A small church in the country.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Is it time pastoral transitions made a transition?

June 1, 2023

Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already—you can see it now! (Isaiah 43:18-19 GNT)

The world has changed and so have pastoral transitions. It’s time for re-creation, reformation, resurrection, and even pruning. Let’s talk.

Any traditional method of finding pastoral leadership for the small, and not-so-small, church is currently a long, and potentially endless, journey. Even churches with the greatest potential (a healthy financial position and strong participation) are finding clergy candidates few and far between.

A church’s interim pilgrimage starts emotionally even before the current pastor has departed. It often includes an assessment process that is designed to help congregations grieve the loss of the previous pastor so they can welcome new leadership with a clean slate. Along the way, the congregation reviews its history and creates a vision for a future ministry to “sell” to a prospective pastor. The process is designed with the local church acting as a consumer. The problem is the pastoral supply chain we’ve relied upon is down to a trickle and the process often concludes with the search committee desperate to take anyone. What’s more, the search process is so long that after 2-3 years of an interim, the world has changed, the congregational and community needs have moved on, and the people remaining are exhausted. For the small church, the pastoral transition process is broken.

What’s going on?

For one, the Christian church is in a transition period. Technology, changing family patterns, politics, and even viruses have meant change for the church.

It is not reasonable to try and create a national search system adapted to churches looking for a bi-vocational pastor.  

Churches by nature are institutional and lack imagination, or more specifically a willingness to imagine. Margaret Marcuson observes that in our current environment churches may be creating “a catastrophic scenario” that “doesn’t help people think creatively. Instead, their brains shut down. We can get stuck in worry and fear.

The world has changed and so have pastoral transitions. It’s time for re-creation, reformation, resurrection, and even pruning. Let’s talk.

In an age of professional ministry, we Baptists may have forgotten our history. Dr. Curtis D. Johnson, in his book, “The Power of Mammon,” discovered that for significant periods of time in New York State (ex. 1800-1840; 1865-1920) many churches functioned successfully without trained pastors. Wayne Robert Brandow notes that the first divinity school with the sole purpose of training pastors didn’t start until 1808 (Andover). Brandow writes, “On the frontier, unschooled ministers were the norm…church members looked among the men the Lord had brought into their church family.” The work of ministry was not a “job for the Pastor.” Calling gifted laity in the congregation would be a return to our roots, today.

This is not to suggest that pastoral leadership should be abandoned. Systems theory points to the importance of having a “head.” Anxiety is reduced when there is at least a perception that there is leadership. Those early Baptists met in Covenant Meetings to recognize that leadership was present in and among the congregation. There needs to be leadership, but does it need to be a solo pastor?

It is time to experiment and open ourselves to the promise that God does new things. Steven Martin suggests that “In times of uncertainty, anxiety can drive us to experiment and take risks in the hope of finding a better way forward.”

Future leadership

The idea that a church needs to find a solo pastor “somewhere, out there” needs to change. If Baptists truly believe in the “priesthood of all believers” then the Lord gave spiritual gifts to believers “to prepare God’s people to serve and to build up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 GW). How, then, might we approach pastoral transitions differently than we have?

Find leaders among us. After several unsatisfactory pastors, one church in my area identified 2-3 lay people in the church to share preaching, property, and administration duties. They are no longer “looking” for a pastor.

Encourage the development of lay ministry teams. Lay ministry training programs have become major suppliers of pastoral leadership for our churches. What if each local church developed a pastoral ministry team during the current pastor’s tenure? I have a friend planning for retirement by training a team that can share worship and ministry leadership when she leaves.

Become an online congregation. Putting your current worship service on Facebook is not an online congregation. Starting an online congregation that is engaged with each other is a new ministry. One congregation I heard about meets monthly face to face, but the church is primarily online. A pastoral leader of an online church could be located anywhere.

Negotiate a satellite church model. A church searching for a pastor could intentionally negotiate a satellite church partnership with another church who has a pastor. The satellite church’s lay people could provide the church’s ministry, but the morning message and some programmatic components could come from the mother church via technology (and periodically in person).

Two to four churches within a 30-minute drive could call one senior pastor who would provide a projected message or the entire service. They could collaborate on programs, and a lay ministry team in each satellite would act as the Body of Christ, providing discipleship and organizing pastoral care. Each satellite would maintain their own meeting place and contribute a portion to the whole.

A friend recently visited a small church that accesses the live video sermons from another church for the morning message each Sunday, even without a negotiated arrangement. Could one church in the region provide such an online service while a church is in transition?

Plan for a long-term closing. One pastor was called to serve two churches knowing that there was a possibility that the smaller would close. The pastor served the two separate churches for 2 years or so. No complicated territorial merger was attempted. The one church solemnly celebrated their many years of ministry and closed. Remarkably, the remaining members of the closed church found it natural to go to the surviving church because “their pastor” was there too.

Finally, a willingness to experiment may begin with a serious reality check that includes compensation expectations, supply chain problems, facing up to pastoral messiah myths, and conversations with fellow churches in transition. The choice for a church in transition should not be solo pastor or death.

Rev. Dr. Paul Bailey retired in 2021 from the Eastwood Baptist Church in Syracuse, NY. In addition to over 40 years of pastoral ministry, he was an adjunct instructor in Communications at Onondaga Community College for 15 years.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

Don't Miss What's Next

Get early access to the newest stories from Christian Citizen writers, receive contextual stories which support Christian Citizen content from the world's top publications and join a community sharing the latest in justice, mercy and faith.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This