Search-in-Place: A More Effective Strategy for Clergy Leadership Transition

A More Effective Strategy for Clergy Leadership Transition

by Ken Howard

If I told you that there was a shorter, less painful, and more effective way to handle clergy leadership transitions, would you want to hear about it?

I thought so…

Traditional Transition

It would not be an understatement to say that clergy leadership transitions are not one of those experiences that most congregations look forward to. In fact, a senior warden I know once described her parish’s rector search as an AFGO (another “frigging” growth oppotunity). Another compared it to hitting his thumb with a hammer, “because it feels to good when you’re done.”

Not a surprising reaction, I suppose. Even when transitions result in a positive outcome—a leader that everyone loves—the intervening process is not entirely pleasant. First the current leader leaves, which can be rather jarring, since it often happens without much warning—a month or two at best (because nobody wants to be a lame duck leader). It can sometimes feel to the parish like a family feels when a parent has died or abandoned them. Then a interim minister is called, and that comes with its own set of issues. It’s long (the old rule of thumb is month of interim for every year the departing pastor has been with the congregation). It’s meant to shake up entrenched ways of doing things, which is jarring even when necessary and done right, but if not done well, seems like change for change’s sake: pain for no gain. Meanwhile, there’s always a lull in attendance, since congregational life feels like it’s “on hold,” but if the interim is offending too many people, it can turn into an exodus. Finally, the new leader arrives and “everyone” is happy… except for the people who aren’t. Some depart in the first month. Others, like the search committee (yes, the search committee, according to research), will leave over the next two years.

The ironic thing is, most of the transition actions described above are intentionally disruptive. Because the traditional transition model assumes that most congregations, if left to their own devices, would be so averse to change and so desperate for certainty, that they would stay stuck in their entrenched ways, cut short the search process, and make the mistake of calling a new pastor that is exactly like the departed pastor (if beloved) or exactly the opposite (if despised).


The emerging Search-in-Place model does not assume the worst of congregations in transition. Neither is it overly optimistic. Rather, it assumes that some congregations are healthy enough to handle the issues that any transition presents, and will confront those issues without being forced to do so by an externally-imposed process.

The process itself is fairly simple. The outgoing pastor gives the congregation at least 12 months ahead of her intended date of departure. Then two simultaneous and separate tracks begin. A search committee is formed (by the vestry or other governing body) and a search process is started. Meanwhile, the pastor continues to lead the parish in all of its regular activities. Each track is insulated from the other. Neither the pastor nor the search committee have any interaction with each other. The pastor doesn’t speak to the congregation about the search committee/process or entertain any questions or complaints about the search committee. Similarly, when the search committee updates the congregation about the search process the pastor may not be present, nor be given any reports verbally or via email. Once the new pastor is called and a starting date is set, the current pastor departs one to two months before the new pastor’s arrival.

My last congregation employed the search-in-place model when I began my transition to a new and different type ministry. Despite the fact that I was the founder of the congregation and had been there almost 20 years, the transition process went remarkably well. It was shorter than expected (and could have been shortened further with no negative impact). The ministries of the congregation continued uninterrupted, energy remained high, few people left, and while attendance was somewhat lower than usual it still was much higher than it would have been in the traditional transition model. Yet despite the dip, for the first time in several years the church managed to stay in the black throughout the summer, and by the end of the year attendance had jumped back to normal. And as an unexpected bonus, the new pastor views me as a resource, and calls from time to time for advice (or to figure out where something has been squirreled away).

Evaluation of Search-in-Place Transition

While the search-in-place approach to pastor transition is not for every congregation, it can be very effective when certain conditions and qualities are present in the congregation, its clergy and lay leadership, and in the quality and availability of judicatory support. I outline below the necessary qualities that must be present in the congregation, the pastor, the governing body, the search committee, and judicatory staff for Search-in-Place transition to be effective.

Search-in-place will be most effective when the congregation:

  • has a clear sense of the parish’s vision and their own individual callings within it, both as a whole and as individuals.
  • has a fairly high level of member engagement.
  • is committed to growth (and is not currently losing membership).
  • is adaptable and comfortable with experimentation and change.

Search-in-place will be most effective when the pastor:

  • can commit to stay in place for six to nine months.
  • has the ability to set clear and inviolable boundaries between pastor and search committee.
  • is capable of projecting a calm, confident, and non-anxious presence.
  • is sufficiently aware of his own feelings of grief, sadness, and anticipation, and aware of and capable of helping the congregation to face and process those same feelings.
  • is comfortable with steadily relinquishing control to other clergy or lay leaders or over the period of the search process.

Lay Governing Body
Search-in-place will be most effective when the congregation’s lay governing body:

  • has a clear sense of the parish’s vision, and their own individual callings within it, both as congregants and leaders.
  • has a senior lay leader that is experienced, confident, and has sufficient time left in his/her term to be in place for six months to a year after the new pastor is called.
  • has no more than nine members (a larger size diffuses responsibility, reduces agility, and hampers flexibility).

Search Committee
Search-in-place will be most effective when the search committee:

  • has a clear sense of the parish’s vision, and the search committee’s charge and timeframe, both as a whole and as individuals
  • has no more than nine members (a larger size diffuses responsibility, reduces agility, and hampers flexibility).
  • has strong support from judicatory staff and (if needed) a consultant with a clear understanding of the search-in-place approach.
  • has access to the resources (financial, informational, and other) needed to accomplish its tasks.

Search-in-place will be most effective when the staff person from the diocese, district, synod, or other regional body:

  • has a clear and consistent understanding of and support for the search-in-place approach (nothing will kill a search-in-place faster than passive-aggressive judicatory support).
  • remains actively available to the search committee throughout the  process.

Need Help?
FaithX consultants with search-in-place experience are available.