One of the things that God has used me in over the years in ministry is healing wounded churches. Regardless of whether or not this is your first pastoral transition or one of many, I hope that you will take what I am about to share with you to heart and then apply it in a relevant way to those that love Jesus there in your community.
Any time you have a pastoral transition it is a tough season for the body of Christ at a church. This is especially true for the Vineyard churches that I am now part of because they have not had a lot of experience with pastoral transitions since they are such a new movement. Usually a Vineyard church is founded and pastored for a long season by one man that everyone naturally follows since he started the church. There is no questioning of authority since he established relational authority individually with each person attending as they started attending. As the Vineyard is reaching it’s 30 year mark or so, many of the men who started and pastored their churches are retiring. They either did not raise up a replacement or sent qualified replacements to plant other churches or they only trained people to be church planters and founding pastors. This has left a gap, both in our churches and in our leaders concerning the differences between starting a church and a pastoral transition into an established church. Both our churches and our leaders have very little experience with the latter. I suspect this is not uncommon with other non denominational or new organizations as well.
Since I am a transplant to the Vineyard from the Foursquare denomination, I have a little more experience and understanding in this area. The Foursquare denomination being almost 100 years old now has had to work through these issues. I personally had to work through them and learn from a few of my own mistakes. Let me share from my heart concerning what you are facing and what challenges are in front of you. Let me share some cautions as well. Let me share the heart of Jesus concerning the hope and future that your church has as you navigate the rough spots on the river of God.
No matter who you call to be your pastor, things will never be the same. It is an impossibility. Now I am sure you understand that in your head. Most of us do. However understanding that in your head and accepting it in your heart is two different things. Until you accept that this is truly a new season and a new day for your church your heart will try to lead your decision making process rather than discerning the will of God for this new day.
Expect the transition period to last for up to 2 years. Depending on the love the people had for the last pastor, or founding pastor, this process takes a long while. People will talk for a long time about the former pastor. They will compare the new pastor to the old pastor. They will struggle with feeling disloyal to the former pastor if they get on board with the new pastor. They will resist change. They will complain. This is just part of the transition process and it really has nothing to do with the new pastor as much as it has to do with the fact that they are mourning the loss of the last pastor. You can expect up to 50% of the people to not survive the transition process and go look somewhere else to fellowship. Either they will not be able to overcome the sense of loss at what they loved and the change that has taken place, or they will just not connect with the new pastor. That is why you have to discern who “God has called” to be your new pastor, rather than find the most “qualified” man for the job. If you have heard God, then you will not be moved. If you made a choice based on man’s qualifications, you will quickly find a reason he is disqualified.
Find a man who is not looking to “own” the church but instead views the congregation there in your community as Jesus’ church and he is the under-shepherd. One of the qualities that is valued in church planters is an entrepreneurial spirit. They take ownership of the new church and setting the vision. This is great for starting a church, but in an established church it can be a nightmare because the previous pastor has released ownership of the various ministries to other people so when the new guy comes in, if he has the church planting mentality, he takes away that ownership and it causes dissension, strife, and hurt feelings.
If you are a leader in your church, be committed to the transition for the long haul. Even if you do not connect or see eye to eye with the new guy, stay committed until the transition is over. Nothing will hurt your church more than to see divided leadership. Put the flock of God over your own personal agenda’s or needs. “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. Unless it is an issue of moral failure or financial embezzlement which would be moral failure, stick with it until the transition is over. If after that time you feel you cannot walk in unity, then quietly remove yourself from leadership but until that time, suck it up. You called the man, you stick with him. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways. Do not be that type of man or woman.
Pastoral transitions due to moral failure or internal strife.
Regardless if your pastoral transition was caused by moral failure by the pastor or internal strife by people in the congregation, what you have gone through has caused deep wounds in you and the people that Jesus loves so much at your church. Regardless of who is at fault, or the reasons for the short tenure or dismissal of you last pastor, you and the congregation will struggle with feeling betrayed either by the system or the man. There will be some knee-jerk reactions that you will want to avoid as they will just cause future problems for you and the church. Just like a jilted lover makes vows never to allow someone to do the same thing to them, you too will want to make similar vows. Try to avoid this at all costs. It is a reaction to pain, not a leading of the Spirit.
