tried to be more personal in recent sermons, but there seems to be a fine line we must walk. Because neither my wife nor son like to be used as sermon illustrations, I have to be extremely careful what I say.
Steve Kindle said…
Bob and Keith, I find that making oneself the butt of a joke humanizes the pastor. Once just before heading to the pulpit to preach, my wife whispered something in my ear in full view of the audience. My first remark from the pulpit was to acknowledge same and suggest they were interested to know what a pastor's wife might say to her husband just before preaching. (Audible affirmatives came from the audience.) So, I said, "Diane said to me, 'Keep it short; I'm hungry.'" A chorus of "Amens!" followed. Would "humanizing" be what we are looking for when we "personalize"?
Robert Cornwall said…

I agree that there is a place for humanizing ourselves, but again there is a fine line between self-deprecation and demeaning one's self.

I was just reading somewhere else today that in sharing stories we not make our selves the hero.
Anonymous said…
A few more lines from van der Geest's book (which is based on extensive interviewing of people in Switzerland): Preachers "are too personal if they tell things about themselves which have an embarrassing or discomforting effect on the listeners. A limit to what is private exists, and a speaker is not permitted to go beyond it. Things that are too personal bring the preacher too close to the congregation, and it turns away" (p 43).

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