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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Rivalry

 

Yes, it jumped unexpectedly off the page at me.

I was mentally checking on a Bible verse when I came across this part of a phrase: “It is true that some preach Christ out of … rivalry ….” (Philippians 1:15).  It struck me that I have heard messages like that and have at times preached in a similar manner.  There were times preaching when I would have ‘a bee in my bonnet’ over some lesser doctrine, but I worked hard to make it sound very, very important.  Silly me.

Paul goes on in the text and acts as though he does not care much about inaccuracies from the pulpit, even when twisted with wrongful intent.  In context it seems as though from a distance some preachers were in competition with Paul and his message, but as long as preachers were preaching Christ Paul showed no great concern.

He does get riled up when it gets personal, as in 2 Corinthians, but he evidently knew those preachers, their intentions and their audience … people he loved dearly.  He had the medium of making a written letter to appeal to discerning minds, so he used it to defend himself before those with whom he was in a meaningful relationship.

I’ve heard preachers preach against other preachers.  I’ve heard sermons against other sermons.  I’ve heard teaching against other teachings.  Correcting an error is one thing, but it is another thing is if the intention is selfish, to put oneself in a better light than others who may in fact be faithful to God.  We must not seek to have our influence be more important to us than the truth.  I’ve seen people spouting what they say to be truth while evidencing little or no fruit of the Spirit in the process.  We need to affirm the truth where we see it and in whomever we see it.  Let’s be complementary when we can be.   Let’s exemplify loving even our enemies.  Let us pray for those who persecute us.

“Lord, keep me from rivalry!”

Your co-worker,  Dennis

Seasoned With Grace

I remember when my oldest son was four years old it was obvious our family values towards smoking had rubbed off.  This was most apparent when we saw him walk up to someone smoking and say loudly and authoritatively, “You’re going to die”.   The words may be true, but timing and context is important to consider.

In Job 25 Bildad the Shuhite states a theological treatise to Job as to the supremacy of God and the low position of us humans, but there must have been something in the tone and timing that was off.  Job responds in the next chapter with some of the best sarcasm ever written when he says, “How you have helped the powerless!  How you have saved the arm that is feeble!  What advice you have offered to one without wisdom!  And what great insight you have displayed!  (NIV)”

At the end of the book Bildad is one of those told to offer sacrifice and to ask Job to pray for them.  God even states that Bildad and his two friends had not spoken of God in a manner that was right.

Speaking the truth is not enough by itself.  Just saying something merely because it is true can be judgmental, cruel, harsh and unloving.  To think we can say whatever we want because it is true is likely a serious character flaw.  This is why “speaking the truth in love” is an important filter.  I think that means we are to assess how our words will be heard.  The tone with which we say our words needs attention.  Sometimes to say “The Bible says …” can be totally appropriate, but it can also be, like Bildad’s words, inappropriate in its time and space.

I do not speak as a perfect person.  If someone can tame the tongue then perfect is what they are.  I do not pretend to have entered that phase.  I have at times committed my own errors by impulsive comments while trying to be witty or cleaver.  That is not to say that engaging laughter is a negative, and there are appropriate for those words.

My prayer today is for balance in assessing our words.  We must not ignore truth, but we must know how our words are heard.  Saying the hard things will be necessary at times, but may God give us an understanding of the situations we are currently facing that our words might lead to healing and wholeness for all.

Your co-worker,  Dennis

Reckless

In the book of Numbers is a quirky story of Balaam and his donkey.  The story is of Balaam the prophet being courted by Balak the king of Moab to prophesy against the children of Israel while on their way to the promised land.  Balaam is evidently on his way to a perch where he can look down on the children of Israel when his donkey sees an angel from God that Balaam does not see.  The donkey seeks to go around the angel and crushes Balaam’s leg against part of a wall.  This leads to the Balaam getting more and more annoyed to the point that he beats his donkey three times.

At this point the donkey talks to Balaam.  Balaam is evidently so upset at his donkey’s apparent disobedience that he does not see the unusual nature of the donkey speaking back to him.

We all can recount times where people have set their sights so earnestly in a single direction that the perception of the actual terrain around has become skewed.  Too often the circumstance can be traced back to thoughts like “God, here is my plan, now bless it” rather than “God, what is Your plan?”

Motivations can be varied but personal esteem or reward is usually near the top.  Perhaps we want to look good before others, our church to look good, our opponents to be outdone, our appeal to the community to be greater, our logic to be affirmed, or our future to be more secure.  These still come down to selfish interests.  The King Balak would likely have given reward to Balaam, and though Balaam seemed verbally to distance himself from that compensation, likely it was a motivator.

So on Balaam’s journey after his experience on the donkey he finally has the angel speak to him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me” (Numbers 22:32 NIV).

How many times have I followed a ‘reckless path’, one of my own devising?  It could be a path where I was not technically disobeying but pushing the boundary.

May God give us all more ability to see our blindness caused by our self directed paths.

 

 

On Church Boards

Questions on roles, expectations, training, and evaluation of deacons and elders come to CBWC offices regularly.  What is often really behind the question is not what is biblical but a curiosity of what might be culturally common within those roles.  Yes, in the Western World we have a fairly well developed ‘church culture’.

Culturally there has been the development of some rather rigid roles for deacon and elder. Biblically deacons served tables, but not many do that specific role any more.  The roles for an elder can vary quite widely in Scripture, but certainly there were some that were used to administrate or ‘rule’ with regard to a church’s functioning.  Biblically there is no specifics on the election or appointment processes for those who would serve as elders.  Timothy was to appoint elders, but not much is there on how he went about the pragmatics of making those choices.

