During the time when a church is without a pastor, Sunday still comes once a week.  The congregation still gathers for worship.  And someone still steps behind the pulpit to preach.  But churches sometimes have a difficult time determining who that person will be each week.

How to deal with pulpit supply (as it is often referred to) during an interim period is one of the first decisions that churches need to make whenever a pastor resigns. And believe it or not, it can become a source of conflict and division in the church if not handled properly.  With that thought in mind, here are 7 recommended guidelines to follow for filling the pulpit during an interim period without splitting your church:

  1. Determine the persons responsible for securing ongoing pulpit supply and/or an interim pastor. This could be the deacons, personnel committee, or another individual or group who is assigned this responsibility. It is generally not recommended to assign this responsibility to the pastor search committee as they already have a difficult task in finding the church’s next pastor. They certainly don’t need the additional pressure of trying to fill the pulpit each week as well.
  2. Secure a list of names of available preachers to fill the pulpit. In Southern Baptist circles, a pulpit supply list can usually be obtained from your local Baptist association. In other denominations, there is usually a local organization that can provide a list of qualified names.  If no list is available, contact other local pastors for recommendations and begin to create your own list.
  3. As a general rule, it is recommended that the church call an interim pastor if possible. While this may not be feasible in every situation, it is preferable most of the time. I will discuss more advantages of an interim pastor in a future post, but one is that it provides consistency in the pulpit and eases the burden of trying to schedule a different preacher each week.
  4. If the church decides to call an interim pastor, don’t choose someone who is also a prospective candidate to become the next pastor. While there are a few exceptions (especially in smaller churches), this often sets the stage for a heightened risk of division in the church between those who want the interim pastor to become their next pastor and those who don’t. It is usually a good idea to confirm with the interim pastor candidate that he has no interest in becoming the next pastor before you call him as your interim pastor.
  5. Exercise extreme caution in using a prospective candidate as pulpit supply. If, at any point, someone who fills your pulpit expresses interest in becoming a candidate, don’t use them for pulpit supply any longer and allow them to enter the process like other candidates. Otherwise, you create another possible source of division.
  6. Don’t “parade” candidates before the congregation. A pastor search is not a beauty pageant and should not be treated as such.  In other words, don’t bring in different candidates to preach on different Sundays to see who the congregation likes the best.  This almost always leads to division.  Furthermore, if a candidate is currently serving in another church, this also leads to logistical problems for him as well, especially if you ask him to preach multiple Sundays in your church before making a decision if you will extend a call to him to become your next pastor.
  7. Practice discernment on the use of other pastoral staff. If your church has other pastoral staff, you may choose to have them fill the pulpit a little or a lot.  This can become another source of conflict in the church if not handled wisely.  If any of the pastoral staff express an interest in becoming the senior pastor, it’s probably best not to use them as pulpit supply any more often than they would normally preach when the church had a senior pastor.  Because it involves those already in the church, this situation calls for an extra dose of godly wisdom and discernment.

Pulpit supply is one of many challenges that a church faces during the interim period between pastors. While these guidelines are no guarantee that you won’t face significant conflict, they do go a long way to reducing the potential for it.

2 thoughts

  1. Long ago I did some writing on the issue of SBC churches calling a new pastor. I never posted it on my site, but I do believe it is healthier to call the Interim Pastor as the Longterm Pastor.

    Think about it: In the SBC we hire pastors via “speed dating.” We may interview them over a few months from the initial contact, but its more like a few weeks in many cases. Continuing the allegory with relationships, if we decided to marry someone that fast our friends would righty ask question. They would suggest “we get to know them for a bit before we ‘rush’ into things.” Within the SBC, we should consider the same and by calling an Interim Pastor to be the Longterm Pastor we can accomplish a better “match” than seeing everyone’s best presentation’s of themselves over a short period of time.

    Rather, by hiring the Interim aa Permanent Pastor both the congregation AND the pastor gets to see how well of a match they are to do ministry together. This approach then doesn’t mean the minister or the church is bad, but that they discover a better match. Besides, who made the rules that say, “You never hire the interim!” Or, “We must do the search process this or that way!” They were great suggestions at their time, but they are not timeless like scripture and the support for them in scripture is very weak.

    Furthermore, there is more evidence in the New Testament about hiring someone familiar to the congregation. Timothy was familiar to the congregation and was left to the Church at Ephesus. Titus was familiar to the church in Crete. There are other references in the book of Acts that indicate the same.

    Now, that does not mean my suggestion of these verses are prescriptive. However, while they are descriptive, they are points we should consider. More modern, the most healthy SBC churches I know are ones where the congregation was familiar with the pastor prior to starting the search process. How fantastic would it be to see our SBC churches healthy, display the witness of Christ to the community?

    Perhaps changing how we call our pastors, while maintaining church autonomy could be a great step forward! I can think of no healthier litmus test for a church than one who has the ability to evangelize to pastorize (not cows) one of their member. Not only will both parties know another well, but years can be saved in doing their partnership of ministry and missions together. Consider the argument, don’t fall back on tradition alone on this issue, and see where God leads!

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    1. Mike, thanks so much for your thoughts and input! I wholeheartedly agree with your points in principle (see the exceptions comment in the post above). I do believe that it is better if the church can raise up ministers from within their church who already have an existing relationship and knowledge of the church. Both myself and the Senior Pastor of my church were members of the church long before we became pastors at the church. I do believe that works in healthy churches.

      Unfortunately, the reality is that many of our churches are unhealthy. In unhealthy situations, the issues of pulpit supply and interim pastors often become a significant source of conflict and division. Whether it is the interim pastor attempting to manipulate the church into calling him as pastor, or the church jockeying for different members of the church to become the interim pastor or pastor, I have seen negative outcomes more times than not. Also, from a practical standpoint, men are probably not going to uproot their families and relocate to become an interim pastor, which will limit the number of potential pastor candidates as well. Also, if a church considers only candidates who are willing to serve as interim pastor before becoming the “permanent” pastor, it will likely further limit the number of candidates to those who are not currently pastoring another church.

      So, again, I agree with your points in principle, especially in healthy church situations. However, in unhealthy church situations, this issue can become a significant source of conflict and division.

      Thanks again for your thoughts, brother! I hope you are doing well!

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