When churches find themselves in need of a new senior pastor the impulse is usually to hurry the search and fill the pulpit. After all, there’s a lot of work that needs doing. And the congregation is feeling unsettled and wondering aloud, “How much longer until we get a new pastor?” or “What’s taking so long?”
Yet the time between a pastor departing (for whatever reason and in whatever way) and a new pastor coming in is a critical time for certain important work to be done. The congregation needs to figure out who they are, where they are going, and what they are prepared to do… all without a permanent senior pastor.
Here are the three more important tasks any congregation needs to accomplish before starting the search:
1. Vision Clarity
Let’s look at this from the vantage point of the next senior pastor. They want a church that knows what it’s being called to, who they are, and are taking steps and having clarity on where they’re trying to go. Consider a pastor asking, “Who are you as a church?” “Where are you going?” “What are you doing that is moving you forward?” And we have no answers. Good candidates won’t be interested in a church that can’t answer those questions.
Before you start the search, you’ll need a church profile: a summary of your identity, values, direction, etc. In some ways, it’s like an online dating profile. We want to make sure our profile is accurate. If you say you are focused on reaching unchurched people, but have no current behaviors you can point to along those lines, it’s a bit like saying you like to work out when you never go to the gym. A wise senior pastor candidate will recognize that your church profile is aspirational rather than accurate. Now, that doesn’t mean we need to be perfect or have fully arrived at our vision. But we do need to have a vision that we are actually taking steps toward.
2. Ministry Engagement
Taking steps toward a vision is where ministry engagement comes in. A solid leader—when they see a church profile—will ask: To what degree are you actually pursuing that? You don’t have to have arrived, but you do need to communicate with your actions that you are actually taking steps and doing things to move that direction.
Let’s say prayer is a value. But what prayer opportunities does the church actually have? Who is involved? What actions are being taken? What does the prayer ministry look like around here? It may not be perfect, but does it exist? Is it moving forward? Or do they want to the senior pastor to come in and do it for them? That’s important data for any candidate. Start now, before you hire a new senior pastor. That way you’ll have some data you can point to.
For example, many churches say they want to change, but often don’t. I tell senior pastor candidates I coach to ask, “Give me an example in the last 6 to 12 months where you’ve actually changed something? Where you’ve tried something new?” That will tell a candidate if your church is actually open to change.
3. Financial Stability
A new senior pastor can’t be expected to come in and turnaround a financially unstable church. If you have a negative cash flow, be honest about it and right-size your budget. Let your board make the hard decisions necessary to do that. That way, any senior pastor candidate coming in could ask, “What’s the financial health of the congregation?” and you can respond that you are living within your means. Once a new budget is approved, you should be able to show at least a few months of being in the black to any new candidates.
Only now is it time to put together a senior pastor profile of what you are looking for as you search—when you have your own house in order. After all, the job of a pastor is to equip God’s people for works of service. It’s not biblical to expect the pastor come in to solve everything. Start with what YOU are doing. For YOU are the church.
Conflict Resolution Skill Builders Booklet: Conflict is a seemingly inevitable part of leadership transitions. If handled properly, conflict can highlight problems that need to be rectified. Good conflict resolution can lead to new ideas and behavior, enhance communication and foster better long-term relationships between individuals and groups.
The Calling: Focused Ministry Coaching Guide and Storyboard: People need purpose during transitions. This resource provides you with a clear process to help people get involved in effective and focused ministry. Help people discover their unique contribution to ministry and take necessary steps to living into it.
Managing Transitions* by William Bridges: Organizational transitions affect people; it is always people, rather than a company, who have to embrace a new situation and carry out the corresponding change. While not written specific for ministry, this book provides a clear picture for what the staff and congregation go through during a transition of leadership—and provides ways to keep them engaged and growing in the interim and during the search for a new senior pastor. A must read!