Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shoring up the "family" in pastoral transition

As congregations emerge from a pastoral transition, the leadership begins discussion about what to do with those who have "strayed." People who further solidify their commitment to a congregation during a pastoral transition tend to believe that the public will be excited about their new pastor, as well as those who have lowered their commitment over the past few years. This part of transition is dangerous territory, mostly because this part of the path is thick with deeply rooted assumptions.

People who have increased their commitment to a congregation during a transition tend to assume the strayed members think like them and share their enthusiasm for a new pastor. If the perspective was shared, they would have been participating in the transition process in the first place. Those who have different commitment levels to the congregation do not warrant judgment, and if judgment is present, membership efforts will suffer. The public will probably be even less enthusiastic about a new pastorate. They may be curious about a new member of the community, but the public won't come rushing in just because a congregation welcomes a new pastor. To think otherwise overestimates the public presence of a congregation, especially in an age where congregations on the whole (especially in the Pacific Northwest) have eroded in their influence over the years. Even for a congregation deeply connected to public life, the social capital of a new pastor takes months and years of relationship building, both in trust and partnerships. This doesn't mean that the congregation should curb their enthusiasm about their new pastor or cut short their efforts to make public connections. Rather, congregations should be open minded about their expectations of the community.

Another assumption related to people whose commitment to a congregation wavers is linked to the desire to bring people back into the "family." I have strong suspicions (theologically and organizationally) of calling a congregation a family. However, the desire to bring back people who have lowered their commitment level feels as strong as the pull to bring back someone to a family fold who is/was estranged. That feeling is exacerbated in the midst of decline. The desire to reconnect with those who have separated from congregational life is not necessarily bad, but the methodology and responsibility must be clarified. In every interim ministry I served, a congregation assumes shoring up the "family" is the responsibility of the pastor. I tend to disagree with the idea of putting a lot of energy into shoring up the family, because this work tends to be done out of a position of anxiety rather than strength. If congregational leaders look at contacting people who have left the family as a means to get their numbers and budgets to better levels, the congregation is traveling a path that will lead to more anxiety and their work to connect will lack authenticity. If the methodology is rooted in a relational connection and an opportunity to learn about relational and ministry dynamics in the congregation, then the foundation for ministry will be stronger. I also struggle with the notion of "shoring up the family" because it is nearly impossible to have a conversation with someone who is walking away.

Regardless of the philosophy and theology of congregational membership, what I believe is of paramount importance is that a new pastor and congregational leadership have an understanding about methodology and responsibility related to membership. I have observed that this variable is the source of partnership breakdown in the both the previous pastorate and the new pastorate as well, and this variable is magnified in congregations that have experienced recent decline.


  1. My hope is that during the interim time between pastors, congregations will work intentionally to be certain about who they are and who God is calling them to be and what God is calling them to do. In doing this Intentional work a congregation can grow to be more healthy and prepare to call a new pastor who is a good fit to be with them on their journey.
    At the Center for Congregational Health, we work with a concept of 5 focus points for congregations to give attention during the interim time—heritage, mission, connections, leadership and the future. (This model is developed from those working in conjunction with Intentional Interim Ministry and recognized by the Interim Ministry Network.) This intentional interim process allows a congregation to prepare a healthy foundation for when a new pastor arrives.
    Hope this helps! Beth Kennett -

  2. Beth, thanks to you and the Center for Congregational Health for posting. I'm curious about what data is available that examines the efficacy of the IMN process. I was trained by IMN and have used the process for 10-plus years. The "shoring up the family" issue trips up congregations and pastors regardless of the process.