Each year some 3500 churches across America close their doors. Many, once thriving congregations, effectively ministered to the community around them. The question that they must ask is, why?
The concentrated attention on church planting is commendable. Nobody would question the imperative of strategically planting evangelistic churches throughout America. Experience has convinced us that church planting is the most effective evangelistic strategy available today. Without lessening our emphasis on church planting some attention must be given to older, established churches facing extinction.
Some studies suggest an overwhelming 80 #30;85 percent of American churches, even Alliance churches, are at best plateaued. For decades many have slowly declined almost unobservedly. Some lacerated by inner conflicts and power struggles, while a growing number suffer from pastoral
ethical and moral failures. Ignoring these troubled congregations only sentences them to inevitable failure.More than that, a great spiritual heritage is being lost with the passing of each church.
Without a doubt planting a new church is easier than restoring a fallen congregation. Yet, we must do both. It can never be an “either/or” situation; it must be “both/and.”
What is the solution? What can be done that is not being done now? Asking is always easier than to present an answer. Sometimes there are no answers, only haunting questions that refuse to go away.
No congregation began by chance. I grant you that some have had a precarious beginning, but still there is the sense that all congregations begin in the heart of Christ. It is His passion to establish churches within the context of every community. With that in mind, it must grieve our Lord to see the condition of many congregations.
This is not to say a church should never close its doors. The book of Revelation describes conditions that would invariably lead to the closure of a church. Sometimes the best thing to do is close the church. A change or shift in the community could result in the forced closing of some
church. Some things are unavoidable. The best some churches could do, is to sell their building and put the money in missions.
However, it is my conviction that these churches are in the minority. For the most part, every congregation is salvageable. However, few denominations are in the salvage business. Razing the congregation and starting over is easier, somewhere else. Let us face it. Some congregations are a real embarrassment for denominational leaders.
Not everyone is looking the other way. A few courageous leaders are facing the situation squarely, formulating a strategy for restoration. After all, the Christian message is one of hope and redemption. What better way to display this message than in situations that are human impossibilities.
As in every feasible strategy the key component is the personnel. Jehovah said to Ezekiel, “And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for that land … (Ezekiel 22:30).” God’s solution has always been a man. Enter, the congregational troubleshooter.
There comes a time when we need a specialist. When the family doctor has done all he can do he sends the patient to a specialist. Someone especially trained to diagnose the problem and prescribe a remedy. Usually the specialist is more expensive than the old family doctor. The specialist deals with a distinct set of problems and with this come special skills and gifts.
What kind of church needs such a specialist? Currently, many churches and leaders look at the interim pastor with some disdain. The passe idea of a retired pastor going in merely to fill the pulpit is where many of these people are. Most churches are too anxious to get another pastor when the old pastor leaves.
A distinguished church leader makes a pertinent observation on the subject of the interim ministry. “I’m more convinced than ever that many churches in the Alliance, even healthy ones, would benefit from an interim ministry, bridging between an effective, well #30;loved pastor and the introduction of a new, untried man of God. I also believe that men in middle-age could fill this position who has specific gifts for such a ministry: discernment, humility, a servant heart and management skills.”
What is an Interim Pastor? An interim pastor is a Shepherd who leads a congregation for the short term by design and is not a temporary pastor by default. The interim pastor works in a church for six months to two years with a designed agenda. His work is very similar to a medical model in which they diagnose the status and problems of the church. Then they perform surgical procedures to remove the disease and steps to healing prescribed.
Periodically, each “calling” congregation needs to examine itself, evaluate its situation, reunite at any point where possible disunity may exist and prayerfully prepare for the next pastor’s coming. The interim ministry should be a designated period to resolve problems. Congregations need to evaluate themselves, overcome the grief or anger many are feeling from losing their last pastor, and to select priorities and goals for the future.
In this day of transition, if a congregation has not done this recently, they are probably facing some extreme difficulty. Even if the last pastor was effective and the church experienced growth and is financially, emotionally and spiritually stable. There still needs to be some reassessment of the ministry and a look into the future. The new pastor despite the situation, will bring some change. Anytime there is a change, no matter how slight, there is the potential for confusion and misunderstanding. These are the ingredients for disaster in any congregation. This is why a strong church can quickly decline.
