What does a church do when the lead pastor resigns, retires, or is graduated to heaven? Many churches call an “interim Pastor” in to “fill the pulpit” until the new pastor is brought on board. Often the church’s intention is for the interim to do little else other than to preach and perhaps to visit the sick during this time. However, is this all that is needed during such a crucial transitional period?
On August 6-8, your Associational Missionary, Larry Steen, attended Intentional Transitional Pastor Training in Glen Allen, Virginia. This training was filled with Biblical insights, practical ideas and suggested goals and outcomes for Intentional Transition Ministry from pastors with decades of hands-on experience working with churches in transition searching for a pastor. On numerous occasions throughout the training, my heart and mind were saying an “Amen!” to the ideas, goals and approaches suggested in this conference to help churches as they go through such transitions.
The period “between pastors” is a critical time in the history of any church. Church members may be deeply grieved (or in some cases, delighted) by the pastor’s departure. Others are confused or feel slighted because they are “left in the dark” over the circumstances of the departure. Gossip and rumor can accelerate. Sometimes church conflict rises to the surface and some heart adjustments need to take place for Christ to be at work within the congregation. How does the church deal with all those feelings? In addition, some members mistakenly think that significant actions on the part of the church need to be avoided during the interim and that the church should “put on hold” any significant changes until the new pastor comes. However, since most searches for pastors take in excess of one year, it seems a long time to ignore issues that may be holding a church back from it’s God-given potential.
The Transition period is an excellent time for the church to allow Jesus to do a grand inspection of the church. Just as the Lord commended and critiqued the churches of Asia Minor(see Revelation Chapters 2 and 3) this interim period is a wonderful opportunity to ask, “How would Jesus view our church?” What would He praise us for – and in what ways would He say, “But I hold these things against you…?” Open discussion of such questions allows the church not only to celebrate the commendations but also to acknowledge and repent of those things He condemns. Are we willing to hear from the Lord and if need be, truly repent? For instance, have we allowed our mission to creep away from Christ’s Great Commission by allowing own personal comforts, preferences, programs or politics to become our idols?
This is where the Intentional Transitional Pastor comes into play. His role is to help the church take a God’s-eye view of itself during this interim period and to prepare the way for the next pastor. He intentionally will not be a candidate for the pastoral position. He will insist this is not a time for the church to “wait until the new pastor comes” to do something. This is a time for the congregation to align more fully than ever with Christ and for the church leaders and the congregation as a whole to intentionally and openly ask “what does Christ commend in our church; what does he judge; and what will we do in response?” The transition period is not a time to look for a new pastor-messiah who will save our church, and “fix” any problems, but rather it is a time to look to Christ to reinvigorate our church, and then to call a pastor who will continue us in that path. The next pastor will be much more likely to succeed if the church wisely uses the time of the transition to these ends.
From my observations of transitions in various churches across the state during my years of ministry, (some very successful, others much less so) I believe that every church seeking a Pastor would greatly benefit from having a trained Intentional Transitional Pastor/Consultant. When the time comes that your church is in pastoral transition, may I suggest your church leaders invite your Associational Missionary to come and discuss what an Intentional Transitional Pastor/Consultant can do for your church.