The following address was presented by John H. Parker at the Freed-Hardeman Lectures in 2001. It describes what circumstances often develop when a preacher leaves a congregation and how an interim minister can help it during such a time and assist the elders by providing them the time and information which they may use in guiding the congregation through this period, determining their plans and needs for the future, and making the best choice of the next regular minister.
Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another (Romans 14:19).
When the Preacher Leaves
A preacher’s departure from a church, especially after an extended tenure there, creates stress. While most congregations face this event with Christian maturity and love, even the most stable find this time difficult, and some find it a time of crisis.
If the work of the minister has gone well and a bond of affection, trust, and love has developed between him and the members, perhaps over a period of many years, his leaving can affect them almost as would a death: they feel a sense of loss and grief, and a fear of what will happen to them in his absence. If, on the other hand, he leaves during a time of unrest or conflict, especially conflict involving him, then the congregation may experience division, with some members feeling loyalty for the departing preacher and resentment toward others who, they believe, have caused him to leave.
Whatever the circumstances, the weeks and months following the preacher’s departure are also stressful. The comfortable routine of the church is upset, and the leadership of the congregation feels the pressure of filling the void. “Who will occupy the pulpit and do the evangelist’s work until a replacement can be found? And how much time will we need to find the next preacher?” Speculation and rumors spread. “Whom are the elders considering? How long will it be until they find a new man? Who will he be, and what will he be like?”
Sometimes this situation results in a rush by the elders to find a replacement. They hurriedly conduct tryouts and searches, and within a few weeks they announce with relief that they have employed another preacher. But when he and his family arrive, further problems may arise. If the former minister was especially beloved, inevitably the new one is compared with him. Most members are of good will and try to make every effort to welcome and help him, but some, grieving over the loss of their former preacher, are programmed not to like him. “No one will ever be able to take brother Smith’s place” may be the attitude.
If, on the other hand, the previous minister left as a result of conflict, then the succeeding minister may find himself caught in the middle between conflicting forces. Welcomed by some, he is resented by those loyal to his predecessor who feel that to accept this “new man” would constitute disloyalty to the former preacher and surrender to the other side. He may also find himself dealing with hidden, long-standing problems—problems that in fact may have contributed to his predecessor’s leaving.
Whichever of these scenarios occurs, the new preacher may encounter problems from the start. With patience and perseverance, and with the support of the elders and other leaders in the congregation, he likely will survive them, but too often a man in one of these situations, brought quickly into a church very soon after his predecessor’s departure, never gets a footing. In the one case, he fails to win over those longing for their former beloved minister; in the other, he becomes a target for conflicts and frustrations in the church. Unable to cope, he is soon leaving too.
One Solution: the Intentional Interim Minister
To deal with these challenges, some congregations may benefit from adopting a method that will give them both the time and the means to make a deliberate and careful decision about their future: securing the services of an interim minister.
An interim minister, preferably one trained specifically for the role, is specifically engaged to work with the church during the time between the departure of the last long-term minister and the coming of the next one, a period of perhaps six to eighteen months. Usually, he and the elders expressly explain to the church that he is not a candidate for a permanent position. His task is two-fold: to carry on the work of the minister of the congregation, and to help it adjust and prepare for the new era that it is now entering. He is not a “fill-in” pulpit preacher, but a full-time, salaried minister for the church during this period of readjustment. Once the next regular minister is secured, he will leave, perhaps going on to a similar task with another congregation.
Ideally, such an arrangement can turn a difficult time into one of opportunity. Relieved of the pressure to find and employ immediately a regular, long-term minister, the church can go through a period of healing from the loss of the former preacher, face problems that may have needed addressing for some time, study both its history and its current situation and needs, and determine in an unhurried and deliberate manner the course that it now needs to take. A major part of this latter decision will be determining what kind of qualifications they should look for in their next minister.
The employment of an interim usually has a further advantage. Members who were either attached to or distanced from the former minister do not view the interim as his replacement, and therefore they react to him positively. Since he is here for a limited time, and will after that be gone, they can view him and his work as a non-threatening presence, and benefit from him as they adjust to the transition from the former long-term minister to the next one.
Study and research of churches in transition have been conducted by The Interim Ministry Network, organized in 1980 and focused on analyzing the situations and problems faced by such churches and on providing training for interim ministers, individuals specifically employed to guide congregations through this kind of period. While its approaches are geared mainly toward denominational churches and their hierarchical structures, many of its findings regarding the historical, psychological, and political nature of churches in this situation also apply quite directly to churches following only the New Testament pattern.
Those studying churches in transition have found that they may be profitably be analyzed in terms of the principles of systems and systems management. Like businesses and families, churches are systems, and the people who operate in them tend to conduct themselves in fairly predictable ways, some good and some not. Following the Lord’s teachings, the interim minister can help a congregation’s leaders guide the church toward a new era, one characterized not by continued unrest and even a succession of short-term preachers, but one carefully planned, served ultimately by a new minister whom the church has selected by careful planning, thought, study, and prayer, all conducted during the unhurried period while the interim was with them.
