Healthy Pastoral Transitions
Equal Healthy Churches for the Future
By David L. Bittinger
Because a pastor loves his family, he prepares a will, a living will, and a durable power of attorney to make things easier for them should he be first to be with the Lord. A pastor also owes it to his church to design a plan that will ease its transition to a new pastor whether he is suddenly called home or God calls him to minister in another part of His kingdom.
After a pastor leaves, parishioners need opportunities to celebrate the good things from their former pastor’s time with them and to process any pain and sorrow related to his departure. To be healthy, parishioners must also make an orderly transition to a future that will be different from their past, but holds the promise of God’s best for them with their next pastor. To accomplish this, parishioners need a visible, comforting presence from someone who will provide spiritual and emotional support following their pastor’s departure — no matter what precipitated his departure.
Jesus provided an example of this presence in His promise to send a Comforter to help His disciples in His absence. He also spoke with them about what they were to do in His kingdom on earth after He ascended to the right hand of the Father.
Districts and churches can accomplish Jesus’ example in times of pastoral transition in a church’s life cycle. These are the prospective goals of a specialized and much-needed ministry venue: the trained interim pastoral coach.
The Harbor Pilot Is Standing By
One Assemblies of God minister described the role of an interim pastor in the transition process as being similar to that of a harbor pilot. According to David L. Fink, the harbor pilot temporarily stands in the place of a ship’s captain as the vessel enters and exits the unfamiliar waters of a harbor. This person is “trained to pilot ships [congregations] that are passing through the treacherous, narrow water of the harbor [an interim period], then hand the ship [congregation] to the captain [the new pastor] and … go back to help another.”1 Fink’s analogy clearly portrays the valuable role of trained interim pastoral coaches in helping congregations in transition make healthy preparations for a new pastor.
Expanding on this comparison, the official board and other lay leaders of a congregation can be compared to a tugboat working at the harbor pilot’s direction to apply gentle pressure against the side of a ship — helping steer it to a safe depth and away from underwater obstacles in the harbor. Trusted lay leaders of the congregation, working together with an interim pastoral coach, can help shape (or reshape) attitudes and goals during times of transition.
At present, no training program exists to prepare either the interim pastor or the transitional congregation for their unique roles and responsibilities during the interim period.2 The potential for development and success of such a unique ministry resides in the vast experience pool of our retired ministers. We need to harness and direct retired ministers to help bring unity and direction to transitional churches.
Nearly half of the Assemblies of God districts across the United States indicated in a recent survey that although they have developed excellent resources to guide congregations through the pastoral search process, they have no defined systematic training model for interim pastors.3 Furthermore, a significant number of congregations appear to be struggling with unhealthy transitional issues when their new pastor arrives.
Nearly half of the Assemblies of God district officers who responded to this survey believe the primary role of an interim pastor should be twofold: (1) surface and resolve congregational issues, and (2) prepare the congregation for the new pastor.4
With a growing awareness of the need for interim pastoral ministry, the Ohio District has begun to seek out retired pastors to serve as spiritual harbor captains in the temporary capacity of interim pastor to fulfill this twofold role.
While these early years of the 21st century present an increasing number of churches in pastoral transition, they also offer a means to healthier and more positive outcomes if we take advantage of the growing number of retired ministers willing to serve as interim pastoral coaches. They are a valuable source of wisdom and maturity, capable of facilitating church health during the critical time of pastoral transition.
The Buck Starts Here
The challenge for districts is to develop a more thorough approach for congregations in transition than just providing pulpit-supply preachers and materials to guide congregational leaders in the pastoral search process. The health of individual congregations and, by extension, the health of sections and districts, can be improved by developing a well-defined formal training model for interim pastoral coaches. A program based on careful training of retired Assemblies of God ministers to guide congregations in transition will result in a healthier, more positive experience for both congregations and the new pastor.
The Ohio District Presbytery and executive officers have favorably received this concept. Superintendent Doug Clay subsequently:
- created the district director of church development position, with a portfolio including the administration of the Ohio interim pastors program.
- recruited a team of retired Ohio Assemblies of God ministers who have a proven record of mature pastoral experience and are committed to the vision of interim pastoral coaching as a new strategy for churches in pastoral transition; and
- adopted the Church Benefits presentation, which shows lay leaders in transitional congregations, both the short- and long-term benefits of God-directed interim pastoral coach ministry.
