Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of “first person” articles focusing on topics and issues impacting the church. Today, Don Moore, who served as executive director of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention from 1982 until his retirement in 1996, discusses the topic, “Who should be called as an interim pastor?” Moore, 78, will start his 11th interim or intentional interim Aug. 11 at First Baptist Church, Dumas.
FEW OCCASIONS in the life of a church are filled with more potential for critical decisions than the period between the loss of a pastor and the calling of a new one. It is not uncommon for an all-out “tug-of-war” to develop during this period in the life of a church. Such an event is usually disastrous or – at the very least – regrettable. I believe a pulpit vacated by the resignation, retirement or termination of a pastor should not be filled by an interim pastor who could possibly become a candidate during the time he is serving as interim.
This should apply to ordained preachers, evangelists, missionaries, staff members and even interim pastors who might aspire to the position of pastor in the church. If such people are available, who could be considered as candidates by the pastor search committee, they would need to be considered alongside other candidates. If they are given the opportunity to build a following preaching in the interim, other candidates are at great disadvantage because they would not have had the privilege of interacting with the congregation, as an interim would have had.
A sad scenario
The following scenario, or one very similar, is being lived out in many churches in Southern Baptist life. While it is more likely to happen with a staff person who is placed in the interim pastor position, it may happen with others who may be in the church, in the community or otherwise available and aspiring to a permanent church position. Their ready availability makes it a tempting option for a church and committee to “take the easy way out” and engage them quickly as the supply preacher or interim.
A typical situation would be that a staff person of long and good tenure with a loyal following of significant church members is given the position of interim pastor. As opportunity is given for that person’s gifts and skills to be demonstrated in the worship services, suggestions are made that this person might be a good candidate.
Supporters of the person enlist the support of others who are of the same persuasion that this person would be a good pastor. Key members of the pastor search committee are made aware of this sentiment. The entire pastor search committee gets word that this may be a growing sentiment within the church. The normal work being done in following up on others who have been recommended to the committee begins to be neglected as this pressure is felt. Pursuit of other candidates is put on hold because of this gnawing awareness that a segment of the church is really “pushing” to get their man “in.”
Resentment may be felt, as it seems they may have to recommend this person as a prospective pastor. For all practical purposes, the purpose for which the committee was elected has been taken over by unofficial forces unauthorized by the church. The committee may become divided as some individuals within the committee become sympathizers with the staff person’s supporters.
The sympathy of a single committee member can result in weakening the work of the pastor search committee. With the possibility of the committee being splintered by the pressure being exerted upon them, their efforts are diverted, their attention distracted and they may give up the process they adopted earlier when they were not under pressure. This could result in the committee not performing proper background checks and investigation to be performed in regards to another candidate.
If the committee does not choose to consider or recommend the interim, those loyal to that person will become defensive for that person, critical of the committee and will begin a campaign of criticism and even opposition greatly hindering the work of the committee. The general church membership will know or sense the unrest that exists and become uneasy.
All the while, the interim may come to enjoy the greater exposure, recognition, affirmation and influence accorded a pastor compared to that usually given a staff person. At the same time, he has a platform for expanding his power base. Add to that the perceived tax advantage that is given to a pastor, and it is easy to see why a staff person could easily fall victim to his own selfish desires to be a pastor. Other candidates would not have been given such an opportunity.
If the pastor search committee withstands the pressure put upon them and brings a prospective pastor before the church for consideration, those loyal to the interim pastor being passed up will likely form a voting block to oppose the election of the recommended pastor. If the recommended pastor comes in spite of those who voted against him, the opposition would have a strong tendency to sow discord, create dissatisfaction and otherwise hinder the success of the pastor. The new pastor may be judged on the basis of how well or how poorly he may be doing compared to how the interim would be doing if he had been called.
There is considerable liability to a staff person being placed or placing himself in such a position. A staff person passed up by a pastor search committee is seldom able to stay on staff and give the new pastor his support. There may be tension existing between a want-to-be pastor and the one who is chosen as pastor, and this creates unbearable conditions for further ministry together.
Whom not to consider and why
The following is a suggested rationale for not considering an interim who may desire to be considered a candidate as the church’s permanent pastor:
– An interim pastor, if he is open to being considered a candidate, is privileged to build a support group that may lobby the pastor search committee and hinder their freedom to consider other prospective pastors.
– Supporters and detractors will tend to consolidate their influence and marshal support from their friends and fellow church members for the person they desire. The result is that the purpose of a search committee will have been obstructed with the candidate being chosen by popular sentiment and political maneuvering rather than timely, prayerful, deliberate and rational consideration.
– Aspiration for greater power and influence will likely result in extraordinary efforts made to impress and to secure a good opinion while regular duties are neglected. A person with a full-time staff position cannot fulfill the work assigned to him and at the same time fulfill the role of an interim pastor.
– Great division comes to the Body of Christ when groups align themselves in support of a person who may not be the choice of the officially chosen pastor search committee. Resentment, resistance and retaliation may express itself in the life of the church, resulting in a major division within the church for years to come.
– Power struggles during the interim period will hinder the adjustments that need to be made in preparation for receiving a new pastor. In fact, such struggles usually create a worse situation in the church than existed before the pastor left.
The following is a list of some pitfalls churches should be careful to avoid:
– Move slowly. Churches tend to act with such haste, almost panic, when they realize they will be without a pastor. Little time is given to research and study how they should go about filling the pulpit and electing a pastor search committee. A more deliberate approach to these could help prevent this scenario.
– Get help. A number of resources are available to help churches and committees, including the associational missionary, convention consultants and publications written just for such a situation. Such assistance should always be sought.
– Have a process. If the bylaws of a church do not spell out the process a pastor search committee is to follow in searching for a pastor, the committee should – early on in their work – adopt a process in writing that would be agreeable to all of the committee that would preclude them from opening themselves up for problems. This should be done before any prospective candidates are contacted. Their agreement should include the issue of not using a possible candidate as an interim.
– Have a written agreement. If the church hires an interim pastor, there should be an agreement with the person, preferably in writing, that they will not become a candidate for the permanent position. (A part of the intentional interim process requires that such an agreement exist in the written covenant between the church and the interim.)
– Be accountable. Committee members should hold each other accountable for keeping true to their commitment. They should encourage each other to resist the pressures that may be placed upon them by family and friends.
– Maintain integrity. The normal confidentiality expected of search committee members should be honored.
Since I have served in a number of interim capacities over the years, it may appear to some that their church is being targeted. The truth is that so many churches are in similar situations that any number of churches could be used as illustrations of the pitfalls related to this issue. It is hoped that use of this information may assist churches in making good decisions and avoiding unnecessary problems.