Church & Work UMC

What Would Happen If…We Appointed Long-Term Pastors with Trained Interim Pastors at the Ready

I read with interest an article highlighted this week in the Harvard Business Review’s “Today’s Tip” on How to Succeed When Your Predecessor Was a Star. The author, Rebecca Zucker, states that new leaders should, “[not] try to take on [their] predecessor’s personality or leadership style.” Good advice. I have taken this advice once in my career as an ordained Elder in the UMC and it worked out great. The other time I took this advice, it was an unmitigated disaster!

How to follow a long-term pastor, often a “star”, has proven to be problematic for United Methodists. Our system of moving pastors from place to place in the itinerant system seems to work at odds with long-term pastorates. Many Bishops and District Superintendents are reluctant to allow pastors to stay long-term in one appointment since they may believe that the pastor who follows them will be ineffective, by comparison, “right out of the gate.” They judge it is easier to keep the pieces moving.

Our itinerant system has an inherit and fatal assumption in its midst. The assumption is that pastors under appointment are interchangeable and that churches are interchangeable. Most of our leaders would say that this assumption is not true. Yet, we move pastors from place to place often by circumstance rather than strategy. In all honesty, appointive cabinets play the cards they are dealt. In my experience, they do the very best they can do. They don’t get to pick the pastors they supervise any more than they do the congregations they oversee!

Our “big tent” form of Methodism has theologically conservative, centrist, and progressive congregations and pastors. We have churches and pastors that speak many different languages. Even within those language groups there is a great diversity in culture. This does not even take into consideration the varied congregational values and mores that shape their life together. Our churches and pastors reflect a deep and rich diversity that cannot simply be understood by race, location, or culture.

When a church and pastor make a good match within our appointive system, Bishops and their cabinets should seek ways to empower that church and its pastor for a long-term appointment. This long-term appointment could be consecrated in a covenant that lasts several years. This would alleviate the church and the pastor worrying if this is “the” year when they move. Covenants for long-term pastorates can lower that anxiety.

Study after study indicates that long-term pastorates make for healthier churches and pastors. Our churches and pastors are not interchangeable. When it is a good match, leave it be. Effective pastors and churches know they must reinvent their ministry with some frequency. Complacency within that relationship can be addressed with good supervision and support. These long-term relationships are the ONLY foundation where church multiplication can occur.

But, what about the question of succeeding one of these long-term pastors? Often, we are reluctant to have long-term pastors because we have no interim pastors. Having none, our system defaults toward a system of interchangeability of pastors and churches.

What happens when we equip two or three interim pastors in every district? We could invest deeply in their training for such settings and make them professional interims. When a long-term pastor moves or retires, one of these professional interim pastors serves a church for one, two, or even three years. By making these interims residential in each district, they are indemnified from uprooting their household to relocate. They simply commute to the church they are serving as an interim.

During this interim tenure the congregation can grieve the loss of an effective leader, staff members are allowed to churn, and the interim can help a congregation prepare for their next leader. Even more radically, the Bishop and Cabinet can work with the interim to prepare the congregation for their new pastor who is identified a year or even two in advance.

Several challenges to this form of appointment making are easy to see. First, how many pastors do we have that could be one of these long-term pastors? How do we combat the idolatry of pastors moving up the ladder to larger and larger churches (and higher salary?) Who would be called to be an interim pastor? How do we develop deep lay leadership so that congregations are not so centered around their pastors?

These are all good questions that we cannot answer unless we begin to live into new and innovative ways of making pastoral appointments. What we do know is that our current system, built on the assumption of interchangeability, is failing us. We need not become congregationalists to address our appointment issues. We do need to discard guaranteed appointments for Elders and cease our practices that support the best clergy entitlement system around. The church cannot be centered on its clergy. It must re-center itself on building the ministry and witness of the local church. Long-term pastors who disciple and equip the laity are one step in that direction.

2 comments on “What Would Happen If…We Appointed Long-Term Pastors with Trained Interim Pastors at the Ready

  1. I think you are on to something…

  2. Holly Hillman

    I heartily agree! We were blessed to serve one church for 12 years and it flourished, grateful for such stability, for the first time in over 100 years.

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