Monday, August 23, 2010

Transition Plan (The Book) - Q. How Did You Get Involved In A Project With Bob Russell

If you've come to this blog via my Amazon author's page (or from wherever else you stumbled in here), welcome. Let me tell you just a little bit more about my role in the new book, "Transition Plan", which I wrote with Bob Russell, retired Senior Pastor at Southeast Christian Church (Louisville)

For those who don't know, I am still a doctoral student at Asbury Seminary, finishing up my dissertation, the topic of which is "Planned Pastoral Succession". What I did was research numerous different "successful" (based on some criteria regarding attendance, giving, and whatnot, pre and post leadership transition) transitions from senior pastor to successor pastor. I found these churches using organizations like Leadership Network, various church consultants like Lyle Schaller, word of mouth between United Methodist bishops, and scouring the internet for articles on the subject. Then I traveled to each one armed with a research method called the "Multiple Comparative Case Study" which demanded that I interview the senior pastor, successor pastor, lay-leaders, staff persons, and (if necessary) any denominational big wigs involved in the process. The idea of the case study was to establish commonalities and discrepancies between the various succession experiences to see if anything learned across the experiences could be passed on.

In the end, I established I had enough data from the churches involved to actually be able to establish a credible narrative and some conclusions. The churches are intentionally diverse in background, theology, geography, and make up of the congregation to find commonalities that cut across various polities, theologies, size of congregation, geography, etc... I have churches from the Northeast, South, three from the Southwest/Southern California, and the Midwest. Denominations included are United Methodist, Episcopalian, Southern Baptist, UCC, Christian Missionary Alliance, the Independent Christian Church movement, Anglican, and Congregationalist/Non-Denominational background.

Theologically the churches run from the very theologically/socially conservative (almost literal fundamentalism) to the very progressive (one being on the forefront of what would be called "liberal" causes out on the west coast). Some were racially diverse, and one historically black. The smallest church worshiped 350 weekly, and the largest worshiped over 14,000. I'm still finishing the dissertation, but the conclusions from the data for the purpose of the book and the rough draft of my final chapter have been established. Anybody crazy enough to want to do so could research more churches and test the conclusions could follow protocol and test my conclusion. God bless the poor sucker who chooses to do so. But the point of doing things this way was that I was trying to examine "best practices" in regards to leadership transitioning. Theology, cultural make-up, socio-economic data, size of church, denominational background, etc.... doesn't make any difference my friends. I went into this suspecting that "best practices" are determined by what you do or don't do.... and four years later I believe this research proved that assumption to be true.

Anyhow, one of the churches selected for the study was Southeast Christian Church in Louisville. Of all the churches surveyed, SCC was by far the most prominent and largest. Because it now worships over 20,000 weekly, Bob Russell, who came to the church when it worshiped 120, has become somewhat of a "rock star" in the mega-church pastor world, particularly amongst pastors in the Independent Christian Church movement. Because Bob's success has propelled him to a kind of "fame" (not "fame" in the sense that most, or even a fraction of Americans know who he is, but "fame" in the sense that a lot of practitioners and scholars in the church world know his story) most pastors don't achieve he's been interviewed repeatedly about the transition in various magazines and other publications.

You see, church senior leadership transitions are a big deal. When Jack Welch left General Electric, for example, nobody the day after it happened walked into a WalMart and wondered about the quality of the GE light bulb or hair dryer they were buying. If poor business practices or judgments come out of a transition from one corporate CEO to another, it'll take awhile for the ramifications of that to shake down to the light bulb aisle. But in most churches, when a pastor leaves and is replaced, the results are felt immediately. Congregants and staff have to adapt to a new preaching, teaching, and leadership style. And typically, the longer the pastorate, the greater potential for fallout. Attendance and giving can drop precipitously as a church deals with a change in the preaching style, leadership, theological emphasis, and personality of the lead pastor. As a result, the stories of transitions gone bad in local churches are numerous and plenty.

With the growth of the megachurch (churches defined as worshiping more than 2k people per on the average per week), the stakes of leadership transitioning have only escalated. While the weight and breadth of these larger organizations can carry a poorly executed transitions longer than in smaller churches, the ramifications long term are much greater. The primary example right now of what can happen right now is probably the Crystal Cathedral in Costa Mesa, California, which rose to prominence under its founder and leader, Robert Schuller, and has been in the news for the all the wrong reasons thanks to a transition to his son that's fallen apart. Now the church, which is being led by Schuller's daughter, is facing the real possibility of bankruptcy. This is just the latest example of many high-profile church-transitions-gone-sour in the news that keep megachurch pastors, their leadership boards, and staff people awake at night.

