Thinking Out Loud

January 10, 2009

Pulpit Vacancies, Empty Pulpits, Interim Pastors and Transitional Periods

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:42 pm

Yesterday morning I had a conversation with a woman who told me that after nearly two years without a pastor, the district bureaucracy of her denomination has finally authorized the church to form a “calling committee,” which is what I know of as a “search committee.” She said that by the time they have called a pastor, they will have been three years without one.

Another person shared with me awhile ago that during the times that churches have an “empty pulpit” – a phrase that doesn’t say much for the interim pastor or various guest speakers – no new programs are started, there are no new directives, no new visions. The church basically operates in stasis. Everything is on hold, “until we get a new pastor.”

In yet another church that we once attended, there were over one hundred resumés submitted without success for two and a half years. The recent announcement of an incoming pastor resulted in the sound man cueing up the Hallelujah Chorus. You can’t blame him, he was also on the committee.

moving_van_loadingOn the other hand, you’ve got to appreciate the Salvation Army way of doing things. The outgoing officer from this area told me, “It’s not unusual as you’re loading the final items in the moving van, to find the moving van of the incoming officer parked on the street outside the manse, waiting to unload.”  Some Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches use this system also.

Churches that go through transitional periods always feel like they’re not running on all cylinders. True, some people get opportunities to ‘step up’ to a greater leadership level – and I was one of those persons once – but for the average parishioner, there isn’t that ‘go to’ person for counsel, or anyone to do weddings and funerals for that matter.

I say all this because last night one of my kids came home from a youth meeting with a fresh rumor that the senior pastor of that church might be moving on to a new position. He was concerned because of a hint this might mean the end of the youth group he has recently come to know and love.

Let me explain: In that denomination there is a protocol that when the senior pastor resigns, all of the other staff – pastoral and administrative, and for all I know, janitorial – submit a ‘courtesy’ resignation at the same time. Thus, the incoming pastor, when hired, has the option of bringing in his own team. So instead of a minor disruption, you would have a major disruption. Instead of the new guy benefiting from the other staff members’ experience in the local area, and the crosspollination that always occurs when you’re working with new people, you’re essentially hiring a team; the “pros from Dover,” as Hawkeye might call them.

It need not always be so, however. In one church in that denomination, we heard a story about 20 years ago where the local church just so happened to like the staff they had, and having had enough of the ‘courtesy resignation’ system, they wrote specific staff members’ names directly into the incoming pastor’s job description. The line was, “and to give guidance and oversight to the music director, Alice G.; and the administrative assistant, Jennifer M.”

In the 19 years we’ve lived here, the church my son referred to has had five pastors with a minimum of one-year transition periods in between. I know for a fact that a few of them think it’s them if you know what I mean.   Is this type of church government something Jesus would have intended?

So what do I suggest? In their case, I already know of someone I would tap to submit their resumé. I’m not saying that he would want it, or that he would even be a good fit, but I think that sometimes I know more people in their denomination than they do. It’s hard to ask the lay people in a church to do what the hierarchy of the Salvation Army is able to do in a matter of minutes, by virtue of knowing all the eligible parties.

baseball-teamWithout being more specific, I think denominational churches should borrow from the sports world and essentially see smaller sized towns and villages in the hinterland as being a ‘farm team’ for the larger churches. I think that ‘pulpit committees’ or ‘search committees’ should be struck as soon as a current senior pastor or youth pastor even hints that a move is in the offing. Furthermore, I believe a ‘personnel committee’ should be constantly scanning the horizon, aware of who is doing what.

As I stated, I had the unparalleled opportunity once to jump in part-time and assist a church that was committed to a particular style of outreach they did not wish to lose. I wish I’d known then what I know now, but I respect their decision to maintain continuity during what is often termed a ‘pulpit vacancy.’ We kept a high level of programming, booked some quality guest speakers, and later realized that, ‘we didn’t miss a beat.’ The associate pastor I worked with was able to do the pastoral things, and I was able to concentrate on programming issues. New people came. I think we may have even grown during that time.

But even that was a one-year vacancy that I think could have been cut by several months. (I actually invited the guy who became the pastor to come as a guest speaker. Only when they heard he was coming did the ‘official’ search committee suggest he bring a copy of his resumé with him that Sunday.) Do these search committee people really enjoy all those committee meetings? Is it power thing?

The ‘courtesy resignation’ thing has got to go, too. I understand the basics of it, and the origins of it, but I believe it was constructed during a period when maybe some larger churches had an an extra staff member. It just doesn’t work in today’s multi-staff places of worship. If the new man arrives and there is a major personality conflict between him and some existing staff member then, okay, cut your losses.

But don’t tell a 14-year old kid that ‘it may all be over’ when the track record is that nothing significant is going to change for at least a year.

Better yet, work on ways to make transitions smoother for everyone involved. Instead of immediately putting semi-retired “interim” pastors in play, have a standby list of “ministers without portfolio” who are reasonable candidates, and have them already in preach-for-a-call mode. Or, as one pastor in our hometown did so handsomely three years ago, have an associate pastor with whom there is already a clearly established and understood succession plan. Or have missionaries who are wanting to return to pastoral life in the western world equally on standby to jump into candidating mode.

Something… anything… has got to be better than the status quo way of doing things.


  1. This actually happened to our daughterwork church a few years ago when they were still under us.They went through a few pastors. But they finally found and he seems to be the right man for that church.

    Comment by arm5 — January 10, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

  2. […] — paulthinkingoutloud @ 3:21 pm A few months ago I shared my feelings about the transitional times that Evangelical churches experience when they are between pastors.    After writing that […]

    Pingback by A New Solution to Transitional Times in Local Churches « Thinking Out Loud — April 3, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

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