LEADING A CONGREGATION THROUGH PASTORAL TRANSITION

Pastors encounter transition from a ministry location for many varied reasons.  Those reasons might include retirement, another offer of employment or ministry, health problems, or a lack of ministry potential in their current setting.  Here are some factors that the leading board and remaining staff need to consider:

A church family needs to go through a grieving and loss cycle.  This is systemic, normal and healthy.  Whether or not people would consider the former pastor as successful or loved, there will be those who are attached to the individual and need to go through this cycle.  To move ahead before some have reached a measure of closure is more than unfortunate, it can be damaging to the next ministry or ongoing church health.  Many times the board or staff have known a transition was in the works, but for some in the congregation it does not impact them until the public announcement that the pastor is moving on.  The whole congregation includes those least informed, so take time for all to grieve and experience the loss.  Successes will be remembered.   Failures will be assessed.  There is generally no need to respond to the accurate or inaccurate statements of blame and blessing that will be made during this time.  Often there is an unrealistic and inflated views of both the accomplishments or the disappointments in the former pastor.  The way forward means time needs to pass before a healthy decision can be made on how to proceed.

The “Type A’ personalities with CEO-type gifting will think of the pastoral role like an employment hire.  Translation: “Just get on with the next stage and ‘fix’ the problem vacancy”.   This corporate model is less than helpful in this instance.  In truth the pastor has been seen more as a family member than as an employee by the congregation.  The feeling with some will be more like a divorce has happened rather than an employment restructuring with new opportunities.

Have an interim or transitional pastor.  In most cases I recommend slowing the pace with a six to twelve month interim or transitional pastor.  That term should never be longer than eighteen months as the attachment to the interim becomes the same as with a permanent pastor.   If, however, the church moves ahead too fast in hiring the next individual there is strong evidence that the next pastorate will be a short one.  This interim period can be a good time to do some congregational assessment on church health.  That information can be helpful to the next pastoral candidate.  The transition time is often a time of church growth as people come out of the woodwork to fulfill roles and needs of the church in the absence of the former pastor.  Ministries that are important will find new leaders and ministries that were marginal or less significant might fall to the wayside.

Wait to make significant decisions – at least for a few months into the interim period.  Our Western culture does not generally possess the gift of patience.  Waiting and postponing judgment until a more suitable time for key decision is generally wise in this situation.  There will be pressures by some who will say, “What are we going to do?”  This is an opportune time to draw people into prayer for the leading team.  Having a plan is good, but definite decisions with long term effects are generally not helpful in the beginning stages of transition.  If the plan is to set up a search committee who will work on a result in due time, that is fine.  If the leading team is anxious, others will also be anxious.  If the leading team is patient and confident God is in control, others will benefit from that attitude.  This is a time to show faith and not fear.  God has not left, nor will he neglect the needs of His Church.

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