That Pesky Handoff...
“So, did you guys, like, practice that part? The handoff?” I (Lisa) cringed as I listened to the reporter ask this question of one of the runners of the men’s 4 x 100 medley after their poor performance in the 2008 Olympics. It had been painful to watch. Nearly every handoff was badly botched, costing otherwise excellent runners crucial time. Their failure had been obvious, and someone needed to talk about it. But still, how insensitive can a reporter get? “Of COURSE they practiced it, you idiot!” I wanted to shout. “And they feel terrible about it right now.” My takeaway, as one who runs when I’m late for a plane and at almost no other time, was, “Wow. Handoffs must be really hard.” They involve an incredibly vulnerable moment to be handled with skill, trust, and confidence. Relay runners do in fact practice them, endlessly. The tricky thing in ministry is that these crucial moments come relatively rarely and we don’t practice or plan for them, so they catch us off-guard and all too often bring out the worst in us: fear, clinging to control, failure to honor the leadership that has gone before us and failure to endorse the leadership coming to replace us. I’ve participated in failure on both sides.
So it is with fear and trembling that I reflect on a pattern I’ve observed again and again on our travels: the poorly executed handoff from older to younger national church leaders, and the costly stumbles as young, idealistic missionaries have handed off ministries to national leaders--sometimes far too hastily, sometimes releasing their grip far too slowly. I hope to make these comments with humility, prefacing them with the awareness that handoffs are hard the planet over, and that we probably did numerous things wrong that we remain blissfully unaware of as we handed off various student ministries over the years. That said, I do think some aspects of the lived experiences of Eastern European and Russian peoples have complicated the handoffs of church and parachurch leadership in particularly poignant ways. Two stories to illustrate:
Senior Pastor Handoff Failures: One of the dynamics that complicates transitions to younger leadership in this part of the world is that the older generation of pastors suffered so, so much for the gospel. They did their very best with very few tools in their tool chests in terms of theological education or the training in psychology, church administration, and self-care that we hope is standard for pastoral preparation today. So when the next generation has had the opportunity to get some education, their new paradigms and theories can be quite threatening. We heard about a former dean share about a seminary/Bible college (many seminaries in developing countries are giving the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in the states) he helped start, which graduated fifteen students one year. All had been sent there with the blessing of their churches; all were excommunicated for heresy or insubordination within one year of their graduation and entering leadership in their churches. We could clearly see the gentle, irenic spirit and theological chops of the dean who shared the story and had no reason to suspect him of anything close to heresy. We doubted that he taught these students to relate to their churches as upstarts and rebels. His sense, rather, was that they threatened the egos of the older pastors so much that they simply had to go. This college is no longer operating. How could it? It has no viable model in a small country if none of its graduates can find work.
Missionary Handoff Failures: Here in Albania, over a late-evening meal, the pain on our new friend’s face was searing as he slowly articulated his response to Rich’s talk. Rich had taught on the ‘paradox promises’ of Mark, where Jesus promises real life, true security, and genuine greatness to those who will lose their lives, leave secure homes, and take the path of servanthood toward others. He thought it had gone well, and innocently asked what this man thought of the talk. He was prepared for at the least a polite, “It was fine.” Instead, our new friend wondered aloud what Rich had really experienced of suffering for these promises, and spoke at length of the pain in his life and the ways that he had risked so much for the gospel, given so much, in response to the extremely zealous young missionaries who first brought the gospel to Albania in the early nineties when it opened up as Communism collapsed. I won’t name the organization but they were youthful and they came with a strong sense of mission, bless their hearts. (Okay, a thin veiling there. I have utmost respect for this organization, by the way.) And let’s face it, fifty-year old Presbyterians who might have brought more texture, nuance, and wisdom just plain weren’t coming in droves to sleep on or under tables while they shared the gospel with anyone who would listen. (We actually met a 70-year-old who hosted a large team in her small apartment; they slept on every flat surface of her home and roof. She looks back on the time with great fondness.) But our friend took their idealistic words seriously and now wonders if he’d be better off financially and in other ways if perhaps he’d played it a bit safer. They came, they spread their wildly hopeful message, called young people here to risk it all, and then they left. The Albanians who remained were left to build churches with a paper-thin ecclesiology, and with models of leadership left over from the Communist era. It has not gone so well. The churches seem exceedingly prone to heading down odd doctrinal rabbit trails and to splitting over the slightest of infractions or differences. And some, like the friend who spoke so candidly to Rich that night, are still smarting as they try to flesh out what Jesus’ promises really mean in a land of scarcity and struggle.
So, these are my questions as I consider how we as a global church might handle handoffs with more finesse: How can we better thank our elders for the suffering they endured and honor them for the legacy they leave us? How can we help them to release their grip gracefully? What will give them the confidence they need to entrust their ministries to the emerging generation of leaders, knowing full well that they are, “young and inexperienced,” as David described Solomon? How can we equip younger leaders with a greater understanding of organizational change dynamics and with the right mix of prophetic zeal and pastoral humility and patience so they can navigate the resistances they will face as they strive to bring change? How can we preach to equip congregations to grieve the past as it passes, welcome change even as it brings losses, and trust God through the uncertainties of transitions?
Have you experienced a poorly executed handoff recently, or an excellent one? What made it so? What do you think are the factors that contributed to its success of failure? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
If you read our blog as a prayer partner, we are at a Christian discipleship training center in a lovely, rather remote part of Albania for the next two weeks. Rich is teaching the book of Ephesians and I will teach some basics of public speaking for ministry. Please pray for these future leaders of Albania, and for our ability to connect with them quickly and genuinely enjoy them. This is our second-to-last stop before some down-time in December with family and friends. Our last stop is a third visit to a church in Romania to preach and invest in its leadership team. Pray that we finish 2014’s ministry tasks faithfully and well.
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Rich and Lisa Lamb