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Navigating changes in church leadership

We pastor-types do not look for a job, we seek a call. Churches do not hire a minister, they extend a call. Presbyterian pastors do not have a résumé, we have a Personal Information Form. Churches do not write job descriptions, they go through a process of creating a Ministry Information Form. Pastor nominating committees and ministers alike use the denomination’s Church Leadership Connection. Even the language we use to describe this process of pastors and churches being “matched” seems odd and maybe cumbersome and at times obtuse. What are the rules? What is required? Who gets to decide?

The revised Book of Order made possible leadership transitions prohibited in the past. Hence, in recent years, different models of pastoral leadership succession emerged. For example, some congregations have chosen to have co-pastors with the expressed understanding that when the longer serving co-pastor retires, the other co-pastor will become the head pastor. Other congregations have chosen to call the next minister while the current one remains in place so that there is overlap, a sharing of information and some on-the-ground training — hoping for a smooth transition making interim pastoral leadership unnecessary. Other churches relish a time with an interim pastor to allow for needed change, healing or simply time to discern what’s most needed next.

No one-size-of-pastoral-transition fits all. Each option entails change. Every change creates anxiety. However, some transitions go better than others and there is wisdom in seeking out commonalities that made for good outcomes. This issue of the Outlook came about when one of our Outpost bloggers, Jeff Schooley, reached out to Jana Blazek, our associate editor. Jeff asked us to consider doing an issue titled, “Your church in transition.” Jeff served on his presbytery’s Committee on Ministry and noted that while in that capacity, “without a doubt … the most anxiety-ridden season is when a church finds itself in a pastoral search. No matter the reason, no one likes this time.” He went on to say, “Selfishly, I hope that we generate a series of high-quality columns that I can pass along to the PNCs I work with.” Jeff was passionate enough about this need that he was willing to help us put the issue that is in your hands (or on your screen) together.
After a few conversations and no small number of emails, Jeff, Jana and I decided on the topics in these pages. Clearly, the articles listed in the table of contents are far from exhaustive. We know, for example, there are wide-ranging opinions about the value of having an interim minister and how long an interim period ought to be (from no time to years). We also know that many congregations no longer have installed pastoral leaderships but rather covenant pastors, supply pastors, certified ruling elders and other ways of providing for preaching, teaching, visiting and more. Our hope is that these articles begin important conversations about all of these possibilities, their strengths and their challenges. We also hope that the pieces within, and the others that will be published on our website (we couldn’t fit them all in print!), will be useful resources for local congregations, presbyteries and pastors.

We trust, of course, that the Holy Spirit and God’s providence work go with us as we search for a call or extend one. Prayer represents a critical component of discerning faithfully how to navigate every life change. We also have the gift of our connectional system: We can learn from and support each other. I am grateful to Jeff for his interest in this important topic and the work he did to bring about this issue. All three of us, Jeff, Jana and I, look forward to hearing your responses to this offering. We welcome your suggestions for future articles related to this issue. Recognizing that not just individual congregations but the church universal are in major transitions, we believe navigating change in ways that honor Jesus Christ and seek to serve him best should be in the forefront of our minds, part of our daily prayers and ever-evolving as we seek the new thing God is surely doing in our midst.

Grace and peace,