Bob's transition (and quite frankly most of the ones I ended up studying) which was modeled largely on both biblical and corporate models, to what was then an in-house associate pastor, Dave Stone, has become a model that's becoming popular with churches. As a result of theirs and others (smaller church pastors, CEO's, college trustees staring down a presidential transitions, etc....) Bob has been asked repeatedly to speak and or give interviews on the topic. As I was looking for positive examples to include in my work I stumbled on an interview he gave to a church trade magazine on the topic. Given that the transition took place in one of the highest profile, and earliest example of a mega church, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out I needed Southeast Christian in my study.

But wanting Southeast Christian Church's cooperation and getting it was two different matters. Let me just say this now that I'm done with the research portion of this work... the bigger the church the more difficult it is to get past the wall created to protect primarily the current senior pastor. I mean, it makes sense. Shawnee UMC only has about 900 members and the demands on my time are pretty heavy. Multiply that by two, or ten, or twenty, or more and if you're a pastor you get a sense of the pressure these folks are under. Their offices are set up to protect their time so that only that they are obligated to only that which is essential.

It was because SCC was so large and the wall to access so high that it took almost two years to finally nail down the necessary people to do my on-site observations and interviews. And even at that I still ended up interviewing Dave Stone two weeks after my visit on the phone because his schedule is packed. It was nuts.

Anyhow, while I was in Louisville, word of what I was doing must have leaked throughout the office, and a young ambitious member of the staff, Nevan Hooker, heard what I was doing. I have no idea how he got my number, but by the end of my first day of work he called asked if we could do dinner or breakfast. Seems that he had a small publishing company, Ministers Label, and he believed that a book by Bob Russell regarding his pastoral transition would be worth publishing. I was only in Louisville three days, and I was booked all evenings doing interviews, so he pitched me over eggs at the hotel's buffet, gave me his number, and asked me to think about it. I gave him my email, and told him not to hold his breath. A week later Nevan emailed me a proposal, and (to be honest) when I realized there was a chance to get some of the data I'd worked hard over three years to amass out into the general public, I decided to take this on.

How Nevan persuaded Bob to do this is a part of the story you'll have to ask him. I'm just glad he said "yes".

Now, more than a year after that initial meeting Nevan, "Transition Plan" is in bookstores and available for order at Amazon. As I read the final version I take pride in helping draw out of Bob's story, as well as provide some of the organizational framework and additional data that complete the work. The initial draft of my data was written over a three week period of pretty much non-stop writing last June and July where I pretty much lived either at the Imler's cottage at Grand Lake or Biggby Coffee with my notes and my laptop. I actually wrote the last word at 4am of the day we left on our family vacation (my wife threatening to delay our leaving until I was finished so I could fully engage myself with the family I had been neglecting for weeks. Bob then had my data and over the last year really put the thing together. Now after much editing we're done.

I'll talk more about my work, and direct you to our website for more of my data later, but since I'm happy to actually see the cover on the Amazon page, I'd like to thank a few people:

My wife Aimee (who put up with being alone with four boys while I traveled all over the place doing interviews, then compiling the info, and finally writing the book... all the while she built her web design business from the ground up of which I am immensely proud of her), my kids (who missed their Dad), my transcribers (Cathy Dempsey and Linda Parish who logged through hundreds of hours of recorded interviews), Shawnee UMC (who put up with my being gone, provide me with a living including expense money I used to do much of the travel... and more specifically Roger Rhodes, Arlene Joyce, and Dave and Michele Imler who as a lay-leaders have been really been supportive above and beyond specifically of this work), the Beeson Center for Biblical Preaching and Leadership at Asbury Seminary (which financed the formal part of my education and even a couple of the site visits, all the while patiently waiting for a final product), and the folks at Ministers Label.

Thank you all for giving me the opportunity to do this. I hope it proves profitable for organizations of all kinds, particularly those geared to leave this world looking more like the Kingdom of Heaven.

NEXT POST: Why businesses are practicing leadership transitions that are more biblically oriented (unknowingly, I suspect, in most cases) than churches.