Ideally, and by definition, pastoral ministry in any particular community is best fulfilled through longer-term ministry. It is of the very nature of pastoral ministry that it takes time. This is so because pastoral ministry happens best through relationship building — a process that cannot happen quickly. Biblically, loving relationships are formed through the grace of Christian fellowship involving disappointment and forgiveness, trial and encouragement, testing and trust. Pastoral ministry is at the forefront of this process and seeks to build this kind of community in Christ. For this reason the most effective pastoral ministry is a longer period of time — usually at least ten years.
But pastoral ministry inevitably comes to an end. And it happens for many reasons including restlessness, a clear sense of call to another ministry, serious failure of one kind or another, illness, retirement, church ministry crisis, and family or personal development issues. Sometimes it happens because a pastor and/or church come to the conclusion that a pastor’s work has been accomplished. The pastor announces his/her resignation and the process of pastoral change begins.
This is usually an awkward time for a church because of the relationship that has been built over time with the pastor and because the church isn’t sure what steps to take for the separation to be as painless and meaningful as possible. Depending on the circumstances leading up to the resignation, it can be either (or both) painful and joyful. In the past churches have tried to find another pastor quickly to fill in the gap, but often not enough care is taken to process the change resulting in rather disappointing consequences.
Because the transition time between pastors can be such a delicate and confusing time, more and more church denominations are seeing the value of employing the services of a transition pastor/coach. This is usually someone who has a good deal of pastoral experience and has received some training in the fine art of transitional ministry. This person usually commits to serve for a significant period of time lasting up to a year or more to manage the regular ministries of the church but also to help the church objectively determine its identity and need for future ministry.
Typically, a transition pastor will work with the lay leaders of the church to process effective closure on the past by affirming the significance of previous pastoral leadership while candidly idenitfying and handling deficiencies in the ministry of the church. To the congregation, the transitional pastor will try to provide general encouragement and vision for the future based on clear biblical teaching that seeks genuine personal and corporate renewal. The transitional pastor will also take considerable time with the lay leaders of the church to discuss matters related to current ministry issues, the church’s identity and vision, the nature of true servant leadership, communication, and efficient management of the church’s resources. Last, but not least, the transition pastor will try to guide the church leaders in discerning the kind of pastoral leader that is needed for the future and how to proceed in order to find the best possible match.
Because a transitional pastor has no long-term personal interest regarding employment by the church, this person is able to deal with issues in the church more objectively and candidly. The one who serves in this capacity is a facilitator of communication in a way that is different from regular pastoral ministry. This is so because the transitional pastor doesn’t have to be concerned about his or her own personal security in the situation.
Having served in this capacity recently, I can attest to the value of this kind of ministry for a church that is going through a pastoral change. By this means, it is amazing to see how a church can be unified around a new sense of ministry vision for the future. It seems to me that it is well worth the investment of time and money for a church to contract a transition pastor/coach for this purpose. Besides committing myself to serve in these capacities these days, I would be happy to recommend the use of others or another agency that specializes in this ministry.