Let Me Count The Ways
During the 6 to 12 months spent with an interim pastoral coach, the transitional congregation has opportunity to grow and develop into a healthy, vibrant body of believers. This helps everyone’s re-entry into a pastoral relationship — the congregation as well as the new pastor. The skill set of a trained interim pastoral coach includes:
- years of pastoral experience and a mature approach to pastoral care in times of congregational crisis;
- training to address the unique challenges of restorative pastoral care as the congregation works through grief, loss, and the fear of change;
- willingness to provide goal-directed ministry as a buffer between differing>
- ability to resolve congregational conflict before the new pastor arrives;
- openness toward intentional, anointed preaching and teaching relative to a transitional congregation’s needs;
- proven ability to work with and advise lay leadership during the transition period and pastoral search process;
- experience in managing church administrative and financial matters during the transition period; and
- the ability to function as a liaison between district leadership and the transitional congregation.
In addition to these many opportunities, the interim pastoral coach must also be aware of clearly defined boundaries for interim ministry:
- Long-term program responsibilities do not belong to the interim pastoral coach;
- He should not project long-term goals or ministry opportunities;
- It is inappropriate for an interim pastor to become a candidate for the pastorate of the church; and
- The interim pastoral coach must remain impartial in the process of selecting a new pastor. No attempt should be made to persuade church leadership in any way regarding any pastoral candidate.
In recent years, several retired Assemblies of God ministers in the Greater Akron section have served as interim pastors for churches with serious congregational issues. These ministers have piloted troubled congregations through difficult waters in preparation for their new pastor.
During 7 years as sectional presbyter overseeing Assemblies of God churches in the Greater Akron section, I have witnessed the distinct, positive differences these interim pastoral coaches have made in transitional congregations:
- serving as a healing agent of congregational pain when the previous pastor left due to a moral failure;
- providing budgetary wisdom for a transition church in financial trouble;
- serving as a mediator in congregational conflict;
- serving as a buffer between a long-term, founding pastor and a new pastor;
- providing administrative guidance to a church board through the pastoral search process and even praying over the new pastor;
- providing leadership and direction for a church staff during the transition period; and
- pastoral ministry and care during the transition, such as hospital visitation, Communion, water baptisms, baby dedications, and funeral services.5
These interim pastors have been God-given agents of restoration and growth.
A Better Mousetrap
The primary goal of the Ohio District, relative to the interim pastoral coach program, is to develop a training program to empower retired Ohio Assemblies of God ministers who feel called to minister in pastoral transition churches as agents of congregational health, preparing each church for a new long-term pastor.
The training of these interim pastors during a 2-day seminar will focus on five topics:
- the characteristics of an interim pastoral coach according to Gene Wood in Leading Turnaround Churches;6
- an understanding of coaching churches in pastoral transition;
- congregational characteristics during the interim period;
- the tasks of a congregation during the interim period according to Carolyn Weese and J. Russell Crabtree in The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken About Pastoral Transitions;7
- How to plan for each interim pastoral ministry assignment: the strategy of pastoral care.
The interim ministry period in Assemblies of God churches presents an unprecedented opportunity to experience a time of healing, growth, and preparation for the new pastor under the skilled leadership of an interim pastoral coach.
The End Of The Beginning
When addressing whether World War II had turned a corner and was nearing its end, Sir Winston Churchill told guests at the 1942 London Lord Mayor’s Day luncheon: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Likewise, we are not yet at “the end” regarding how best to minister to transitional congregations. However, when we identify the need and determine to address it constructively, we are at “the end of the beginning.”
As Assemblies of God districts across America recognize the benefit of providing trained interim pastoral coaches for congregations in transition, churches will be healthier, more vibrant, and experience less frequent stress-induced changes in leadership. We owe our parishioners and the future of our Movement our best effort to create a spiritual “Mission: Possible” team of compassionate, skilled, and experienced interim pastoral coaches. To do less is to shortchange everyone’s future.
1. David L. Fink, “A Questionnaire for Assemblies of God Pastors Who Have Served as Interims in Pastoral Transition Congregations,” survey by author, Lewisville, Texas, 5 September 2005, e-mail.
2. “A Questionnaire for Assemblies of God Pastors Who Have Served as Interims in Pastoral Transition Churches,” survey by author, December 2004 to May 2005, mail and e-mail.
3. “A Questionnaire for Assemblies of God District Officials and Presbyters Who Have Directed Churches in Pastoral Transition,” survey by author, December 2004 to May 2005, mail and e-mail.
5. “A Questionnaire for Assemblies of God Pastors Who Have Served as Interims in Pastoral Transition Churches,” survey by author, December 2004 to May 2005, mail and e-mail.
6. Gene Wood, Leading Turnaround Churches (St. Charles, Ill.: Church Smart Resources, 2001), 87–127.
7. Carolyn Weese and J. Russell Crabtree, The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken About Pastoral Transitions (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004).