What the Interim Minister May Find
Those interested in interim ministry may consult the Interim Ministry Network for information and training, and the Alban Institute for related publications (see below for contact information). One introductory book is Temporary Shepherds: a Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry, edited by Roger S. Nicholson. In his two introductory chapters he outlines what conditions are likely to appear in a church in transition, as well as the stages that such a congregation may or should go through on its path from the departure of one minister to the employment of another. Characteristics which Nicholson finds in a church in this situation include the following: grief over the loss of the former preacher, conflict among individuals and groups, hidden secrets which gradually come to light, a lack of congregational self-esteem, a decline in giving, a need for change in operating procedures and for training of church workers, a need for better communication, differing reactions to the prospect of change, and differing emotions (14-24). These situations must be dealt to create an atmosphere in which the next regular minister can be successful, Nicholson says, and they can be if the interim period is managed well.
Eight stages which a congregation in transition will most likely go through, according to Nicholson, include termination of the work of the former minister, determining what to do next, conducting a self-study, searching for a new minister, deciding on a choice, negotiating with the new preacher, installing him in his work, and making a new start (5-6). (Of these stages, many congregations of the churches of Christ tend to omit or hurry too quickly through the second and third: carefully determining what to do next and conducting a formal, detailed self-study; they may rush too quickly to that of searching for a new minister.)
Nicholson also outlines developmental stages that, in his view, a church in transition should go through. Among these are the following:
- Analyzing the congregation’s history. This step will reveal strengths and weakness, many of which may be unknown to the present congregation (6-8).
- Establishing a changed identity. While people tend to view a church as a constant in a changing world, in reality a congregation is always undergoing change itself. A realistic view of its true identity is needed (8-9).
- Change in leadership. There may be a need for people leave their positions or to assume new roles, and for revision of systems of doing church work (9-11).
- Determining the future. Once problems are addressed and needed changes are made, the congregation can move optimistically and boldly forward (12).
Securing an interim minister is only one option for a church whose preacher leaves, but for some congregations, doing so may relieve pressure and provide opportunity for careful deliberation in selecting a new long-term minister. In the future, some of our preachers may find part-time or even full-time interim ministry to be an opportunity for effective service to the Lord’s church. May all work be for the edification of his church (Acts 20:32; Rm. 14:19; 15:1-2; 1 Cor. 8:1; Eph. 4:7-16).
Nicholson, Roger S., ed. Temporary Shepherds: a Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry. Washington, D.C., 1998. (Contains a helpful bibliography of works on interim ministry.)
Interim Ministry Network, Inc.; 916 South Rolling Road; P.O. Box 21251; Baltimore, MD 21228-0751; Ph: 410-719-0777; FAX: 410-719-0795.
John H. Parker was born in 1946 to Mr. and Mrs. Howard D. Parker. He attended Freed‑Hardeman University and David Lipscomb University, graduating summa cum laude from Lipscomb in 1968. He holds the M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of Tennessee and the M.A. in Religion with emphasis in New Testament from Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tennessee.
Parker served at Freed‑Hardeman from 1969‑82, teaching English and Bible. He served as chairman of the steering committee and editor of the report of the 1979-81 institutional self-study, and he was chairman of the Department of Languages and Literature 1981‑82. Since 1982 he has been on the faculty of David Lipscomb University. He is Professor of English and periodically teaches Bible courses. His principal areas of teaching in English are Shakespeare, early American literature, and composition on computer, and in Bible he teaches in the New Testament. He was the director of the 1994-96 institutional self-study for reaffirmation of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. He also serves as advisor of the university yearbook, the BACKLOG.
Currently Parker serves as an elder for the Granny White church. During his career he has had regular preaching and teaching appointments for congregations of the churches of Christ and written religious materials. In recent years he has served as interim pulpit preacher for the following congregations in or near Nashville: Bellevue (January-July of 19940; Mt. Juliet (January-August 1999); Berry’s Chapel (June-August 2000); and Jefferson Avenue in Cookeville (September 2000-present).
Parker’s manuscript, Fundamentals of Christian Belief, was published in quarterly form by the Gospel Advocate company of Nashville for the fall of 1990 through summer of 1991, and in 1994 it was translated into Russian and printed as a book for distribution in Russia. He recently completed the 2000-2001 Companion for the Gospel Advocate. In addition Parker has written for the Twenty-first Century Christian company of Nashville. He has also produced a computer game of Bible knowledge entitled Bible Voyage.
Feature articles by Parker have appeared in the “Nashville Eye” section of the Nashville Tennessean. Parker is married to Jill Roberson Parker (Ph.D., Vanderbilt University), who is adjunct professor of chemistry at Lipscomb. She is daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. Emmett H. Roberson, each of whom served on the Board of Directors of Lipscomb University.
John and Jill Parker have two children, Robert (28), married and studying graduate psychology at Eastern Michigan Univeristy and Sharon (25) who is working in Nashville.
Addresse: John H. Parker, 829 Glen Leven Drive, Nashville, Tennessee 37204
Home telephone (615) 373-4462