The focus of the interim ministry is the dysfunctional church. This congregation, in particular, needs outside help and what better way of dealing with a situation or problem then bringing in a specially trained person for the short period? Just as there are dysfunctional families where there are abuses, there are dysfunctional churches.In these congregations abuses continue with nobody challenging them. Consequently, the congregation loses its spiritual vision and focuses on the problem while a world around them is dying without Christ.
Usually, at the root of every problem is a person. The new pastor inherits this person along with the problem. Before he can put all the pieces together, he finds himself in a position where he cannot address the problem because of the person attached to it. With his ministry so hampered, many, rather than deal with the person, go to the next church, only to start it over.
The job of the interim pastor is to discern the problem and put in place an effective solution to effect the necessary change. This diagnosis should be done before going to the church. It should be done in concert with the governing board, the church elders and the District Superintendent. Before the interim pastor accepts the position, everyone must be committed to the solution, no matter the cost.
A conscientious interim pastor does not make changes that will create a problem for his successor. Rather, he lays down tracks for his long term success. The motto of the interim pastor is the same as John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” The next pastor must always be in the interim’s mind. As one interim pastor aptly put it, “We interims have always lived with one foot in the future.”
An interim ministry is primarily as ministry of renewal.The interim pastor must always remember that he is just “penciled in.” Congregations must look for interim pastors who are faithful and effective. Men who will help them reduce panic, avoid pain, make conflicts go away, save money and keep the church moving but not to make any unnecessary major changes.
Perhaps most important, the interim must save the congregation from a fate worse than death, getting back their old pastor with a new name.
The idea that we view the interim ministry as a field for those who could not make it in the “real” church must be done away. The idea that those retired from the ministry are the ones to be engaged in this work, a type of retirement hobby, must be eliminated from our thinking.
What should a church look for in an interim pastor? This question needs full investigation for the future for many congregations will depend upon the answer.
The first thing concerning the interim is that he is a competent, caring, skilled man of God who is primarily committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is too much at stake for mistakes at this level. Although the interim pastor will be on the scene for a short time, it is the most critical interval in that congregation’s history.
The interim pastor must be skilled in both general pastoral ministries plus an interim ministry. Not only must the normal pastoral duties be attended to, but they must effectively address the larger issue of restoration and renewal. Of course the interim must understand and respect the boundaries of what is and what is not an interim ministry. Congregations must have interims whom they can absolutely trust not to use this period to take the permanent position. Like John the Baptist, the interim pastor is a forerunner of God’s chosen permanent pastor to follow. This focus must never be obscured.
The interim pastor, because of the great burden, must be relatively free from other demands. The demands of family, friends, finances and denominational duties must be at a minimum in order for him to give himself full #30;time to the ministry at hand. The burdens of a troubled church rest heavily on his heart both night and day.
He must also be selfless. The interim pastor has not an empire to build, no throne upon which to sit. Whether in his pulpit ministry, counseling or working with church leaders, his advice and counsel are to glorify God and strengthen the local congregation. It must never be an opportunity to enhance a place for himself.
This is not to say that the interim ministry does not have drawbacks. There are serious difficulties for the man engaged in an interim ministry.
Perhaps the biggest drawback would be in respect. An interim ministry is not the most respected ministry in the church. Congregations are embarrassed to admit that they have some problems and would rather linger in denial then tackle the problem at hand. The situation is so serious that we can no longer indulge the luxury of denial. Action must take place.
Even from the denominational level there is reluctance to endorse this ministry wholeheartedly. Some district superintendents are not confident of the effectiveness of an interim ministry. The hesitancy comes from the simple facts that there are few professionally trained interim pastors. An unqualified interim can do more damage to a congregation than if it were to call a permanent pastor immediately following the resignation of the last pastor.
The challenge of the future will be to offer specialized interim service, not only for congregations, but for other Christian organizations as well. The specialized interim will most certainly become the demand of the future.