Informal and incidental learning during congregational leadership transitions
Hall, Anna Mitchell
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Adults learn constantly through their experiences in communities and organizations. Adult learning is heightened by organizational change, and congregations are frequently sites of such learning for members. The purpose of this study was to examine the informal and incidental learning of active congregants and whole congregations, in three Christian congregations as the congregations experience a pastoral transition, during the period between the exit of a lead pastor and the arrival of a successor. The questions that guided this study were: what informal learning occurs in congregants and congregations as they experience leadership transition?, what incidental learning occurs in congregants and congregations as they experience leadership transition?, and what roles do organizational characteristics such as structure, demographics, and stated theology play in the informal and incidental learning experiences of congregants during leadership transition? This qualitative case study of three congregations experiencing pastoral transitions consisted of interviews, observations, and document analysis and focused on exploring the presence, content, and dimensions of learning in individual congregants and congregations as whole organizations. The study found that informal and incidental learning were present throughout the lives of church members during the time of pastoral transition. All interviewees reported some informal and/or incidental learning during their experience of the transition. Religious life and practice, including presentations of information, interaction with others, self-directed knowledge seeking, and personal experiences in a congregation, were sources of informal and incidental learning about the congregation, denomination, and religion, about the pastoral search process, and the roles of pastors. Informal and incidental learning often added to or reinforced existing frames of reference but rarely changed those frames. The learning that occurred in the three congregations differed in ways that correlated with congregational characteristics such as structure, stated theology, size, denominational affiliation, and the processes and language used during the transition. Congregational learning could be increased and improved through organizational intentionality and structures designed to support this learning, including improving the learning climate in the congregation, using narrative work with members to aid their reflection on the experience, and convening small groups for critical reflection and dialogue throughout the process of pastoral transition.
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