Conference Invests in Pastors, Churches Through On Boarding



Transition is tough, whether it’s getting a new appointment and moving to a new town or receiving a new pastor. Getting a jump start to help further the process can be an invaluable tool for all involved.

With this in mind, the North Georgia Conference has embraced Onboarding, a corporate technique for getting a fast start in executive leadership through early, candid dialogue, assisted by an outside consultant. This corporate strategy has been adapted for ministry settings by Claire Bowen, a human resources specialist and longtime member of Peachtree Road UMC in Atlanta. Onboarding is a simple process for clergy beginning a new appointment to boost their ministry and leadership in their new church.

Five North Georgia United Methodists have been certified to facilitate Onbording.

Rev. Nancy Lane has been on both sides of the Onboarding process. As a deacon on staff at Roswell United Methodist Church she experienced it as a participant last summer when Roswell UMC received a new senior pastor. A trained and certified On Boarding facilitator, Rev. Lane has led On Boarding in other local churches. The value it brings to pastors, congregations, and church staff is significant, she says.

“Onboarding allows pastors to look at the gifts, graces, and wisdom of the body and the staff they’ve inherited to best maximize them and plan for ministry together,” she said. “It’s about developing that ‘we’ mentality and that spirit of ‘us’ so much sooner than maybe our old ways of doing things.”

The experience of Onboarding, which usually takes two days, brings people together with a neutral facilitator who leads them through questions about their hopes and dreams, wants and needs, landmines and sensitive areas, deepest longings for the church, and more. The process expedites unity, trust, and the development of priorities, Rev. Lane said.

Within two months of his arrival at St. James United Methodist Church in Atlanta this past June, Rev. Max Vincent, church staff members, and about 30 lay leaders were led through the Onboarding process by Bowen.

While Rev. Vincent had already met several of the church’s key leaders, he felt the process was crucial to building relationships and trust.

“Part of the reason Onboarding is worth doing is that it gets you to a point where you feel more personally connected,” he said. “I think for us to feel like we got to know each other a little more personally helped to build relations a lot more quickly. You can certainly learn these things over time, but we made connections with each other in that room.”

Onboarding is effective, he says, because it’s purposeful and it brings people together as partners with a shared vision.

“We identified together the areas I was focused on in my work, and what we thought were the important things to be paying attention to in the life of the congregation right now,” Rev. Vincent said. “They got a voice in it and they got to hear my responses and it helped us come up with a common vision. It helped us be intentional … so that we could begin this year with a focus on intentionally reaching out into this community.”

Those who have been through the process say that On Boarding creates a safe atmosphere for candid, meaningful conversations. Bowen believes that the key to the process is the ability for everyone to answer questions openly and honestly while remaining anonymous. 

“Onboarding allows a staff, which a new senior pastor is inheriting, to jump-start the pastor’s knowledge by about six to nine months, all in one eight-hour period,” Bowen said. “Staffs leave the session saying, ‘Wow, we got a deep dive knowledge of our new pastor … and we truly informed her!’ What makes it work – or what I sometimes call ‘the secret sauce’ – is that all data is anonymous. There is much less intimidation for speaking out loud about issues since the new pastor is out of the room for the data dump. The new pastor gets coached and then comes in for response and dialogue not knowing – or caring – who said what.”

The Onboarding process is invaluable and beneficial to all involved, Rev. Lane said.

“Having been a part of Onboarding at both sides of the table I wouldn’t want to go into a church without it in the future,” she said. “I see great value in it and I’m blessed to be a part of it.”

Kara Witherow is a writer and serves as editor of the South Georgia Advocate.