How do you successfully pastor a church between lead pastors? I get this question regularly in my new ministry to pastors at LifeWay, so I want to share several possible transition models for your church to consider as when faced with moving forward without its pastoral leader.
Seven months ago I transitioned to my current position from a church I was lead pastor of for thirteen years. I met for several months with a transition team of pastors and lay leaders who prayerfully considered which model was best for our church at that time. I wrote about six transition steps I used in my post How To Leave Your Church Without Hurting It.
Today I want to share four interim pastor models for your leadership to consider. This list is not exhaustive, nor will any guarantee a successful outcome, so choose prayerfully and contextually.
The Conventional Interim Model
A conventional interim serves the church by temporarily taking care of her basic pastoral needs. These interims function as bi-vocational chaplains and pulpit supply. They are usually either retired pastors or serve in another ministry during the week.
The conventional interim model is a good option for churches that already have a healthy transition team and/or staff in place. Often a church will experience a needed surge in morale when a fresh face and voice take the pulpit. If the interim lives nearby and is retired, you can expect an exponential boost in pastoral care as well.
The Transitional Interim Model
This is also known as an “Intentional Interim.” Most of these interims have been formally trained to help unhealthy churches get back on their feet. If there are unresolved issues or undisciplined bullies lurking freely throughout the church, the church will need more than a pulpiteer or a chaplain—they need a leader.
In my last church, I benefited greatly from following an transitional interim, as did our church. Since my predecessor’s ministry ended in the throws of a divorce, our church not only needed time to heal, but also a shepherd to lead them back to health. A freshly retired, highly respected pastor named Don Moore had recently finished his Transitional Interim Ministry training, and our church was his first assignment. He rocked it and the church was much healthier when I showed up to pastor.
LifeWay partners with several groups to enlist and train transitional pastors. For more information on securing or becoming a Transitional Pastor, contact Dan Garland at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Interim Team Model
This model may be a viable choice for churches that have a healthy staff and leadership dynamic. This is important because a leadership void will sometimes get filled by dangerous wolves instead of loving shepherds. A team of leaders can be very healthy if everyone has a servant’s heart and a clear role.
This strategy should not to be confused with a rush to fill the position or a reluctance to get outside help.
The church I left in October adopted this model because we had a full, competent staff of six pastors who were more than able to run the day-to-day ministries during this season. Equally important to our decision was a healthy deacon ministry that stepped up to assist with a “whatever-it-takes” disposition. A pulpit supply rotation is currently being used as our pastor search team does its job.
The team/committee model is customizable and flexible. Like any interim model, the success of the transition relies more on the posture of the church than the plan.
The Successor Model
I have observed a wide variety of outcomes.
- Family succession: father-son hand-off (Fallwells, Stockstills, Grahams)
- Internal succession: internal staff candidates (i.e. Southeast Christian)
- Multi-campus: campus pastors (baseball farming system)
“The cardinal rule for pastoral success is that there is no cardinal rule for pastoral succession.”—NEXT: Pastoral Succession That Works
The process will be unpredictable and sometimes messy, but there is no good reason why the church should not be healthy when the new lead pastor and family steps onto your campus.
The bottom line is that the success of each interim experience is intrinsically connected with the health of the church and the interim who leads it. Choose your plan prayerfully and without haste.