Many different circumstances can contribute to pastoral change. Sometimes the process of pastoral transition goes smoothly by God’s grace and the congregation senses God’s hand in every dimension. In other cases the transition unfortunately can be traumatic, both for the pastor and the congregation. Whether the pastoral change is unexpected or well-planned with careful foresight, the church board (in consultation with staff and congregational leaders) may be advised to consider appointing a short-term, transitional pastoral leader. A board chair is always involved in discerning congregational direction in these matters. What factors might lead a chairperson to regard a two-step process (i.e. transitional pastor followed by permanent appointment) as most helpful for the church? How does a church board chair work with a transitional pastor? What limitations should a church board impose upon such a position?
Several scenarios might suggest to a board chair that a transitional leadership appointment might be the best option. If the current lead pastor’s tenure has ended abruptly, with little opportunity to prepare for the transition, then a transitional leader could give the congregation and its leadership time to initiate a proper succession plan and search. The cause of the sudden change could be health, moral failure, unexpected resignation, etc. Perhaps the current pastor has served well for a decade or more, but before the next lead pastor is appointed, the church board feels it is time to rethink the congregation’s vision and reformulate the lead pastor position description and qualifications to suit the revised vision. However, it will take 12 months at least to accomplish this work. A transitional appointment can bring stability and also an independent voice into the process. Even if a good succession plan is in place and the transition is following a normal process, the congregation probably needs twelve to eighteen months to prepare themselves for new pastoral leadership and a transitional appointment can enable the congregation to move forward with its vision.
As board chair one of your responsibilities will be to help the church board assess its options and discern which one is best for the congregation. This will require the board members to have good information about the options, with some evaluation of which might be most suitable at this time. Some factors that will affect this might be estimated costs, availability of the right transitional leader, stability of the ministry staff, and specific issues facing the congregation. Another educational option would be invite the board chair of another church that has recently experienced such a transition to come and share his or her wisdom with the board members. Local denominational leaders will also be helpful resources in such situations.
Perhaps the most critical issue in developing a transitional pastoral position will be the degree of innovation and change the board wishes or will permit during the appointment. In some cases change will be the priority; in others the amount of change desirable and helpful may be much more restricted.
Once the board has discerned the best way forward, it may be required by the church’s bylaws to receive congregational support. Here again your role as church board chair will be important as you share with the congregation the board’s rationale for the recommendation it is making. Prepare well for such congregational discussions, seeking to anticipate questions and providing good answers in the decision profile. You may need to clarify how the transitional pastoral leader will be selected. It is probably wise to secure congregational support to authorize the board to make such interim decisions.
It is quite probable that the salary, benefits, and travel costs associated with a transitional pastor may be more than that budgeted for a regular appointment. The temporary nature of the appointment does bring unique expenses.
Develop a clear position description. If you expect the person to bring healing to the congregation, deal with expressions of grief, lead in recasting of vision, or some other specific pastoral function, then be explicit in the position description. Usually this person will oversee the preaching and worship ministry, lead the staff, and ensure good planning for the normal ministry functions and events that occur in the period of the appointment. Be explicit about how you expect this position to interact with the church board and the chairperson. Whether this will be a part-time or full-time position will depend on different factors.
Look for a transitional pastor who has experience in this role, demonstrates good problem-solving skills, possesses highly developed conflict management competence, and knows how to listen well.
How does a board chair work with a transitional pastor? It is probable that neither individual will know the other prior to this appointment, so it will take time to develop an effective working relationship and mutual trust. It would be wise initially to have limited expectations as to the depth of the relationship that may develop. Remember — the appointment is short-term. Determine to be gracious and respectful, seeking to help each other to succeed in the respective leadership roles at a time when the congregation really needs wise oversight. The chair will probably need to meet more often with a transitional pastor, at least initially, in order to help him understand the congregational ethos, the history of specific issues, and the priorities that need to be addressed.
Although the new appointee may have received good reports that orient him well to the context, inevitably there will be gaps and nuances these documents cannot express, but which the transitional pastor will have to grasp lest he create significant problems. In particular your wisdom about the operational life of the board will be a critical element. It would be important to help the transitional pastor understand the governance model the board follows and the expectations the board will have in terms of reports, recommendations, and other operational issues. If the board has mandated the transitional pastor to assist the congregation in re-framing its vision, then it is vital that the board and transitional agree on the process to be followed in developing this new vision. It will also be important to define the relationship of the transitional pastor to the board in terms of voting privileges. Be clear that the transitional appointee will not be considered for the role of lead pastor.
One of the ways a board chair can assist a transitional pastor would be to prepare an orientation package, perhaps similar to that used to orient new church board members. This set of documents will also be useful to assist the next lead pastor appointee. This could include a brief history of the congregation, a short biography of each board person and their history with and ministry in the church. Include a concise analysis of the key issues that the board has been dealing with during the previous twelve months. If your congregation has several ministry staff, ask the senior person among the staff to prepare a similar report relating to the staff and their ministry issues.
Consider carefully how you will assist the transitional pastor to finish well. In other words, how will you manage the hand-off between the transitional pastor and the new lead pastor? How will you say thank you? Perhaps you might also ask the transitional pastor to draft a concluding report that may identity organizational pathologies, including some recommendations that may lead to healthier relationships and organizational life within the congregation. The transitional pastor can be a wonderful consultant in this regard, bringing a set of fresh eyes to the congregation’s life and context.