In April, I finished my fifth interim/transitional pastorate. In a little over 4 years, God opened the door for me to lead four churches who were in transition – one church twice. In some ways it is a very Paul-like ministry. Moving around from city to city, learning different church cultures, trying to discern the needs, spreading the Gospel to different people in a different place with different backgrounds.
In other ways, it can be utterly heart breaking. From the onset you know you are not going to be there forever, but you still develop deep relationships with the people and know that as some point, you are going to have to go.
Now with a few months behind me since the last completion, I wanted to reflect on the pros and cons of interim transitional ministry and try to outline a few things I’ve learned on this journey.
1. Helping When a Church Needs Help the Most – A church who has recently lost their pastor is a hurting church. Even in the best case scenario, there is still someone they love who has left them behind taking family and children with them. There is significant pain, heartache, and a real sense of abandonment.
The interim transitional pastor can help with this pain by speaking well of the former pastor and helping the healing process begin through intentional methods, such as extra communication, fellowship, and opportunities to serve together to show unity and togetherness.
2. Helping When a Church Needs Leadership the Most – Immediately following the exit of a lead pastor, there is a HUGE leadership vacuum. The power players come out of the woodwork and start plying for more influence and leverage. You might think this “hawking” is only for the largest of churches, but you would be wrong. Even the smallest church has power players and the interim transitional period is an opening for conflict and confusion.
The interim transitional pastor must manage these dynamics to make sure the selection process is done well and with full integrity, holding the power players at bay while moving the church forward.
3. Helping When a Church Needs Stability the Most – While I am not sure the numbers are perfectly accurate, the stated trends tell us that a church will decline by 15% in attendance and 25% in giving during an interim period. And the longer the interim, the greater the declines, especially in giving. Those two trends alone will cripple a church in transition.
The interim transitional pastor provides stability in the pulpit, which is paramount. Stability in the leadership vacuum to limit the grabbing forces. And stability in casting a vision for this all-important transitional period so that in 12-24 months everyone will be okay and headed in the right direction.
3 CONS (These are a bit more personal, so be aware.)
1. Leaving All the Time – In four years, I have had to leave several great churches. Now I knew this was part of the deal going in, but it still stings. As an interim transitional leader, you are effectively a “temp.” You are meant for a particular season and no more. And while you enter the situation with this understanding, the leaving part still breaks your heart.
This is one reason why many interim pastors choose to go to different cities than where they permanently reside. Because once they leave, it makes it easier on the heart to not see everyone all the time. It is comparable to seeing an old girlfriend and not knowing what to say. “Its good to see you. How have you been? Are you seeing anyone new these days.” Awkward and gut-wrenching.
2. Limited Vision and Direction for the Long Haul – Since your time is limited, your ability to cast a vision is short-lived. You can not lead the church toward a particular ministry objective if you are not going to be there to see it through. The ministry is very 90-day driven, meaning you have a 90-day window to set a goal or cast a vision, but no more. Because in 120 days, the new pastor may be getting close to arriving and you will be moving on.
3. Languishing Over Choices Made in the Search Process – Here is probably the most sensitive of issues in interim transitional ministry. As the interim pastor, you are made privy to the work of the Pastor Search Team. You might be asked to look over potential resumes or be asked to talk to a potential candidate by phone. I have even been asked to contact a personal friend and ask them for their name to be put into consideration.
I have been brought into the meetings as they work through theological questionnaires to explain what the questions and answers mean. You must remember that most search team members are not trained theologians, nor are they equipped to understand the nuances of pastoral philosophy or ministry methodology.
In the process, you see things, read things, and hear things which cause you to cringe, but you simply can’t say too much in response. You have to let the committee find their own way through prayer and God’s direction. You don’t want to sway or divert them, so you remain neutral and only answer when asked, which is extremely difficult for most leaders.
For those considering this type of ministry, take care to learn and grow in the Lord. It is not as easy as it may seem, but serving the Lord is a calling to sacrifice, which is never easy.