I am often asked about the nature of pastoral transition work as opposed to regular pastoral ministry or even interim pastoral ministry. Interim pastoral ministry consists of providing pastoral ministry services to a church while the church seeks to locate another pastor. Interim ministry focuses on preaching in the regular worship services of the church. It may also include some pastoral care ministry. But customarily, interim pastoral ministry has not involved engagement with the church and its leadership in the analysis of its structure and vision or the pastoral search process.
Pastoral transition ministry is a more specialized kind of pastoral ministry that seeks to guide a church through its transition time, between senior pastoral leaders, in an intentional way. Besides preaching and ensuring that the regular pastoral ministries of the church are being covered, a transitional pastor seeks to engage the church through an analysis of its values, its culture, its vision and mission. The role of a transition pastor is to help a church understand itself in relation to larger issues regarding the nature of the gospel, its application and communication in its cultural context. The transition pastor seeks to use this analysis as a base from which to conduct the pastoral search.
This intentional kind of pastoral ministry does not proceed quickly; it usually takes up to a year or even more depending on the size of the church. But a church that commits to such a transition process deems that this investment of time and study is well worth the cost because of the critical nature of good pastoral leadership in these times. The complexity of church life and ministry in our times quite naturally calls for a more diligent study process in times of transition that gives due consideration to theology, spirituality, ecclesiology, prayer, and cultural relevance.
I am grateful for the work of a Christian ministry organization called, Outreach Canada, in providing helpful resources for pastoral transition service. Each year, in different parts of Canada, it offers a four-day modular class on how to proceed in transition ministry. The model they advocate has eight parts. First there is the necessity of giving attention to closure on the previous period of ministry including its former leadership. Then there is the necessity of ensuring that good pastoral ministry continues in the transition period involving arrangements for good preaching and services, on-going pastoral care needs, and good structures for continuing church ministry. But the real focus of a transition pastor’s work is on relational, structural, and vision renewal. The final segment of the work has to do with the pastoral search process itself. But pastoral transition ministry emphasizes that it is not wise to engage in the pastoral search process until sufficient attention has been given to the church’s health. Transitional pastoral ministry is all about healthy church; healthy search.
In my work of transition pastoral ministry I think of dividing the time into three major segments: stabilization, assessment, and search. The first several months of my time in a church is given to getting to know the congregation through various kinds of interaction and ensuring that basic pastoral concerns are being addressed. The Services and preaching in this time tends to focus on bigger picture matters including God’s perspective, hope, the essence of the biblical message, the gospel, the significance of the church. During the same time, I try to ensure that the church is being well-managed by working with its Board. We focus on good management practice including principles of communication within the church, structures of government, an organizational flow-chart, and accountability. I seek to ensure that existing staff are communicating well with one another and with the leadership of the church. Sometimes there are large issues to resolve with staff and the Board. All of this may take more time than anticipated. It is a time of adjustment to change and new ways of dong things.
After several introductory months of this kind of work and communication, the church is ready to get serious about assessing its strengths and weaknesses or “growth areas.” Here it’s a matter of securing a good representative and knowledgeable team of about 4 – 6 people who are willing to give attention to looking at the church’s history and its culture. The main idea is to seek to determine the church’s DNA, its culture, its values. This is accomplished through writing a brief history noting the highs as well as the lows of its past. It may also consist of surveying the congregation in a variety of ways — either by securing some kind of written response to selected questions or by individual or group “listening sessions.” This team also tries to gather demographic information about the church and its target community. In the end, it has to be prepared to think about the basic vision of the church. Consideration needs to be given to values that are good and should be strengthened but also what underlying values appear to be affecting the church in a negative way. In the end, this team has to be prepared to make a report to the Board and the church about its finding and recommendations. It should consist of several kinds of profiles: the church, the community, and the kind of pastor that is needed for the future.
The preaching in this second period would tend to focus more on issues of personal and church spiritual health: the nature and application of the gospel, spirituality, prayer, love for one another, ending with some consideration of the vision and mission of the church. The latter part might overlap with the beginning of the third stage pastoral search process. In this stage, a team (either separate or the same as the assessment team) is selected to engage the search process using the conclusions of the assessment stage. This stage includes all the elements of advertising the position, processing resumes, conducting interviews, reference checks, and doing whatever research is necessary to ensure that as much information as possible regarding any potential candidate has been adequately acquired.
A transition pastor’s work concludes when the church has installed its new pastor. Presumably, he will hand off the leadership of the church to the new pastor having apprised him well of the process and conclusions of the transition period. Hopefully too, the transition pastor will be able to have a time of debrief with church leadership regarding a fair assessment of different aspects of the transition process.
Transition pastoral ministry is a specialized season of pastoral work in which the church is guided through a healthy kind of introspection so that, as much as possible, it receives the Holy Spirit’s perspective on its actual disposition — much as was true of the churches of Revelation 2 and 3. Properly led, the transition period can potentially be a great time of spiritual, relational and mission renewal.