My first season of a church in an intentional pastoral transition process was as an associate pastor with my home church in Surrey, B.C.
I joined the church when it was first planted and was called to be the youth pastor in its 12th year of existence. The church’s planting pastor heard God’s call to another challenge in the 17th year. Our congregation hired a transitional pastor to walk with us through the process of good questions: Who were we under our previous pastor? Where is God leading us next as a congregation? What kind of leader will help mesh those two realities?
My second season has been walking with a church in Abbotsford after its pastor felt her time at the church had reached its completion after 25 years. This was different from my home church, with a different culture and new relationships for me to navigate. The church dynamics are different, but the framework of the transitional process remains the same.
This concept of a transitional pastor may be a new concept for many. This position was created because, too often, the next incoming pastor, especially after a beloved long-term pastor moves on, quickly became the next outgoing pastor. A transitional pastor may also be hired in churches that have a history of cycling through pastors because no one ever seems to “fit.”
Transitional leadership begins with creating closure on the past and ends with walking through a search process for the next pastor. The stuff in the middle is where things can get messy. Change evokes emotions of anxiety for some and excitement for others who have been waiting for this opportunity.
Outreach Canada’s transitional leadership model suggests these conversations cycle around relationship renewal (with God and each other), vision, clarity and a healthy organizational structure, while maintaining the preaching, pastoral care and administrative duties, bathed in prayer and accompanied with good listening skills. It is imperative to partner with the congregation in all the tasks and to seek wisdom on when to focus on one task over another and when to hand some things off.
Transitional leadership is more an art than a science. There is no single formula that will make everyone happy, and hiccups should be expected. We had more than our fair share in my home congregation, and I have had a few missteps in my current role. A pandemic during the transition process has not helped.
I take solace in the fact that I’m not the saviour of the church. It was not the previous pastor’s church and it will not be the next pastor’s church. I am convinced that Christ still loves his church and has a way to move things forward, as we express a little humility, faith and love for one another in times of transition.
Bob Boehr is transitional lead pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, Abbotsford, B.C. He has been part of Mennonite Church B.C.’s church health committee for many years, focusing on how churches can be healthy in times of peace, conflict and transition.