(RNS) Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s surprise decision to retire does more than throw the technology industry into a frenzy of speculation. It raises the problem of succession.

From major corporations to startups led by visionary leaders, from universities to churches, the departure of the top leader can stop momentum and usher in months, perhaps years, of uncertainty.

Even though dealing with succession is a primary task for a board of directors — some say it’s their pre-eminent task — relatively few boards take the assignment seriously. They focus instead on the easier work of jousting with the top leader and shilling for institutional investors.

What should be an orderly process of preparing for leadership transition instead becomes a lurching from one stand-alone regime to the next.

Many board members want the rush of being co-managers of the institution. This is especially true in churches, where boards enjoy making day-to-day decisions about operations. Since a strong central leader would get in their way, many church councils discourage strong clergy and reward compliant permission seekers.

Many congregations feel obliged to have long interim periods between pastors, during which all vestiges of the departed incumbent are erased, as if the transition were a traumatic divorce and remarriage, rather than a normal fact of institutional life.

Staff become viewed as untrustworthy allies of the now-departed “spouse.” Constituents become viewed as “children,” who must be wooed and cajoled into accepting the new “parent.” Program and priorities get cast adrift, so that the new pastor can have a “clean slate.”

This process is a recipe for institutional paralysis. Incoming clergy typically find themselves the center of a dysfunctional family drama — the feared new parent, the target for unresolved sibling-rivalry issues, the one not trusted to chart a course. New pastors typically are in leadership conflict within 18 months of arriving, and the typical tenure of a Protestant pastor is three years.

In a healthier system, board members would be dismissed for allowing such revolving-door lurching in top leadership to occur. Instead, they are being rewarded with longer and longer interims, during which they can fulfill their desire to run the church.

Smart CEOs — clergy and otherwise — collaborate with smart boards to work on succession constantly. Their goal is to have the successor in place before the goodbye party occurs. Leaders expect to be held accountable for executing effective successions.

The underlying problem, of course, is trust. The Protestant Reformation was grounded in distrust of clergy and fear of what they would do with unchecked power. Even now, centuries later, clergy tend to be viewed as “outsiders” who will hurt the “family” if allowed free rein.

In my opinion, distrust of clergy and efforts to shift operational management to lay councils are the primary causes of decline in mainline churches.

Too much top-level energy goes into the small-scale dramas of running the institution and preserving its heritage, and not enough into the hard work and risks of dealing dynamically with a changing world, spotting needs as they emerge, doing mission, and embracing new constituencies.

Ballmer evidently clung too long to an old game plan at Microsoft. He missed emerging trends in mobile and cloud technology. Microsoft’s sluggishness on his watch should be a cautionary tale for every church board that thinks it can, and must, replicate yesterday in the face of sea changes in the marketplace of ideas and needs.

Tom Ehrich is an Episcopal priest, author and former Wall Street Journal reporter  living in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Tom Ehrich is an Episcopal priest, author and former Wall Street Journal reporter
living in Winston-Salem, N.C.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

KRE/AMB END EHRICH

2 Comments

  1. My wife, a former Roman Catholic, continually marvels at (or is disgusted to behold) this Protestant distrust of clergy. She too wonders what the problem is with those who are trained to direct church life actually directing church life. Though I am now retired and serving as an interim pastor, I see the problem you are talking about — and I strive for brief interims, in which the former pastor is not denigrated but respected and valued for what he or she enabled.

  2. While I understand the author’s comments, nowhere do I read where he defines the role of an Interim in terms of evaluating (adding value to) the former pastorate, recognizing history, or helping to determine how and where the local church is headed. An interim, like a settled pastor is embraced by a congregation during moments of pastoral need (weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc.) yet these elements fail to be addressed.

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