Too often we think of elders as those serving on an elders’ board.  In reality, however, if an elder takes a year or more off from the elders’ board, are they no longer one of the elders for that church community?  We may have used the term ‘elder’ too rigidly.  It is my belief that it is a good thing for people to desire to be an elder in character and role and that they do not need to be elected as such to serve in that capacity.

There are Biblically no details regarding meetings of elders or deacons, unless one would possibly include Acts 15.  Was there a committee chair, the taking of minutes, a schedule of meetings, or a devotional?  All of these are additions from our culture.  True, they may be helpful assets to committee type roles in our modern world, but they are extra-biblical pieces.

The word ‘elder’ can be used scripturally as those whose jurisdiction was over a very broad region, not merely a specific church family.  In the small town in which I was a pastor I think the town’s elders could have been a fellow who was a printer from the Pentecostal church, a high-hoe operator from the Lutheran church, and a few farmers from the Nazarene and Baptist churches.  If people wanted reputable Christian advice the community knew who these elders were.  Community members were likely to go to them as much as to the pastors of those churches if they needed advice or counsel.

One church I worked with intentionally did away with elder and deacon boards.  They had a ‘leading committee’ and that committee had ‘committee members’.  This took away much of the inappropriate attachments of trying to tie biblical verses, which were for a more ancient context, into a more contemporary one.

I am not against deacon or elder boards, but at least let’s be honest about the cultural pieces attached to how we use the terms.  Those serving in those roles are to be humble, careful not to ‘lord it over others’.  There is nothing more dangerous than someone having responsibility without accountability.  Everyone needs to answer back responsibly to the congregation.  Entitlement and self-inflated egos over being a deacon or elder need to take the way of the dodo bird.

 

 

The Gift of Sharing

“Give me your tired, your poor,

 Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

 The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

 Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

 I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

Those are the words on the Statue of Liberty.  Welcoming strangers is to be one of the marks of believers.    Jesus shares the affirmation of the ‘sheep’, whom He affirms by saying,

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me”  (Matthew 25:35-36 NIV).

I remember the difficulties as a small child of sharing with my siblings.  When I say that you need to appreciate that I was one of eight children.  Sharing my Tonka truck, or my bike, or my football were not theoretical things that might happen … they happened all the time.  Okay, some of that was not by choice as most of my siblings were bigger than me.

Sharing is not a natural trait of the human condition, but Jesus shared no small portion with us.  He has shared or is sharing His Spirit, His work, His home, His peace, His mercy, His family, His riches, His purpose, His burden, His goals, and many other facets of privilege.

The Apostle Paul speaks against some self-sufficient types when he says, For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”  (1 Cor 4:7).  Absolutely everything we have we have been given by God, and we need to have that sharing spirit to inspire us to bless others with what we have received.

May God give us more of a sense of how much we have been given and the courage to share as we see a world in such great need.

Your co-worker,  Dennis

Hiring Associate Staff From Within Your Own Church

The practice of hiring staff from within one’s own church is becoming more common.  This step has both positive and negative potential outcomes, so various considerations need to be pondered before such steps are taken.  There are many variables, so let’s begin.

First let’s talk about when a layperson is considered for an associate position.  There are many upsides to this choice.  Likely if a person is considered at all they are highly esteemed among their church family.  Their gifting and weaknesses have been recognized and are widely known to a level that is beyond what one would have on an outside candidate.  These individuals know the church, are established in relationships, are familiar with the church structures, and can relate to the church culture and history.  An added bonus is that there are no relocation costs to consider.  These considerations are often very helpful pieces and such candidates are good possibilities, especially for part time roles.

So what are some of the possible downsides to this choice?  I think the key challenge these individuals face is in the sociological transition of the role change.  There is an adjustment from being ‘just one of the gang’ to now being a ‘pastor’.  Often this is more of an adjustment than the individual expects.  The relationship with the individual’s supervisor, often the senior pastor, may need to switch from a cordial friendship to one of accountability with expectations.  At some point the reality of the switch can bring some friction.  Also an associate role usually involves some level of administration and leadership and former friends can react with an attitude of ‘who made you a ruler over us?’  The transition from being a friend and colleague to being an administrator needing to coordinate volunteers can deeply affect one’s former relationships. There can be jealousies faced which a new person from the outside would never have experienced.

Another potential downfall is if anything goes sideways with the hired individual.  This might be through an annual review, a corrective by a board member or pastor, or a personal disagreement with the church’s direction.   The individual’s pre-established connections within the church leaves greater vulnerability to gossip.  Unofficially there may be more of a loyalty to friends with less loyalty to the board chair or senior pastor.  Some other disgruntled layperson might also attempt to use the former relationship with the individual to gain inroads as a way to disrupt a current decision or direction of the church.  If the relationship with such a hire goes sideways, do they leave the role and return as before, back into the fabric of the church family as an average layperson?  Not likely.  Do they then have to leave or would they likely leave?  If they feel they have to leave, what is to be the response of those supportive of the individual?

I have seen many of these scenarios work out wonderfully well, but because of the relational aspects already at play within the church there needs to be some serious conversation about expectations and possible outcomes.

May God guide us all as we seek to recognize leaders and effectively position them to help equip the church for works of service to the King of Kings!