When pastors leave congregations, their former churches often face what could be termed a punctuation crisis.Some mark the departure with a period, as the end of a sentence—either for the minister or the congregation. Others approach it with a question mark, asking: “Where do we go from here?” But others see it as a parenthesis in their church's history—an in-between time when the church can regroup, refocus and retool for its future.
David Odom, founding president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C., believes the parenthesis created by a change in church leadership can be a helpful time when churches clarify their identity and work through other critical issues.
More than 25 years ago, Loren Mead of the Alban Institute initiated work that led to creation of the Interim Ministry Network, and Odom's organization partnered with the network to develop training for intentional interim ministry.
While new issues—such as changes in worship style—have developed to put stress on congregations during transitional times, the basic principles and presuppositions underpinning the intentional interim process remain valid, Odom said.
“Identify clarification is a good thing for congregations, and that's as true today as it was before,” he said.
Intentional interim ministers help guide churches through five key developmental tasks:
• Coming to terms with their history. If the previous pastor left on good terms, it may mean “letting go” of a beloved leader. If conflict surrounded a pastor's last days at a church, it can mean coming to terms with pain and allowing wounds to heal.
• Examining leadership and organizational needs. Odom pointed to key questions a church should ask: “What is the role of the pastor? How much responsibility and authority does the staff have? Who in the church has the responsibility for making decisions?”
• Rethinking denominational linkage. “There's a lot of emotion tied up in denominational identity for some people. If a congregation is strictly pragmatic, it may be simply a question of what kind of mission and ministry opportunities does it want to be involved in,” he said. And search committees face another crucial question: “Where do we go to find a minister that we can trust?”
• Developing new identity and vision. Intentional interim ministers help congregations rediscover what sets them apart from other churches and gives them meaning. “Identity and values often are picked up in the stories of a church,” Odom noted.
• Making a commitment to new leadership. Intentional interim ministers generally work with transition teams to help churches prepare to receive a new leader.
When churches fail to approach the interim period with intentionality, tensions often develop. Leadership issues rank as the No. 1 challenge churches face when the congregation is without a pastor, said Karl Fickling, intentional interim specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
In some cases, conflict stems from deacons who always have functioned as an administrative body that supervises the pastor rather than as servant-leaders in the congregation, he noted.
In other instances, pastors have caused church splits by imposing on them a governance model that takes away the congregation's right to self-governance, he noted.
“One thing we see frequently is what I would consider an epidemic of pastors reacting after they visit a Willow Creek or Saddleback [church growth] conference and then come back to their churches, do away with the deacons altogether, cancel the church business meetings and put into place a small group of elders who make all the decisions with the pastor,” Fickling said.
“Often, that attempt is seen positively by some young members who have come into the church without any Baptist background, but it is resisted by older members who believe the whole church should be involved in decision-making. So, it results in a church split.”
Next to leadership issues, the second-most-common challenge churches face is the question of how to relate to pastors who retire or resign but who don't leave a congregation, Fickling noted.
The problem becomes particularly acute when the pastor has served the congregation a long time—or, even more so, when he founded the church, he noted.
“Any time a pastor is in a particular church for a long tenure, the church tends to grow to have the personality of that pastor,” Fickling noted.
Over time, congregations tend to grant the pastor greater decision-making authority, he added.