Dear President Elect Trump,
The day has finally come and in just a few hours you will be standing on the steps of the Capitol, making your pledge to defend the Constitution of the United States. At that moment, a transition happens – from one president to another, from one vision of the nation to a different one, from one approach to leadership and governance to a different set of values. This has been happening since President Washington voluntarily stepped aside in the belief that our nation must move forward beyond the cult of personality.
I write today as a United Methodist pastor who knows something about transitions. You see, we too as a denomination believe that there are seasons of ministry and that there are times when change has to come. Our leaders regularly transition from one congregation to another, and like the situation today, the people we ask to follow us aren’t always happy about that change. With a change in pastoral leadership often comes a change in perspective, a change in philosophy, and changes in the way things are done. I’ve experienced it first hand, and know the difficulties that come in making these transitions. As you’ve never had to experience the transition that you are about to face, I wonder if some of our learnings might not be worthy of consideration.
I know that you’ve already been engaged in the work of the transition as you have selected your team and met with President Obama. I want to encourage you to take seriously the counsel of the man who sat in the Oval Office before you, for he has learned some things along the way. I understand that you have a different way of operating – we ALL do – but there is a wisdom that comes from experience that needs to be tapped as you take on the task before you.
Perhaps the most important thing in a transition is to listen, listen, and then listen some more. I understand the desire to jump in and make your mark. I’ve been guilty at times of doing the same, thinking I understood a congregation only to learn that the context was different, that folks who seemed trustworthy weren’t, and that I need to slow down and think about ALL the issues before I jumped in with new ideas. Certainly, changes can come – but they are usually small tweaks to what’s already going on rather than major changes. Don’t ever assume that you know all the facts, for you will quickly learn that there are forces in the world that withhold the truth in pursuit of their own personal goals.
Likewise, it takes time to discern the voices that you can trust. In every church there is a disgruntled minority who will make it their goal to convince you why the church needs radical change, what “that group” is not to be trusted, or why we should go back to the good old days of yesteryear. In every case I’ve learned that this group more often than not revels in stirring up trouble for trouble’s sake. The truly wise tend to be more quiet and reflective, but they are the folks who need to be heard when they speak.
You may think you have a good understanding of the government’s programs and weaknesses, but it’s important to take time to hear the stories and learn why things are the way they are. Laws, regulations, and programs exist for a reason. Very often they were created in response to problems or situations where a remedy was needed. Certainly, they must always be evaluated to see if they’ve lost their purpose in the current context, but it’s important to know fully the background of why they were created before we make decisions about what stays and what goes.
I write this as someone who did not vote for you and who is very concerned about your approach to governance, the values you espouse, and your ability to understand the needs and hopes of average people. And yet I also respect the office to which you are assuming today and believe that you, like all incoming leaders, deserve a chance to lead. Given your past history I’m not confident you will be able to listen deeply, but as one who has lived through similar transitions, it’s important to offer my experience as a leader who has faced a new context for leadership. Transitions are hard – for any of us.
I will, as I hope all of us will do, hold you accountable for the things you do. That comes with leadership as well. The accolades are nice, but the true test of a leader is how he or she responds in the face of criticism. The goal is always the betterment of the organization, the company, or the nation, and never our personal glory.
I write today with the knowledge that many of my friends will find these words useless and too respectful in the face of what they (and I at times) believe is a dark and difficult time ahead. And yet, throughout my life and career, I have committed myself to avoid demonizing the other. I may disagree with much of your agenda, your lifestyle, and your approach to the world, but you continue to be a child of God of sacred worth. What you do and say may be anathema to me and (I believe) at odds with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, but you are still a broken and frail human being in need of God’s grace, just like the rest of us. As such, I offer you my prayers and the hope that God’s light will shine in such a way that you will be empowered to lead with humility and grace rather than bluster and authority.
May God’s peace and guidance be upon you.