When a church finds itself without a pastor—whether because of resignation, firing, or death—it is a crucial time. It could be a time when a church comes apart, or it could be that the congregation comes together. If the church is independent, or affiliated with a denomination in which each congregation is responsible to find a new pastor, suddenly being without a leader is very scary for the leadership board of the church, the staff, and the members. Too many times when churches call a new pastor, particularly after long tenured pastor, the next pastor becomes what could be called an unintentional interim pastor and only stays an often difficult year or two. This is because the church didn’t take the time to heal any wounds and prepare for a new direction under a new leader. A good interim pastor can do a lot to help a congregation navigate this unsettled, often stormy time. Here are seven ways an interim pastor can help.
- The Interim Pastor becomes a consistent face and voice in the pulpit.
People want to know what to expect when they come to worship on Sunday morning. If the pulpit is filled week to week by a variety of speakers that may, or may not be available in its area, the church may find the quality of the preaching to be unsteady. The interim pastor can keep up the interest of worship attenders and speak with areas that may help the church deal with the loss of the former pastor. There may well be hurt, conflict, and confusion in the church, and the interim pastor will be able to get the feel for where the church needs help and “scratch where they itch.” Also he can preach messages and message series to help keep the church from turning in on itself and becoming inward focused.
- A good interim pastor can help the church deal with the changes that are inevitable with the coming of a new pastor.
Change is often the biggest issue when a church is without a pastor. Change or lack of change may have been the issue that led to the former pastor’s departure. An interim pastor can help the congregation deal with its fear of change and prepare them for the new vision the new pastor will bring. He can talk about Jesus’ purpose for the church: to make more disciples, and help them see that change is good if the object of the change is to make more disciples of Christ. The interim pastor can begin turning a fear of change into an expectation for a new and greater day.
- An interim can help members deal with the loss of the last pastor.
The consistent presence of an interim pastor can help the people know someone is at the helm of the church. On a more personal level, an interim pastor can help people work through their personal issues, and/or grief as they miss the former pastor. In addition, it’s reassuring for the people to know that someone is on hand if they need help in a family tragedy or a personal trauma. Furthermore, if there are tensions that have been caused by the circumstances that brought about the departure of the former pastor, the interim pastor can work on peacemaking and reconciliation within the church.
- The interim pastor can be a great resource for the Search Team and Board.
Hopefully, it has been a while since the congregation has had to look for a new pastor. If the church is independent has congregational polity, the Search Team may well need help getting started. They will need someone in the denomination to contact to get their position posted and find out which pastors are looking for a position. Also he can help them find other pastoral placement organizations that could be helpful. When the team gets together, the interim pastor can help the Search Team focus on what kind of person the church needs to be the next pastor to lead the church into a new life cycle. He can help them answer questions like: What kind of surveys should we do to find out the thinking of the congregation? Do we need a consultation team to help us evaluate where we are as a church, and if so, how do we find a good consultant firm?
- He can give leadership to the staff and resource them in a time of uncertainty.
Having an interim pastor sitting in the lead pastor’s chair can enable the staff to continue to work together on accomplishing the Great Commission and the Great Commandments in the church and community.
Many churches require the rest of the staff to offer their resignations when the lead pastor leaves so that the new pastor can build his own team. Often the new pastor will retain at least part of the staff, but for this, and a multitude of other reasons, time between pastors is very unsettling for the staff. An interim pastor can be a sounding board when the staff gets nervous. He will be able to dampen the effects of the natural upheaval that comes when leadership changes, and he may be able to help them start their searches for new positions.
- An interim can analyze the church’s structure and help them adopt a new structure if needed.
In churches with congregational polity, sometimes the structure of the church is problematic. Perhaps the bylaws need to be updated, or even totally rewritten so that new leadership can make sense of them. It would be tragic if a good pastoral candidate didn’t consider the church because he/she was put off by antiquated bylaws that he had no idea how to use.
In churches that have a prescribed structure the interim could make sure the membership and attendance statistics are up to date and that the structure the church is using is the appropriate one for the size it is now.
- An interim can get the church ready for the coming of a new pastor.
If the church has had the same pastor for many years, and especially if the church has grown during that time, some of the members will have a hard time imagining another pastor in the pulpit. The presence of an interim pastor helps the church get used to another person filling the role. Members can become able to picture someone, with a different style, and a different approach, leading their church. The interim pastor can talk about great days ahead for the church and help them look forward to a new vision and a new life-cycle with excitement instead of dread.
Churches need to resist the temptation to try to save the money they would’ve paid a pastor during the time they don’t have one. The months between pastors become very important as the church turns the page and closes the chapter of its history that was written by the old leader and prepares itself to begin writing a new chapter under new leadership. A good interim pastor can help the congregation do that and is well worth a salary.
Effective interim pastors should be people called to that ministry and not people marking time until retirement, or retirees “just keeping their hand in”, or people who have repeatedly failed as pastors. Interim pastors may work part-time, or full-time depending on the needs and size of the church. It should be very, very rare for an interim pastor to become the next pastor of the church. If he wants to be the permanent pastor, he should apply for that job, and not accept the interim position. The interim needs to be a free agent, able to do what is best to prepare the church for its next chapter.
The most important thing when a church loses a pastor for whatever reason is to prepare for the future God has in mind. Whenever a church finds itself in that position it should seriously consider finding an interim to help them.
Post contributed by Ray Houser and originally appeared on his blog, rayhouser.blogspot.com. Ray holds bachelor and a seminary degree from Anderson University, as well as a MS in Management from Indiana Wesleyan University. He has been a youth pastor, a church planter, and for 18 years, a lead pastor in Kokomo, Indiana. In recent years, he has served as interim pastor at churches in Washington, Mississippi and Illinois. In addition, Ray coaches pastors, and speaks at various churches. Ray and his wife, Tina Houser, live in the Chicago area. Tina is a nationally known children’s ministry leader, editor of “Kidzmatter” magazine, and author of 17 children’s ministry books. Ray also assists her as administrator of her workshop ministry. His passion is to help churches that are plateaued get going again and to see declining churches rebound.