Bi-Vocational Pastor: Thinking about “Transitional Ministry”

Interim Pastor.

Take a second and think about all the initial thoughts you had as you read that title – what came to mind?  Most of it probably not very good.  While I’m one of those people who see a great benefit and need for interim ministry and pastors who serve as interim pastors, congregations often have different reactions, and think of it something like this:

Interim Pastor: someone who is retired (or near retirement), and spends up to a year “holding down the fort” while the church’s call committee (or whatever body that is for your denomination) finds the next pastor – “our” pastor.  A long-term pastor; a full-time, present all the time pastor.  An interim is just that – the “in the meantime guy (or girl)” while we wait for the coming of the one who will lead us into the next 30 years of our church life. (Ok, maybe not 30, but most think it’ll be a “really long time”)

Does this sound familiar?  To be fair, many congregations realize the gift of an interim pastor and the interim time of ministry – it’s a chance to reflect on the current state of things, and to think deeply about what the “next steps” might be.  There are congregations that graciously and courageously allow themselves to be led by this person, and this person faithfully leads them in healthy and important discernment during this transition.  However, all too often there is a sense of anxiety during the time of the interim pastor – fear over a loss of momentum in mission and ministry, an identity crisis in the wake of the departing pastor’s absence, and the decline in participation of communal life and worship.  The interim pastor is not the “real pastor.” The interim  is a time that must be quickly moved through in order to resolve this anxiety, usually by calling a pastor as quickly as possible.  Then there’s the whole issue of an ineffective interim pastor/leader; congregations’ stigma is based in an unfortunate, but true, reality.

I think all this is problematic on a number of levels.  One, decisions are made out of anxiety and fear, which usually never produce positive, long-term outcomes.  Two, it creates a stagnant, “stuck” period for churches that often takes the new pastor years to rectify (the road to recovery is long after a period of “backsliding”).  Three, it becomes a year of wasted resources (back to that retired interim pastor – “we just paid a full year’s salary and benefits for a guy with 30 years ministry experience to preach and visit people?”).

However, there is another reason I think this falls short, which ties into the present reality of our changing religious context in society and congregations struggling to understand and engage it. Churches in transition need more than just a one-year interim period to figure these things out.  They need a leader who will walk with them through an internal transformation and culture shift. They need a pastor who will lead for a set period of time with clear goals and outcomes in mind.

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Model Constitution, paragraph C9.11 of Chapter 9 states, “While the approval of the bishop of the synod, the congregation may depart from [normal calling procedures] and call a pastor for a specific term. Details of such calls shall be in writing setting forth the purpose and conditions involved.” This provides the opportunity for a new type of pastoral ministry: Transitional Ministry.

Transitional Ministry would be similar Interim Ministry in that it would likely be short-term (1-4 years).  However, it would differ in that rather than just provide a person as “placeholder,” it would provide a focused period in which the congregation would call a pastor to lead them through a set period of transition with specific goals and purposes in mind.  In addition, the pastor wouldn’t just be someone present solely to perform functional tasks (preaching, teaching, sacraments, pastoral care), but rather would be called with a particular role with specific skill sets to best serve the congregation during this period of discernment and change.

How would this look? Think “John the Baptist.”  Someone who can help “prepare the way” for a new chapter as Christ’s church.  Someone who can proclaim both good news in Word and Sacrament yet also speak prophetically  and honestly into the reality of the community of faith and community at large.  Someone who, when the time is right, would decrease so that the congregation might increase in its mission and life to the world for years to come.

This is where Bi-vocational pastors would be an excellent fit for transitional ministry.  Constraints on time require the Bi-Vocational pastor to more clearly and distinctly define their role within the congregation he or she serves.  A decreased financial commitment to a pastor during the transition would allow congregations more freedom in developing a more realistic and relevant budget for mission and ministry.  Bi-Vocational pastors have the ability to shift the paradigm of congregations away from the notion that fully present relationally means “fully employed.”  There is also the benefit of having a pastor who has one foot within the context and one foot in the congregation – the pastor is an interpreter and advocate for both communities.  Bi-vocational pastors also bring specific skillsets and expertise from their other professions and work.

Here’s a few ways to imagine this: A larger congregation, in need of developing a strong Children, Youth, & Family ministry, but with limited financial resources to grow staff could call a bi-vocational pastor as a 1/2 or 3/4 time Associate Pastor.  They could then use this savings and call a full-time Director of Youth & Family Ministry to develop the ministry. The bi-vocational pastor could serve for a 2-4 year period, supporting the senior pastor by sharing certain pastoral roles and ministry oversight, and perhaps focus in on a particular ministry need (outreach, evangelism, social justice, vocational discernment, etc.)  In time, in concert with enhanced ministry and increased staff, the financial resources may increase to call a full-time associate that the congregations needs down the road.

Or, a medium-sized congregation that also recently established a non-profit as a ministry could call a bi-vocational pastor for a period of 2 years with non-profit management and community engagement experience.  The last pastorate was 30 years, and the pastor was full-time in the congregation.  However, finances now only allow for a part-time pastor and the congregation wishes for the non-profit to be “a ministry of the congregation” but don’t currently have the resources to hire a full-time non-profit manager.  The pastor could serve in this dual role, helping establish the ministry and its relationship with the church and community.

Or, a congregation set near a military base, but not understanding the context, could call an Armed Forces Reserve chaplain to serve the congregation and help establish a ministry that supports military service members and their families through the deployment cycle for 3 years, at which point the chaplain would then mobilize for a one-year deployment and the congregation would call a pastor who would serve them long-term.

Or, a congregation having dealt with serious conflict and a split may agree to a 2-3 year pastorate that would provide the stability necessary to understand and heal.  The congregation would agree to pay the pastor full-time, allowing that 20% of his or her time would be open to pursue personal ministry (young adult, college, synodical, churchwide) as a means of self-care for the pastor and as a missional act of sharing the pastor with the wider church.

These are just a few of the possibilities….but what would such transitional ministry mean for congregations in our present day and age?  And what would it mean to raise up pastoral leaders with unique skillsets to serve congregations in this way?  Transitional ministry would provide stability to congregations in anxious times, focus in their discernment of God’s mission, and innovation and financial freedom around the pastor’s role.  And of course, we trust the Spirit at work….and maybe that transitional pastor might be the right one to stick around for the long haul.

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