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Your Church Is Without a Senior Pastor: Now What?

When a church loses its senior pastor, it is natural to grieve. Those interim periods can be dark and confusing times—and they often come more frequently than we expect, and last longer than we want.

But are there any opportunities afforded by an interim period? Could God use such a season for good in the life of a church? To get wisdom on these issues, I spoke with Phil Douglass, professor of practical theology and director of the DMin program at Covenant Theological Seminary.

Phil is the wisest person I know regarding the practical dynamics of church life, including the challenges involved with transition.

A lot of people may be tempted to view interim periods at their church simply as a time to “tread water.” How should we think theologically about interim periods? In your experience, how can God use these times for his good purposes in the life of a church?

Interim periods can indeed be a valuable time in the life of a church. Among other things, they can help the leaders of a church to determine with greater clarity God’s ordained ministry direction for their particular church. In Romans 12:4–6, Paul writes that “as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us . . .” 

We usually interpret this passage in light of the gifts Paul lists in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and elsewhere. That is certainly valid. But the principle of this passage also applies more broadly to entire churches. My observation from having studied some 200 churches is that not all of the gospel-oriented churches in a town or region have the exact same gifting and calling. Rather, individual churches have predominant “gifts that differ according to the grace given” that make them distinctive in their ministry role in the community. And when particular churches focus with greater intensity on their God-given gifts and strengths, their fruitfulness in ministry increases significantly. 

I unpack these themes more thoroughly in my book, What Is Your Church’s Personality: Discovering and Developing the Ministry Style of Your Church. Churches facing transition might find it a useful resource, especially the appendix where I provide a diagnostic designed to help churches better understand their unique calling and giftedness.

When should a church hire an interim pastor? What are the benefits of having an interim pastor?

A general “rule of thumb” is that if the previous pastor served at the church eight or more years, an interim pastor may be helpful. An interim pastor can also be helpful if a church has experienced significant turmoil or some sort of moral or spiritual crisis. An interim pastor performs several functions at once. He can help lead the church through a period of mourning and transition (this often lasts around two years). He can also assess particular areas of weakness or need, attempt to resolve conflict, and provide stability for ministries and finances. The most important role of the interim pastor is to help prepare the church for a new pastor who will be a good fit for the ministry style of the church while not neglecting his own distinctive ministry approach.

How can the elders and staff of the church adjust during this transitional time in order to care most effectively for the needs of the church?

The elders and staff need to provide clear vision, strong leadership, and consistent pastoral care. This can provide a sense of stability amid what is for many people an unsettling time. The elders and staff need to recognize that in many situations, the departure of a senior pastor will feel like a death to people in the church. They might find value in becoming acquainted with the grief cycle model developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic book, On Death and Dying. Some aspects of the grieving process are:

  • Denial as a conscious or unconscious refusal to accept the realities related to the loss of a beloved pastor. This may affect some people more than others. People who were particularly close to the pastor may be simply unable (for a while) to accept the facts surrounding his departure.
  • Anger can be manifested in different ways. People may be angry with the departing pastor himself or with those perceived as driving away the pastor. Knowing such anger is part of the grieving process may help some be less judgmental.
  • Acceptance is the final stage. It is natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty during this time. These emotions are not bad; rather, they show that the person has at least begun to accept the reality of the loss of their pastor.

What issues should a church tackle before the senior pastor comes, and what issues should the church wait to let the senior pastor handle?

The elders and staff should deal proactively with any major conflicts among the members of the church, especially those involving clashes over differing ministry styles and the primary direction of the church’s mission. Also, if there are any obvious transitions in staffing that need to be made, the elders should go ahead and make those changes and absorb whatever “heat” may result.

If the church has plateaued or is declining, then the elders should encourage the new pastor to make adjustments related to the mission of the church. Usually, however, such changes should occur after the pastor’s first year, and should be made with sensitive attention to the church’s primary ministry style and to the particular needs of the community.

Do you have any advice on how a church should form a search committee? Are there any common mistakes?

The most common mistake is for a church to form a search committee that includes people with widely different styles of ministry and visions for the church. This hampers the process. Instead, the elders should first determine the primary ministry style and vision of the church and then recommend to the congregation nominees who fit it.

Another mistake is including the most vocal and opinionated people in the church on the search committee, or those on some particular personal crusade. Such people often want to be involved and are willing to commit time and energy to the process, so it can be tempting to give them a role. But the reality is that such people often reflect their own agenda more than the needs of the entire church. It is better to ask people who represent the mainstream of the church to be a part of the committee.