A Session member convened our table. The first item on the agenda: “How long will it take to get a new pastor? Recently we have had two-year interims and five-year pastorates. Is this the best we can do?”
Phil Barrett, the General Presbyter of Des Moines Presbytery, is doing all he can to speed up the process.
He suggested one church consider having a temporary supply. It meant that Session talked to two candidates and selected one, who started the Sunday after the five-month interim left.
He suggested another church call a designated pastor. The Presbytery has sent the Pastor Nominating Committee a second group of five names. They have a good chance of having a pastor in six months.
After a given amount of time, both a temporary supply and a designated pastor can be called as pastors. The Presbytery votes to waive the six-month interval requirement for a temporary supply.
Such questions and efforts reflect an ongoing concern. Several years ago I was a member of the General Assembly Task Force established to come up with a new call system. GA referred our proposal for further study. It never passed. A part of the proposal was to shorten the call process to six months.
In most situations, calling an interim pastor lengthens the call process to a year or two. This is a legitimate time frame if the church has gone through conflict. Such is not the case in the church our family attends. They are eager to call a pastor and are frustrated about the time it will take that to happen.
Here is a suggested time frame for shortening the process:
• First, right after the pastor leaves, the Session meets with the General Presbyter or Presbytery liaison to talk over the possibilities: temporary supply, designated pastor, or interim pastor, and discuss the advantages of stated supply and designated pastor.
For a designated pastor: call a congregational meeting in two weeks to elect a pastor nominating committee. Calling a designated pastor requires a national search. The Committee on Ministry sends the Church Information Form to the Louisville office, with the proviso that a designated pastor is being called, so a quick turnaround would be helpful. Presbytery receives Personal Information Forms from Louisville and sends five candidates to the Pastor Nominating Committee for consideration. If none suit, they receive five more until a fit is found.
For a temporary supply: a congregational meeting is not necessary; the session is the calling agent. Calling a temporary supply can be local; Louisville need not be involved. The Presbytery sends two or three names for the Session to consider.
• Edit the last mission study. Since pastors are staying for a shorter period of time, the church would not have changed that much and would not need a completely new mission study.
With the presbytery representative present, the Session approves the revised mission study and sends it on to the Committee on Ministry.
Advantages of this process
1. A pastor can be called in six months.
2. A better fit is possible. The presbytery knows the church and is more skilled in working over Personal Information Forms. (Many Synods in the Lutheran Church of America use the same process. A bishop submits three names to the congregation: the same procedure as for designated pastors.)
3. The church saves money in having pulpit supplies (and, perhaps, part time visitation pastors during the vacancy).
Many churches would be pleased with a shorter time period. One Des Moines church had an interim pastor for two years and a called pastor for one year. They were not happy with the outcome. They were very pleased to learn that having a temporary supply might mean a much shorter time without a pastor.
The shorter tenure of pastors raises questions about the need to have interims in churches. Having a pastor in six months would be a godsend in most churches. Small and large churches alike would benefit from a reworked call process.
Gustav Nelson is director of Project 21 in Des Moines, Iowa. He provides consulting, holds workshops for churches, presbyteries and seminaries, and serves as an interim and supply pastor. He is author of Why Bother with the Church?