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Between Pastors – thoughts for smooth transitions

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

[Note: There are many reasons and circumstances under which a church may experience a transition between senior pastors. It can be fraught with emotions; but it can also be a unique moment of opportunity and growth. The following came out of interaction with a dearly beloved church entering such a time. The reflections and recommendations come from long experience as a churchman and many occasions of interacting with church leaders as a trusted friend and advisor during those occasions.]


Between Pastors – thoughts for smooth transitions

The period of time in the church’s lifecycle between senior pastors can be used of the Lord to strengthen and encourage the church in many ways. It’s a time when the congregation and its leadership are forced to step up and take ownership responsibilities in many, many ways. It is an unusual opportunity for the leadership to galvanize with unity in shaping the preferred future for your congregation and in shepherding them to faith and courage in the face of uncertainties.

1. There are three primary principles to keep in mind in order to navigate the potentially troubled waters between senior pastors.

   a. The health and welfare of the church. This means that the overall spiritual, emotional, financial, and long-term good of the congregation must take priority over individual concerns, preferences, or even individual relationships.

   b. Reasonable expectations. There is a maxim that applies, especially in times of challenging transition: “The misery of uncertainty is worse than the certainty of misery.” A second maxim also applies: “When people lack communication about reasons for decisions or expectations, they tend to fill the void with negativity.” This is primarily a communication challenge through all the key stakeholders in the transition. Those stakeholders are:

      i. The elders or leadership team – The elders need to be “on the same page” at all times as much as possible. It means that no individual elder should speak on behalf of all the elders without their consultation and agreement. It also means that, if one elder learns of significant concerns from members of the congregation or key figures in the transition, that information should probably be communicated to the whole Elders team. There should be no surprises among the elders with regard to expectations and fulfillment or satisfaction of those expectations in time.

      ii. Present staff-Regardless of the precipitating factors, present staff will feel like their job role and responsibilities have entered a period of extra pressure and risk. This includes even volunteer staff. So, paid ministry staff, volunteer ministry leaders, custodians, groundskeepers, musicians, Sunday School teachers, etc. are all going to wonder how this is going to work out for them. Good communication, as effectively and as soon as possible, will help alleviate unnecessary stress for the staff, volunteers, and for the leadership.

  1. The interim pastor – Expectations of an interim pastor may vary widely depending on the individual’s stage of life and present status of employment. An interim pastor who is taking the role as a side job will naturally regard the ministry in a completely different way than an interim pastor who is only doing this interim pastor job. An interim pastor who is otherwise retired from a career in ministry will view the interim pastor role differently than a middle- aged man with a family to feed. Expectations may be significantly different in terms of time commitment, list of responsibilities, and interaction with leadership, particularly in the process of selection of the new senior pastor. It will be important to establish reasonable expectations and checkpoints on performance and role status prior to or very early in any agreement with an interim pastor.

  2. The congregation – While it is normal to not divulge specifics about candidates for the senior pastor position during the process of defining and narrowing the field, the congregation must be brought along in some fashion with appropriate communication. It would be wise to establish a pattern of regular communication and soliciting of prayer, which in itself establishes expectations about frequency and content of communication as well as building trust in the leadership.

   c. Practical polity for the long-term. Church polity is the term used for the authority structure of the church. Transitions between senior pastors are an excellent opportunity to affirm and sharpen the church’s and the leadership’s understanding and exercise of your church’s polity for the long-term. Certainly the elders’ diligence in defining the process and outcomes of finding the next senior pastor is important. However, the end goal is for the plurality of leaders to retain and even enhance confidence in their leadership among the congregation and the incoming senior pastor. The end goal is not, for example, to discover and hire the greatest senior pastor on earth and then turn over all authority and leadership to him. The exercise of a plurality of leadership during the transition time should strengthen and encourage those leaders to continue to exercise authority and influence over the direction and future of ministry of the church, along with the giftedness and input of the incoming senior pastor.

2. Establishing expectations with present staff

Family meetings available to the whole church body are sufficient communication to the wider group of volunteer ministry leaders and participants. However, it’s important to communicate more specifics to paid staff having day-to-day job responsibilities. If the associate pastor or pastor’s will not be considered as candidates for the senior pastor position, that needs to be made known to them as quickly and clearly as possible. Further, they need to have some assurance about the security of their ministry position, or insecurity as the case may be. It is often the case that a new senior pastor is given liberty to interview, examine, or otherwise evaluate any staff under his general ministry supervision to determine whether or not they would stay. It would be unwise to rule out the possibility that a new senior pastor would want to hire new ministry staff, at least after some initial period of getting settled in his job as senior pastor. That being the case, it is important for the elder/leadership team to clarify whatever parameters might be put on guidelines for hiring and releasing staff. Typical guidelines might include the following:

  1. Assurance of job retention until a new senior pastor is selected and approved.

  2. Assistance with discreetly developing a complimentary resume and recommendations for the possibility of seeking another ministry position in another church even before the senior pastor is installed, if so desired by either the elders or the staff person.

  3. Pre-determining an approved process for a new senior pastor to evaluate and/or determine whether or not any particular ministry staff person would be retained or released. This could include timings, for example: the elders decide that the senior pastor cannot release present staff sooner than three months after his installation.

3. Establishing expectations with an interim pastor

Role responsibilities very widely among different church situations and different interim pastors. Interim pastors might be responsible for as little as only being present and preaching on Sunday mornings, depending on arrangements with potential senior pastor candidates. Sometimes interim pastors might be called on to be present for all regular services and expected to make pastoral shepherding visits in the hospital, conduct weddings and funerals, participate as an observer and resource to elders meetings (usually “with voice” but “no vote”), etc. It is best to spell out expectations, financial considerations, time commitments, etc. at the onset of engaging the interim pastor.

Here are some common factors you might consider: