Dear Brothers and Sisters at Westview Church:
Recently I accepted your call to serve as your transitional pastor. I sent a letter to introduce myself and my family. Next I want to summarize the ministry of a transitional pastor and some classic stages.
In recent years the Pastor Church Resources office of the Christian Reformed Church developed a cadre of pastors: Specialized Transitional Ministers. These are experienced pastors who receive specialized training to help churches handle challenging transitions. They usually serve a church for 12-20 months. Today there are nearly twenty endorsed transitional pastors: about a dozen are American; a half dozen Canadian.
Churches seek out a Specialized Transitional Minister for three main reasons:
- A church is grieving a major loss- a pastor or key leader or a cherished identity-and needs to grieve and heal before embracing the next chapter of life and ministry.
- A church has experienced significant friction or conflict, often with their prior pastor.
- A church is facing a major transition in its direction or style.
A transitional pastor is somewhat different from an interim pastor. Often an interim pastor is retired, serves on a part-time basis, and covers basic ministries to sustain a church: such as preaching, council meetings, and hospital visiting. In contrast, a transitional pastor usually is not retired, often serves full-time, and has specialized training to help address major transitions, conflicts, deeper dynamics, and fresh vision moving forward.
Transitional pastors help in three main ways. First, they cover much of the usual pastor’s responsibilities: preaching, pastoral care, and leadership. Second, they serve as an outside consultant: to be mindful of a church’s past, fully understand the present, and seek the Spirit’s direction for the future. Third, they serve as an adviser in the search for a new pastor.
Every transitional pastor brings their own approach and style. In my experience there have been six classic dimensions or stages to transitional ministry:
- Listening: listening to as many people as possible is essential to understand the church’s history, its culture, its leadership, it’s recent challenges, and its strengths for future ministry.
- Naming losses: just as we face individual losses, churches also experience losses. It is important to name those losses- to help face them and biblically grieve them. Like the psalmists and God’s people down through history, we can cry out to God and claim the hope we have in Jesus. That process fosters real healing and fresh hope moving forward.
- Naming strengths and assets: this stage involves movement from the past to the present. After naming and grieving losses in the past, it is good to affirm all the strengths and assets and talents God has given a church. Naming strengths and assets is encouraging. It sets the table for renewed enthusiasm and vision for the next chapter of ministry.
- Reviewing the organizational structure and leadership: sometimes friction in a church is created by poor communication or fuzzy lines of responsibility. A transition is a natural time to review patterns of communication and roles. Should we revise certain responsibilities? Do we need to clarify who is responsible to whom? Given the present size of the church, should we adjust the number of elders or deacons? Should we trim or expand staff?
- Casting vision: this stage involves movement from the present to the future. What is our sense of God’s distinctive calling for our church and vision for the next chapter of ministry? Some vision setting may best be addressed when a new pastor has come. But in a season of transition it is natural to ponder and pray over issues of direction. An emerging sense of vision may shape the type of pastor a church seeks.
- Seeking a new pastor: it seems that finding a good fit between a church and a pastor is more challenging than ever. This may be due to greater ethnic diversity, different styles, more hot button issues in the church, or more political differences seeping into the church. Pastors are crucial to the life and health of a church. So it is important for a transitional pastor to bring experience/insight from prior searches to the crucial work of a pastor search team- in order to find a good fit between church and pastor.
I hope this provides a helpful overview of the transitional process. In a third letter I plan to address natural questions: about how I will function at Westview and what specific issues Westview may well address.
Warmly yours in Christ, Pastor Neil