Pastor Search

What Expectations Should Our Church Have for Our Interim Pastor?

You woke up this morning with many expectations for the day, and so did I. Everyone did!

We expect our car to start in the morning. We expect the elevator to take us to our desired floor. We expect our favorite sports team to win (unless you’re a Cincinnati Reds fan like me!). Our days are filled with expectations.

The problem is that sometimes our expectations aren’t met. Things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes, our car battery dies. There are days when the elevator is out of order. Occasionally, our favorite team’s quest for victory comes up short.

Whenever that happens, our emotional dominoes begin to fall. It starts with frustration, which leads to anger, and anger leads to blame. Blame leads to judgment, and judgment leads to gossip and slander. And the dominoes keep falling.

During a season without a pastor, churches will often look for the services of an Interim Pastor. This individual will fulfill specific roles in the absence of the “permanent pastor.” At the very least, he will preach each week. In addition, he may attend meetings. He may provide counseling. He may participate in special events. He may conduct weddings and funerals. He may visit shut-ins or new prospects.

Or he may do none of those things (other than preaching).

The reality is that each church situation is unique. The church may not need the Interim Pastor to fulfill some of these duties, or he may not have the time to do so. However, that doesn’t mean some church members won’t expect him to do so anyway. And when those expectations aren’t met, it can lead to frustration, anger, gossip, unfair criticism, and even division in the church.

The good news is that church members can avoid these negative emotions if they maintain proper expectations for their Interim Pastor. What are those proper expectations? I’m so glad you asked!

Traditional vs. Transitional/Intentional Interim

Before developing the proper expectations for your Interim Pastor, you first need to identify the type of Interim Pastor most needed in your church’s context. 

First, there’s the Traditional Interim Pastor. His primary focus is to help the church move from the previous pastor to the next pastor as smoothly as possible. He will provide consistency in the pulpit. He may perform general pastoral duties during the interim period. He may consult with the Pastor Search Committee every once in a while. He may advise the church on specific issues that come up. However, his leadership influence and authority in the church remain quite limited.

On the other hand, the Transitional (or Intentional) Interim Pastor’s role looks much different. Yes, he will still provide consistency in the pulpit and perform general pastoral responsibilities, but he will also take a more hands-on approach to strategic leadership. 

The Transitional/Intentional Interim Pastor will lead the congregation through a revitalization process as they prepare for the next season of ministry. He will help them identify and address specific issues that have led to the church’s plateau or decline. He will introduce necessary (and sometimes painful) changes so that the next pastor doesn’t have to. He will be loved by some and not so loved by others.

Both types of Interim Pastors will come with a different set of expectations. To know what to expect, the church first needs to know what type of Interim Pastor will be leading them.

5 Universal Expectations

While the expectations for an Interim Pastor are unique in each church context and Interim type, some apply in nearly all situations.

#1: Expect Him to Help, Not Hurt

Every Interim Pastor should have the goal to help your church. He will try to help the congregation experience a healthy transition from your previous pastor to your next pastor. He will try to help you have realistic expectations for your next pastor. He will try to help you in many ways, and you should expect him to do so.

Similarly, you should not expect him to hurt your church. If he attempts to sow discord or lead the church to sin somehow, he should not be your Interim Pastor!

#2: Expect Him to Preach the Word

This should go without saying, but you should expect your Interim Pastor to preach the Word. You should expect his sermons to be based on the Bible and not his own opinion. You should expect him to have the spiritual gift of teaching and rightly handle the Word of truth.

Sadly, I’ve known some churches to expect nothing more from their Interim Pastor than to have a pulse and a willingness to fill their pulpit. While the main point of this post is to avoid the dangers of unrealistic/unmet expectations, there is also a danger of setting the bar too low. At a bare minimum, you should expect your Interim Pastor to preach the Word faithfully!

#3: Expect Him to Prepare Your Church for Your Next Pastor

Both the Traditional and Transitional/Intentional Interim should prepare your church for your next pastor. While they will go about this goal much differently, you should expect both types of Interim Pastors to help you be ready for the day your new pastor arrives.

#4: Expect Him to Be Unavailable at Times

Your Interim Pastor may have other responsibilities unrelated to your church. He could serve on staff at another church or in a denominational role. He could work at another job, or he could be semi-retired and enjoy traveling. Many other things will require his attention throughout the week.

That’s why you should expect that he won’t be available at times. Even if he has agreed to provide pastoral care and hospital visitation, he may not be able to pray with you before your surgery. He may not be available to preach at the funeral of a beloved church member. He may not be available for several ministry opportunities, and the church must be ok with that. In fact, you must expect it.

#5: Expect Him to Leave When His Task is Complete

The Interim Pastor has a specific task. His primary job is to prepare the church to embrace, follow, and support the ministry of their new pastor. How he goes about completing this task will look different in each context, but one thing is clear: everyone knows when his job is complete! When the new Pastor begins his ministry, the Interim Pastor’s ministry is finished.

When that time comes, the church should expect him to leave. They should expect him to move on and help another church experience a healthy leadership transition. They should expect him to allow the new Pastor to be their pastor. In most situations, the church should expect him to exit quietly.

However, there are some instances when the Interim Pastor may not leave – at least not right away. If he was a member of the church before serving as Interim Pastor, you should probably expect him to stay. Also, for those serving as Transitional/Intentional Pastors, there may be an expectation that he will remain with the church for a specified amount of time after the new Pastor begins to continue assisting in the transition. Still, there will be a time when that task is complete, and he will move on.

How to Avoid Unmet Expectations

In addition to these universal expectations, your church will likely have other expectations specific to your context. If left unmet, these expectations can cause significant problems within your church family. To avoid any unnecessary confusion, check out the following suggestions.

  • Write them down. The best way to make sure that expectations are clearly defined and understood is to write them down. 
  • Develop them in consultation with the Interim Pastor. Because the Interim Pastor may have other responsibilities unrelated to the church, he should be included in the conversation as expectations are defined.
  • State any pastoral duties assigned to him. If the Interim Pastor will be expected to be available for other tasks other than preaching, make a list of those responsibilities.
  • State any pastoral duties not assigned to him. If the Interim Pastor is not available for pastoral visitation or supervision of any church employees, you’ll want to make sure that’s written down. Make a list of any tasks he will not be expected to fulfill. In many ways, this list is more important than the list of his assigned tasks.
  • State the duration of the interim period. If the Interim Pastor is only available to serve for a specific time, it’s best to know and communicate that at the beginning.
  • Explain any compensation agreements. The church should compensate the Interim Pastor at a rate appropriate to the expectations. If he is expected to fulfill 90% of what the “permanent pastor” would do, he should be compensated appropriately. 
  • Specify if the Interim Pastor can become a candidate for the open pastor position. I’ve discussed the pros and cons of this question here. Regardless of which position your church takes, it should be spelled out in your written expectations.
  • Share them with the church. These expectations will only help the church set appropriate expectations if the congregation is aware of them. Once these expectations are written down, share them with the church using various means.

A Little Bit of Work Can Prevent a Lot of Pain

Expectations for Interim Pastors vary widely. When those expectations are unwritten and unmet, they can wreak havoc in a church during their search for a new pastor. That’s why churches need to define the agreed-upon expectations upfront. It takes just a little bit of work on the front end, but it can help you avoid a lot of pain in the long run!

If you found this post helpful, check out my book The Church During the Search, which explains six commitments every church member needs to make to honor the Lord during the pastor search process.

Photo by Sergey Meshkov

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