Avoid making changes to church government or by-laws until you are healed and all effected parties are at the table in the decision making process. If you do so before hand, you run the risk of making a law that sets up an adversarial model of government in your effort to protect yourself from pain. There are many forms of church government and none of them are perfect because men operate within those forms of government. I have had experience with two types of church government and friends in a couple of other types. There are basically 3 types of church government. Congregational, Representative, and Hierarchical. Each has strengths and weaknesses. The Vineyard style of church government has tried to take the best of all the types of church government without being heavy handed in organization or structure. What you don’t want to do in an effort to protect yourself from pain is to make your next pastor a hireling of the congregation or the board. The end result will be a people pleaser rather than a God pleaser. You will also set yourself up for being a church that goes through pastors on a regular basis. Short pastoral tenures are not a sign of a healthy church.
Do not turn the pastoral candidating process into a beauty contest or a competition. I know it is real tempting to want to try out all the options. However turn to your husband or your wife and ask them if they would have tolerated you “trying out” others before choosing them. This is a God process, not a man process. Just because a man has the best resume’ or is the best speaker does not mean that He is God’s choice. Take a look at the type of people God chose to lead His people and you will see what I mean. To give you an example, let me share something with you that is tongue in cheek but makes a great point.
After studying the pastoral qualifications in Timothy, we do not have a good report to give. We have been unable to find a suitable candidate for this church, although we have one promising prospect left. We do appreciate all the following suggestions from the church; we have followed up on each one with interviews and reference checks. The following is a confidential report on those, which we have rejected for the following reasons; only first names given:
1. Adam – Good man but has wife trouble.
2. Noah – former pastorate of 120 years with no converts, problem with the bottle, and a wayward son morals problem.
3. Abraham – Scandal ridden, offered wife to another man, child abuse
4. Joseph – dreamer, prison record
5. Moses – poor communicator, stutters, unanswered murder charge
6. David – affair with neighbor’s wife, hired a hit man to kill husband
7. Solomon – husband of more than one wife, in fact parsonage too small
8. Elijah – prone to depression and nervous break downs
9. Elisha – reported to have live with a single widow at former church
10. Hosea – our congregation could not handle his wife’s occupation
11. Jeremiah – emotionally unstable, alarmist, negative, lamenter, reported to have buried underwear on a foreign river bank, claims to have a set of recreated originals
12. Isaiah – language problems, on the fringe, claims to see angels
13. Jonah – refuses to preach to the lost unless forced to by God
14. Amos – backward and unpolished, does not like the rich
15. John – does not dress like a Baptist, weird diet, provokes higher powers
16. Peter – bad temper, curses, hypocrite in racial matters, loose cannon
17. Paul – uses racial epitaphs, preaches all night
18. Timothy – too young and single
19. Jesus – dwindled church of 5,000 down to 12 or 120, offends folks
20. Judas – His references are solid. Good connections. Knows how to handle money, has compassion for poor. He is preaching for us Sunday. Possibilities here.
So base your choice on hearing the voice of God. Do not put men up on display for people to judge their skills or charisma. If you do not hear the voice of God with the first candidate, then go to the next but don’t have them compete against one another. That is a pastor’s heart speaking to you. If you were in the Pastor’s shoes, what would you want? Or would you want there to be a “try out” process for Elders and Board members?
Don’t base what you are looking for on the weaknesses of the last pastor. Many churches make the mistake of “feeling the needs” of what wasn’t done by the last pastor and deciding that is what they “need” in a new pastor. All pastors will have strengths and weaknesses and all you will be doing is replacing one set of felt needs with another set of felt needs. Instead take a look at your community, your congregation and the giftings that are already in place in your church and make a list of things that will compliment what you already have. For example, if your community and your congregation is a bunch of 20 somethings, then a person in their mid to late 30′s might be a good choice because they will be looked upon as an elder yet not be too old to be considered out of touch. However if your community and congregation is filled with mid-lifers then a someone in the mid 30′s might be too young to be respected and might not relate to an older congregation. Now these are just examples. The same could go with people that like classic rock and bringing in an old country lover. You get the point. Find someone that compliments who God has made you rather than choosing someone different than the last guy.
The Future For Your Church
God has a hope and a future for your church. I imagine that you are concerned about your future because of what you are going through. The gates of hell will not prevail. Your church has a destiny of God using you to advance His kingdom with people becoming saved, trained and released into fruitful ministry. Sometimes God prunes in order to bring more fruit. You have gone through a pruning time. The harvest is ahead. Keep your focus on Jesus who is the Author and the Finisher of our faith and the Author and Finisher of the body of believers at your local church. I am confident that you will walk through this season learning to become more like Jesus as leaders and molders of the thought life at within your fellowship. God is in control, even when we are hurt. So I leave you with this quote by C.S. Lewis.
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” – (Clive Staples) C. S. Lewis
Love on the sheep there at your local church and love on your new shepherd whoever that may be.
This article on Pastoral Transitions was first published on my website Taber's Truths.