By Rev. Laura-Stephens Reed
When your pastor leaves your church, it is normal find yourself dealing with confusion and anxiety. Among the many questions you might ask is, “Who will lead our congregation while we look for a long-term leader?”
It can feel personally and collectively de-stabilizing not to have a steady presence in the pulpit, at the meeting table, and in the church office. Your pastor, after all, was someone who encouraged and supported you in challenging times and celebrated moments of joy with you. You could count on your pastor’s guidance for your whole church amidst big shifts in the larger culture. That kind of leadership can help a congregation both to stay grounded and to grow spiritually.
For decades the conventional wisdom has been to call an interim pastor to serve during staff transitions, and for good reason. Interim ministers provide consistency during what can be a chaotic time, performing the typical pastoral functions such as preaching, attending meetings and offering pastoral care. Intentional interim pastors do this and more, guiding the congregation through a season of self-study and discernment so that the church is prepared to call and fully welcome its next settled clergyperson. (Note: I have served in both of these kinds of interim roles, so I heartily believe in the value of these kinds of ministries.)
It can be particularly important to have an intentional interim pastor when the departing minister has served the church for 15 or more years, if there is conflict, if there was a difficult break with the last pastor, or if there are big decisions to be made about the future of the congregation. In cases like these, there are realities that must be addressed before a fruitful search for a settled minister can begin, and intentional interim ministers are prepared to assist in these matters.
I am hearing more frequently, however, that churches are having trouble finding interim pastors. There are at least three reasons for this: More congregations are looking for this kind of leadership due to waves of pastoral turnover; more interim ministers are leaving church work for other fields or moving fully into retirement due to all of the challenges raised by the pandemic; and interim pastors are less geographically mobile because of family obligations (spouse’s job, kids’ schools or needs for specialized medical care, and/or caretaking responsibilities for aging parents). What, then, is a church in between settled pastors to do?
I had the opportunity recently to participate in conversations with judicatory leaders (the equivalent of state/regional coordinators and associate coordinators in the CBF world) in another denomination, and many of them were asking this very question. I came away very energized by the creativity exercised and the possibilities developed around the table.
Here are some thoughts I’d share based on those discussions:
Take stock of the gifts in your midst. What’s the capacity of your lay leadership and remaining staff to carry some of the day-to-day work of the church with the requisite support, appreciation and/or compensation? Do you have retired pastors or clergy who serve in other settings (e.g., chaplaincy) who could pick up some ministerial responsibilities if needed?
Assess your church’s needs. What unresolved issues in your congregation will need attention before you can extend a good call to a settled pastor, and what focused time and outside help will your church need to do this well?
Start with your partners. Your state/regional CBF coordinator(s) and your CBF Global staff want to help you. They also hold the bigger landscape of what church leadership looks like now and what resources are available to your church. Make these partners your first stop after the two steps above.
Get creative. Interim pastorates are great options for between times, but there are alternatives:
- Secure pulpit and pastoral care coverage (full-time or part-time), then contract with a transition coach or consultant to work with your congregation on the self-study pieces. That facilitated discernment can be done over a series of in-person or remote sessions, meaning you can utilize the expertise of coaches or consultants all over the country.
- Share interim leadership with other nearby congregations, whether they are affiliated with CBF or are part of other denominations. If the churches are similar enough and if all parties are clear about how the interim pastor’s time and pay will be distributed, this could be an arrangement that benefits all involved.
- In some denominations (e.g., the Presbyterian Church USA), there is a different kind of transitional minister called a “designated” pastor. This leader is called for a certain period of time, say three-to- five years. After the three-year mark, the church can vote to call the designated pastor as its settled leader. (In contrast, most interim pastor covenants prohibit the interim minister from being considered for the settled position.) A pastor is more likely to uproot and move for a longer ministry opportunity, and the designated period both gives the congregation time and leadership to discern the future and offers the church and clergy-person time to feel out whether this could be a longer-term mutual ministry.
- This is more of a “file away for the future” proposal, but an increasing number of churches are moving toward a succession model. That means the church calls an associate pastor with the stated intent of installing the minister in the senior pastor role upon that leader’s retirement. I would add encouragement here to be purposeful about engaging in regular reflection as a congregation about the church’s direction. Otherwise, you might end up with generations of carbon-copy leadership. I have seen this approach work well, though, with that intentionality.
No matter your path forward, remember that it is normal for pastors to come and go. A congregation’s constituents are the constants. You don’t have to wait for a pastor—interim or settled—in order to be the body of Christ. You might need some equipping and resourcing, but those helps are out there. (Just ask your ministry partners.) So take heart! As long as you are curious and faithful, you will be able to see where and how God is at work in, among and through you.
Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama