Steve, the lay leader of a church, called me and I could tell he was agitated.
He said: “We worked so hard and finally got this church turned around . . . and then he LEFT US!” The answer was pretty obvious, but I asked anyway. “Steve, who left?” He shot back: “The pastor left – Aaron is out . . . he said GOD called him to another church! . . . Now what?!”
John, the head elder of a growing church, called me. He was calmer, but no less concerned. He said: “Our pastor just resigned. We were surprised, but it’s OK. We’ve got some ideas, but really don’t know the best way to handle this. We don’t want this time without a senior pastor to be a season of chaos. We want it to be an opportunity for God to prepare us for a better future. What should we do?”
One more . . . The chairman of the Deacon board called me and said: “Our pastor let us know he’s going to retire this year and we are thrilled!” Obviously, things were not all “peachy” at that local church. The chairman then went on to say that they weren’t sure about how to ensure a smooth transition between pastors.
This scenario is a live grenade in thousands of churches every year across the country. Some are handled very well, many struggle, and for some it’s a nightmare. The common thread in most of the stories I hear is that the church is not really sure what to do.
Many churches that are part of a denomination, and are without a pastor, receive valuable assistance from able denominational leaders. Even so, due to understandable time demands, a large part of the effort is invested in finding a new pastor. It is not always possible to give the time and attention needed to the actual process of transition between pastors, which is critical.
If you are part of a system where denominational leadership is available to you, please work with them. This article is not meant to replace them; it is designed as a supplement to whatever resources and experience you already have. It is my heartfelt hope that this material will help you and your church turn a time of anxiety into a time of growth.
Let’s start with what not to do. Don’t panic and scramble to get a new pastor as quickly as you can. Don’t hire the first pastor you meet just because he’s “alive and kickin'” and says he’s “big on Jesus!” The search for a new senior pastor is highly important and a vital facet of the transition, but it should not – by any means – be the only part of the focus. (The search for a new senior pastor is the topic of the next “The Pastor’s Coach.”)
The following are guidelines to help keep your congregation on the right track and help you smoothly navigate the transition between pastors.
It’s important to secure closure with your pastor’s leaving.
Your pastor’s leaving may have been a surprise. Or it may have been a normal and well-planned resignation that left the church in “good shape.” Or it may have been an ugly situation. No matter the circumstance, it’s critical that you bring closure to this final phase with your current pastor.
The churches I work with that ignored this stage often continue to lament for years over the loss of “the best pastor we ever had.” Or they struggle with anger and distrust for years because the former pastor did not finish well. This is not healthy for the individual, the church or the incoming pastor.
If the scenario is positive, create a celebration where you thank the pastor for his ministry and say your good-byes. The pastor should also, lovingly, tell the people in his farewell sermon that he is no longer their pastor. It’s important that he says this.
In difficult situations, instruct the people to write a letter to God expressing how they feel. These letters are not to be circulated under any circumstance. If your leaders are strong and have the good of the church as their top agenda, invite the people to pray out their feelings in small group environments. They are not to “gossip out” their feelings, but “pray out” their feelings. The prayers must always include asking God to bless the church, heal hurts, and change negative attitudes.
The bottom line is that what has happened has happened. It’s done. It’s time to move forward and discover God’s new plan. Don’t get stuck in the past. People’s feelings can’t (and shouldn’t) be shut off like a garden hose. However, similar to the passing of a loved one, there is a time for mourning, and there is a time to move on.
It’s worth the effort to accurately assess the temperature of the congregation.
This can be done through small group discussion with skilled and mature leaders. The key, similar to the prayer groups, is to keep the groups positive while encouraging them to be honest. It can also be done with a congregational survey. The survey is conducted by the lay leaders or denominational leadership, and is NOT a vote but an opportunity for the people to express their thoughts and opinions. What they think matters. Keep it short and simple with five questions such as:
1. Are you praying daily for our church; if so, how?
2. What do you believe God has in mind for our future?
3. Describe your current commitment and confidence level in the church’s leadership.
4. If you could change one thing about the church, what would you change?
5. What do you love most about our church?
Create a pleasant atmosphere conducive to reflection, and give ample time to answer the five questions.
The information gathered will prove to be extremely helpful in your leadership of a smooth transition. The results are anonymous and kept confidential. Don’t worry about the many comments and opinions that are singular in nature. The goal is not to make everybody happy; the goal is to gain the overall pulse of the congregation. Focus on the patterns. In other words, pay more attention to the things that are repeated a number of times than those that only come up once or twice. Use this information to aid you in the process of guiding the congregation in the discovery of who they are and where they are going.
It’s of great value to gain a solid perspective on the situation.
If the congregation believes that God is in control and that Jesus was telling the truth when He said HE would build HIS church, then the loss of their pastor is not a problem too big to handle. It may be sad, or even difficult, but it’s not too big for God. The truth is, it’s a wonderful opportunity to discover as a church body “what you’re made of” and a tremendous opportunity to prepare for an even brighter future. This is the message the leadership must share repeatedly from the pulpit.
It’s good leadership to communicate security to the congregation.
The leaders must quickly come to the congregation and communicate two things: first, everything is going to be OK. I don’t mean in a condescending “father knows best” way, but like a shepherd who cares for his flock and doesn’t want them to be worried. Second, communicate that a plan is being made and will be shared with them soon. Give a timeline such as one or two weeks, or if you can, a precise date. These things provide security. You must deliver the plan quickly (within two weeks) or the people will begin to get restless.
It’s “no fun, but necessary” to determine who’s in charge.
This is where many congregations get in trouble. For those who have denominational structure or solid by-laws it’s often not as difficult. But even with great leadership and church government, ultimately it depends upon the attitudes and agendas of those with the most influence.
Typically, in larger church settings, the pastoral staffs run the day-to-day operations and ministry of the church in a teamwork setting with the “church board.” In most churches there needs to be a combination of staff and lay leadership coming together as a team to guide the church through the interim stage.
In a church where conflict is present, you may wish to consider creating a new “transition team.” This team would consist of, for example, one or two staff members, two or three existing board members, and about five other leaders elected by the congregation for this special period of time. This new team would function as the primary leadership during the interim.
This is not a time to make major decisions, particularly those that involve buildings and major expenses. It is also wise to refrain from major program or strategy changes. Allow your new pastor to play a key role in the process of the decision-making when he or she arrives. Focus your decision-making on the kinds of things that mature the people spiritually, keep the morale high, prepare the people for the new pastor, and help them become more dependent upon God.
Part of the “who’s in charge process” is setting boundaries. Decide up front what is “in” and what is “out” of bounds for decision-making during the transition period. For example, who hires and fires staff? (Recommendation – the interim pastor should not have the sole authority to hire and fire. Releasing a staff member must be done in agreement by the interim pastor, staff, and church board or transition team.)
It’s vital to make a thoughtful decision on the question of a temporary pastor.
The duration of time for interim transitions varies from a minimum of 3 months up to 18 months. The average for a healthy transition is 6-9 months. (The greater the conflict, the longer interim time needed.)
There are basically four options you can choose from:
- A Transition Specialist
A transition specialist is basically a full-time, turbo-charged interim pastor. Or as I like to say, an interim pastor on steroids! A transition specialist is a good idea for congregations whose previous pastor had a long tenure (10 years or longer) or where there is significant unresolved conflict. (Again, the greater the conflict the longer the transition between pastors.) The transition specialist serves largely like the official senior pastor would serve. He also pays particular attention to the church’s history and culture, while helping to clarify mission, vision and values. He works through any difficult leadership changes and helps the congregation discover and build on their strengths. In the case of unresolved conflict, the transition specialist not only works to resolve conflict but also teaches conflict resolution skills and deals with deeper issues like forgiveness and trust. He focuses on increasing morale, healing, spiritual maturity, and preparing the congregation for the new pastor.
- An Interim Pastor
An interim pastor is appropriate for congregations whose previous pastors served for mid to short-terms (3 – 7 years) with minimal to no conflict. This position can be part or full-time, covering the preaching, some weddings and funerals, teaching, and guidance to the key leadership team. He focuses on morale, spiritual maturity, and preparing the congregation for the new pastor.
- A Pulpit Supply Pastor
A pulpit supply pastor is appropriate for congregations that basically need someone to do the preaching on Sunday mornings. This is either part-time or a Sunday-by-Sunday honorarium contract. This often works well for smaller congregations. The mid-sized congregations tend to need an interim pastor.
- Rotating staff and lay leaders
This option is for smaller churches and occasionally for very large churches that are anticipating a short duration of time (3 months) before the next pastor arrives. (However, I personally do not recommend short interims.) This alternative is best when there’s been very little to no conflict, and it covers preaching only – as a non-paid service.
Important note: None of the above options must ever be considered for the permanent role of senior pastor. If a staff member is to be considered for the role of senior pastor, he or she must not serve in a preaching role during the interim.
It’s wise to trust God.
Your church belonged to God before your pastor arrived and continues to belong to Him now that he’s gone. God wants to bless your church, and will as long as you are committed to the Great Commission and loving one another. Trust Him!!