I’m hearing of more and more churches designing succession plans rather that engaging in an interim period between lead pastors. (Before interim ministry was a specialty, this approach was common in some denominations.) I will admit my bias up front: I believe the time between settled pastors is an invaluable opportunity for reconnecting with the church’s history, understanding the congregation’s specific purpose anew, and making needed changes. I also think there’s huge spiritual transformation potential, because when there is no installed leader, the church has to lean harder into its faith in God’s presence and goodness.
If your church is considering a succession plan, I would urge you to discuss the following:
What are the reasons we want our next pastor in place before the current one departs? It’s important to be able to name motives beyond the desire to avoid the discomfort of the interim time and a lack of confidence in the congregation’s ability to do the work of the search.
In what ways will the current pastor be involved (or not) in the search for the next pastor? One of the functions of an interim time is to allow a congregation to find out who it is apart from the identity of the departing pastor. If the current pastor is permitted to influence the search process, your church will – for good and ill – continue to be strongly influenced by the outgoing pastor’s passions and personality.
What will the transition look like? How much overlap between the pastors will there be (and can you afford it budget-wise)? How will the responsibilities be shifted over the course of that doubled-up period? What agreements and rituals will you put in place for the eventual end of the current pastor’s tenure?
When will we build in time for self-reflection about God’s call on us as a congregation, and what will that process look like? Church mission/purpose statements evolve over time, and the interim is a natural period for re-evaluation. If there is no interim time, what conditions will you put in place to make sure this work happens so that your congregation continues to be as faithful as possible in its response to God’s call?
Calling and building a relationship with a new pastoral leader takes great intentionality, no matter what that minister’s start in the congregation looks like. Leave no question about process undiscussed, and let your choices be guided by faith in God rather than fear of the unknown.