I am in the midst of a transition project with a church in Eastern British Columbia. The transition is taking place because the former pastor has moved on to another pastoral responsibility. His move, while led of the Spirit on one level, no doubt was prompted by some measure of unsettledness on another. It is never easy for a pastor to know exactly when it is time to move on. After all, there is always one more hill to climb and one more problem to solve. Besides, if the pastor has been there for some time, a lot has already been invested that it is not easy to relinquish. And there may be personal issues involved — how a move would affect one’s children, or other aspects of one’s career. But inevitably the pastor (or the church) decides that a change would be expedient. Of course it is always better if the pastor is able to determine this before the church comes to this conclusion.
But as things go, sooner or later churches find themselves facing a transition period between pastors. At first this can be an unsettling time for the church since it inevitably has become very attached to a particular pastor’s ministry. It usually takes a month or so for churches to come to terms with the reality of their loss in these circumstances. Most churches belong to denominations whose leaders are quick to provide some kind of protocol on how to proceed. But these days, more and more denominational leaders recognize the value of assigning someone with transition expertise to work with a church in such a time in order to maximize future effectiveness.
It has been my privilege to work in this kind of role for half-a-dozen churches in the region within the last several years. A transition pastor is usually someone with a good deal of church ministry experience and knowledge who is committed to specializing in this kind of work. Ideally this person has definite pastoral skills in public communication and pastoral care as well as organizational skills to help a church become more efficient in its operation. No doubt the transition pastor will also have team-building skills and a knowledge of contemporary issues for effective ministry in these times.
I have found that a normal and effective transition will likely take at least eight months, perhaps longer depending on the circumstances surrounding the previous pastor’s departure. This is a significant period of time, but it is important for the church to appreciate the value of taking time for a more fruitful ministry in the future. The idea is to hire a pastor from a position of health if at all possible. This means taking time the time to find out underlying issues in the life of the church that are best addressed during a transition time. By experience and training, a transition pastor is able to identify issues of need quickly and how they might be remedied. Hiring the wrong person or hiring without resolving critical issues for effective ministry can be very costly for a church.
In my experience when a church sees the value of a transition ministry of this nature it is best to set up a contract for the specified time which outlines the perameters of the transition ministry. This will include the goals for the transition period, the specific pastoral role to be engaged, and the transition issues to be addressed. Usually the latter will consist of helping the church with closure on the previous ministry, and with various kinds of renewal — relational, organizational, and visional. Only after the deeper needs of the church are addressed will the transitional pastor prepare to guide the church through the search process for its next pastor. To prepare for the search, my objective is to work with the lay leadership of the church to establish three significant descriptions: a community profile, a church profile, and a pastoral profile.
As a transition pastor, I like to work with the congregation to listen and provide hope and vision for the future on the basis of God’s Word. I work with the Board to strengthen communication and ministry structure in the church. And I also work with the Board and the congregation to provide new insight on issues for more effective ministry in the future. My objective is to help the church hire a pastor with their eyes wide open about effective ministry in today’s world and the potential candidate’s ability to minister in that environment.
In my experience there are three stages in the transition period — 1) the listening and assessment stage, 2) the information and vision-casting stage, and 3) the pastoral search and hiring stage. Sometimes these will over-lap to some degree. Right now, in the present case, we are finishing the 1st stage and beginning the 2nd. Somewhere by the end of January or the beginning of February the church should be ready to begin the search and hiring stage. My goal in this case, is to see the transition period finish around the end of April.
It was Pastor Bill Hybels of the Willow Creek of Chicago who said, there is nothing like the local church when the local church is working right. The local church has been entrusted with carrying the life-giving message of Jesus Christ and it’s the only hope I see for this broken and hurting world. There is nothing else like it. If this is true, and I believe it is, then doing church ministry well is very, very important. Transition ministry is dedicated to ensuring this kind of outcome. And it’s a delight to see it happen.