Long-term, stable leadership matters. Therefore, I was stunned to see the leadership of the Presbyterian Mission Agency propose a three-year interim period for the executive director position. With the exception of the PMA, I cannot think of one organization – educational, charitable nonprofit, for-profit or religious – that thinks it can thrive for three years without the stability of permanent leadership. In a time of enormous institutional change, the need for firmly established leadership is even more crucial. Why does the PMA think the PC(USA) will benefit from a three-year period of non-permanent leadership?
One argument for interims is that they can come in and do the “dirty work” required to prepare for a new beginning. In the local church, this might mean firing the ineffective music director or secretary. The interim “takes the heat” for a needed change so the incoming, permanent person doesn’t have to fire anyone. However, isn’t “taking the heat?” the essence of high quality, permanent leadership? As pastors, presbytery execs and General Assembly staff, shouldn’t we be prepared to “take the heat” to help those we serve move into the future?
Another common argument for interims is that an organization needs to go through a strategic planning process prior to calling new, permanent leadership. However, this means the new leader wasn’t involved in the planning process. When this is done, oftentimes, what happens is the new leader arrives and decides she/he doesn’t like the plan and begins to change it – quietly or explosively. Why not have the leader charged with implementing the plan involved in its creation from the get-go?
One of the characteristics of high quality, effective leadership is longevity. It is well documented that congregations with long-term pastorates are healthier than congregations with frequent leadership turnover. In like manner, most successful organizations keep their CEOs for extended periods of time. While having its uses in some instances, interim/transitional leadership does not provide the constancy organizations need to thrive.
I am not big into apocalyptic thinking, so I am confident the PC(USA) will survive a three-year interim period at the PMA. However, we will not thrive under such circumstances. We can look forward to three years of uncertainty. In organizations, uncertainly translates into increased anxiety. In the church, it usually translates into decreased financial contributions as well. After three interim years, there will be yet another period of uncertainty as the denomination watches to see how the new executive director performs. The timeline for anxiety just keeps extending further into the future.
I see no reason why the PMA cannot find a highly qualified new executive director by the early spring of 2016. I communicated my opinion in writing directly to the search committee. There are plenty of excellent people out there who can do and want the job of executive director of the PMA – now.
We are better off finding the right person for the role as soon as possible rather than waiting for up to three years. In fact, I am not convinced we even need an interim. We could stick with the current set-up of two existing staff people fulfilling the executive director function and go full steam toward finding the permanent person. If we found a new leader for the PMA by next spring, we could celebrate her/his arrival at the next GA and begin to re-envision what the PMA should be doing in the 21st century. The new executive could be at the hub of any and all planning for the future.
In my opinion, the General Assembly is still operating with a 20th century mindset and structure. Rather than working through small, action-oriented teams, we have the same types of committees and programs we had in the 1970s and 1980s. Congregations have the same problem and many are making the changes needed to create a governance system that will empower their ministry in the 21st century. It is time for the GA to join congregations and move into the 21st century. Jettisoning the extended interim model would be a great first step.
Following 40 years of parish ministry, JOHN WIMBERLY is a consultant with the Congregational Consulting Group.