Why An Interim Leader Is Your Only Choice

Praying about succession

When people typically think of an interim pastor, they think of someone who is filling a temporary role until the position is filled by the next full-time pastor. Few consider the fact that every pastor is an interim pastor. There has been often someone who has gone before you and there will always be someone who comes after. Pastors need to take measures throughout their time in ministry to prevent themselves or the pastor who follows from becoming an unintentional interim or sacrificial pastor.

After the impacts of 2020, when many pastors are leaving their leadership roles early, replacement pastors are coming into even more challenges than before. Navigating online and in-person services, determining budgets and giving when the economy is still rocky, and shepherding a community facing a global pandemic add to the complexity of joining a well-established church as a new pastor. It is difficult to follow a legend, but here are some practical things to consider that might help ease the transition.

The New Pastor Will Meet Unexpected Challenges Along the Way

New pastors often face a set timeline upon entering a church. In the beginning, the new pastor can do no wrong. Typically, they are welcomed with open arms. Unfortunately, it is not long after that when the new pastor enters into a phase where they can do nothing right. Ultimately, this timeline leads the new pastor to leave. For many new pastors, this unintentional interim period lasts anywhere from three months to three years. 

There are numerous reasons why a pastor may become an unintentional interim including:

  • Toxic Situations

  • Creating Change Too Quickly

  • Ignorance of Transition Dynamics, Low Emotional Intelligence, and/or Lack of Self-Awareness

  • Bad Cultural Fit

  • Bad Personality Match

  • Bad Gift Match

  • Lack of Connection with the Church’s Opinion Leaders

  • Not Enough Allies

  • Lack of Confidence and Certainty of Call

  • Clergy-Killer Congregation

All of these reasons, along with others, can turn a long-term pastor into an interim pastor quickly. Fortunately, being an unintentional interim is avoidable. There are things you can do as an incoming pastor to help your congregation during this time of transition.

Practical Steps As An Incoming Pastor

  • Earning The Trust Of Your Predecessor - Having the support of your predecessor will help ensure that you have the support of your congregation. Similarly, building a trusting relationship with your predecessor will help build a trusting relationship with your congregation. After building a supportive and trusting relationship, have your predecessor endorse you so your congregation understands and believes that the church is in good hands.

  • Honoring Your Predecessor - The pastor is an important part of any church, so be sure to honor your predecessor upon arrival at your new church. Explaining to the congregation that you understand why this is a difficult transition for them and that their previous pastor played a vital role in the church will encourage them to offer you support as you enter into this new role.

  • Listening To Counsel - As an entering pastor, you do not know everything about your church and that is okay, but be sure to listen to those who do. Ask your predecessor about the congregation. Listen to the advice of deacons and trusted advisors. No one knows how to lead a church perfectly, but listening to others who know your congregation well will help you as you step into your new role.

  • Introduce Hyper-Localized Messages - When you come into a hurting or struggling church body, it’s even more important to build quick and meaningful connections. Sunday mornings offer hope to your congregation, and to speak into their situation, you have to know them on a deep level. Ensure you take the time early on to connect with your congregation and focus on those relationships. Successful pastors are not those with the best messages but the strongest connections.

In your early days leading a new church, it’s critical to empathize with the reality that transitions are challenging and be open to the fears or doubts of your congregation. Showing you’re aware of their concerns shows that you’re invested in their well-being and willing to put them ahead of your own feelings. Leading as Jesus did, by putting the Church ahead of yourself, will help you build the connections and respect you’ll need to succeed as a long-term pastor.

While there are more challenges leading a church during and following a pandemic, there is also enormous opportunity. Lean into the unique chance to serve and guide a community to hope in some of their most challenging times.

When to Hire an Intentional Interim Pastor

There are instances when the church needs much more than just a new pastor, they need a revitalized culture. In instances like that, it may be best to hire an intentional interim to help bridge the gap between the new and old pastor. The interim is able to help the congregation prepare for upcoming changes and allows time to create a more positive and receptive culture.

It is important to remember that, “Every arriving pastor will one day be a departing pastor.”  By following and remembering these helpful steps, you will be able to create a church culture that is able to transition well both to you and the pastor that comes after you. 

For information regarding succession, be sure to check out the updated and expanded edition of NEXT: Pastoral Succession that Works by William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird.