Pastoral transitions are inevitable; healthy pastoral transitions are not.
This statement was the premise of a workshop I led last week at a gathering of associational leaders. There are two components to this statement. Let me briefly unpack both.
Pastoral Transitions are Inevitable
First, pastoral transitions are inevitable. No pastor will remain at his church forever. Eventually, every church will experience a change in pastoral leadership. In fact, the average church will experience a pastoral transition every 5-6 years.[i] In my association, 81% of our member churches have experienced a change in pastoral leadership since 2014, and 24% have experienced a pastoral change more than once during that timeframe. Regardless of the individual circumstances, every association will experience pastoral transitions among its member churches regularly. It is inevitable.
Healthy Pastoral Transitions are Not
However, healthy pastoral transitions are not inevitable. Some churches experience a healthy season of transition; others experience great turmoil and conflict. Some churches come out stronger on the other side; others barely survive the transition at all. Unfortunately, they carry scars with them for years, and some never fully recover from the experience.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. While there’s no guarantee that churches will experience healthy pastoral transitions, there’s also no reason that they cannot do so. However, healthy transitions will not happen by chance. It requires intentional, outside help, and I believe no organization is better equipped or positioned to offer that help than the local association.[ii]
If you are an associational or denominational leader who assists churches during this unique season, here are five strategic ways to ensure the churches under your sphere of influence experience healthy pastoral transitions.
#1: Consult with the Pastor Search Committee
The Pastor Search Committee is responsible for identifying and securing the church’s next pastor. They have a tremendous responsibility, and their work requires a significant investment of both time and energy.
Many of these committees receive training on the pastor search process from their local association. Others receive coaching and advice from their association throughout the process as well.
Working with the Pastor Search Committee has been one of the most common ways an association helps its member churches during this season of uncertainty. However, working with the Pastor Search Committee alone will not guarantee a healthy transition. This necessary work needs to be a component of an overall associational strategy for assisting churches in transition, but it cannot be the sole component of that strategy. More must be done.
#2: Enlist and Equip Interim Pastors
As an associational leader, I have the privilege of serving as an interim pastor for any church in my association that requests I do so. Since 2013, I have had the opportunity to serve as an interim pastor for six different churches. However, I can’t serve more than one church as an interim pastor at a time. For some associational leaders, their association’s governing documents prohibit them from serving as an interim pastor at all.
That’s why associations need to enlist, equip, and encourage several interim pastors to multiply the ministry to churches in transition. Associations can provide resources such as preaching plans, sermon outlines, or books. They can offer both theological and practical training. They can also offer to coach and mentor through Interim Pastor Cohorts.
The reality is that most associations only have one associational staff member, and he cannot be in more than one place at a time. That’s why associations must develop others to serve as interim pastors to multiply the ministry to churches in transition.
#3: Lead Efforts to Call Out the Called
In consultation with current local pastors, the association should develop a strategy to discover, develop, and deploy future pastors. They can do so by first praying for the Lord to send out more laborers into His harvest (Luke 10:2). They can communicate the need for pastors within their churches, through social media, and other means of communication. They can talk to current pastors about those in their church who sense a calling to pastoral ministry.
Another way that associations can work to call out the called is by conducting a Call to Ministry Workshop. This interactive workshop combines classroom teaching and objective assessments to assist aspiring ministers in evaluating their calling in a safe environment.
Associations can partner with local churches to provide ministry internship opportunities for those who appear to be called. They can provide pulpit supply and interim pastor opportunities. Eventually, the association may feel confident to recommend one or more of these men to serve as pastors in the association.
#4: Assist in Pastoral Succession Planning
Succession planning is a concept that many assume only applies to megachurches. However, I have observed pastors of smaller churches who have practiced some type of succession planning, whether they recognized it as such or not.
Associations should encourage pastors to consider working with their church leadership to develop a succession plan as they approach retirement. The association can assist in this planning process or simply provide resources and training on the topic.
Ultimately, every pastor is an interim pastor. Every church will experience a pastoral transition at some point. If that transition is expected within the next few years due to a retiring pastor, a succession plan may help ensure a healthy pastoral transition. Associations can help churches work through those specifics.
#5: Help the Church During the Search
In many ways, the congregation will be the primary factor in determining if the church will experience a healthy pastoral transition. When a pastor resigns, every member is impacted, and every member must choose how they will respond. They can choose to honor the Lord in their attitudes and behaviors, or they can choose to dishonor Him. They can choose to put the needs of others above their own, or they can selfishly demand their preferences. They can pray for the Pastor Search Committee, or they can criticize them. The choice is theirs.
That’s why associations must help the average church member understand their role in the process. As I describe in The Church During the Search, I believe there are six commitments that every church member needs to make during this season of transition. Associations can help their churches experience healthy pastoral transitions by challenging individual church members to make these six commitments.
Healthy Pastoral Transitions are Possible
Pastoral transitions are inevitable; healthy pastoral transitions are not. However, they are possible. Associations can provide significant value to their member churches by utilizing these five strategic actions to place every church in a position to flourish during a season of transition.
If you are an associational leader, I hope you will think about customizing these recommendations in your context. If you are a church member in a season of transition, please know that I’m praying that your church will experience a healthy transition!
[i] A study of Tennessee Baptist churches revealed that the average pastoral tenure was 5.41 years.
[ii] Most denominations have a local group of churches that work together for some shared purpose. In Southern Baptist life, they are called associations. In other denominations, the terminology may be slightly different.