Filling the pulpit

In our Head of Staff/Associate Pastor discussion, another interesting point came up, and that is… the amount of time that it takes to get a new pastor.

I’m not sure how it is with most denominations, but in the PCUSA, it seems to take forever to call a new pastor. We have watched it happen in our neck of the woods over and over again lately. A church—a really good, healthy church—goes without a pastor for two to three years.

What’s going on? I often hear different reasons for the delay.

Often, the church has had some trauma, and they have to go through a long period of self-examination and reflection before they can call another pastor.

Or it’s just hard for the nominating committee to find the time to do what they need to do, considering that they’re volunteers.

Sometimes, the committee is overwhelmed by the number of applicants. They look at the huge stack of resumes and they don’t even know where to begin.

Other times, they are completely underwhelmed by the quality of candidates (a complaint that I have very little patience with when I consider my colleagues…).

The upshot is that committees are often taking two to three years to fill a position in which most pastors only stay for two to three years. I understand the logic of having a long interim, but I’m not sure that I agree with it. Why is an extended interim important for healing? Why can’t healing take place with an installed pastor? What is it doing to our congregations to have as much time with an interim as they have with an installed pastor?

A gifted interim is a real treasure, and not always easy to come by. I have followed a couple of interims who were just filling up their retirement hours, using the church for a little something to do. A chance to dust off their sermon file. And their To-Do List did not include any robust transition work at the church. It was more of a hobby job for them.

One man in our congregation, after hearing the travails of a search committee, has talked about starting a head-hunting business for our denomination. Not a bad idea, considering how long it takes for a match to occur, and how often mismatches occur…. 

So, what could we be doing better? Is an extended interim a healthy solution? How could we make this turn-around time quicker?

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22 thoughts on “Filling the pulpit

  1. I do think that there are times when an extended interim is healthy, but usually there is way too much time lost in the search process. Recently, I have become a fan of the Episcopal method of job transitions (my husband is an Episcopal priest). They have the same freedom in moving as Presbyterians, the same online dating system of CIFs/PIFs, but each diocese has a person who helps to facilitate the move. There are even conferences 2x a year where they all get together to swap names/job openings, etc.

  2. I’m a designated pastor. This church should have had an interim, but had a bad experience. . . etc. I’m sure you’ve heard enough stories. I think we need to streamline the call process and unless there is a real need for an interim, do away with the requirement that there be an interim in every situation. Perhaps something like the designated process might work, where COM or a similar group screens PIFs. The other problem is that most PNCs don’t have experience with hiring, don’t know what to look for, get too anxious, turn down candidates for the wrong reasons. We really need to admit the process isn’t working and fix it.

  3. @Joan, there’s a requirement to have an interim? That seems silly.

    I echo both the previous comments. The biggest reason for the slow turnaround is interim pastors. Unless the congregation had a trauma or a very long-term pastor, there’s better ways to transition. Time w/o a pastor, actually, can be really healthy for a congregation–and the future pastor.

    I will say, though, there are congregations who fill positions pretty quickly. I have friends who started looking in Feb and moved in May. Not speed of light, but not bad. For us seminarians, b/c of the differences, it’s difficult to know when to start a search. Folks say, though, the earlier the better.

  4. Adam,

    Definitely, the earlier the better. It’s really nice to go into final exams without a search hanging over your head. Sometimes, the first call doesn’t take as long, but it depends on how picky you are, and what you’re able to do. If you and your spouse are able to go rural, and you can get some BoP debt relief, then you’re fine. There are plenty of small churches looking for pastors (of course, you know about small churches from your internship!).

    I was always told that if I’m looking for a position (after the first one), plan on a year and six months. That seems to be a good amount of time.

    A funny thing can happen, when you begin to think about leaving, you get this itchy feeling, and everything about your church can get on your nerves (it’s like breaking up with a boy/girl friend). But if you have 18 months in your mind, then you can relax a bit. You don’t act so desperate in interviews. And you don’t freak out when it takes months for a committee to call you back (which it often does…).

    Of course, it seems like it can take churches a longer time to call a pastor than it takes a pastor to find a call (depending on his/her life circumstances).

  5. jno,

    I LOVE the thought of having someone to facilitate the move. Not that we need more employees in our middle governing bodies… but… if someone took more responsibility there, we could be in much better shape.

    Pastors and lay people who work in the denomination know each other. We know who will be good and who will not. We’ve worked on committees with each other. We know who shows up, who return phone calls, and who is willing to work. We know each other’s dark secrets and our successes. And we know where we stand theologically.

    These are all things that elders have no clue about because they haven’t worked with the person. They also don’t have any sense of the national pool, who the rising stars are, etc. It would be really nice if someone with that sort of vast body of knowledge could be a guide for these churches.

  6. I reject the idea that a long-term pastorate demands an interim. When the CEO of a company retires after heading the company for 25-30 years, does the corporation need to grieve so it hires an interim CEO? Of course not. I know, the church is not a corporation (actually it is but that is for another conversation). But the church is an organization and I don’t know of any other organization that does this interim thing the way we do it.
    If a church is healthy, call a new pastor as quickly as possible (it shouldn’t take longer than a year.). If a church in unhealthy, call a new pastor and let the person go to work creating health. If a pastor leaves after a long or short ministry, call a new pastor as quickly as possible.
    Churches need installed leadership with a long term vision and a commitment to realizing it over the long haul.
    I hope this doesn’t sound disrespectful of the many gifted and dedicated interims out there. They are wonderful. I am challenging the concept of interims as currently being used in the PCUSA.
    We need interims to cover the search period. Other than that, installed pastors should be in place as soon as possible, dealing with grief, dysfunctionality, and most importantly, the opportunities for ministry that exist in each and every congregation.

  7. I was just about to post a response disagreeing with John regarding interims — when I noticed that his response was listed as being posted at 2:12 p.m. on Dec. 16. Huh? John, have you managed to find a going-forward time machine? Even if you have, which would explain why you are ahead of all of the rest of us, I still think that in certain situations interims are crucial to allowing a congregation to recover from a traumatic pastorate, which unfortunately happens all too often.

  8. I’ve got some friends who would like to see something like eharmony.com for the PCUSA call system. This would be a way to match pastors and congregations based on compatibility type questionaires.

    But, I wonder who might fill out the form for the congregation. I’ve seen CIF’s which significantly overstate membership and attendance. There’s one, that posted recently in my state, which puts the first priority of the new pastor at “recruiting” young couples.

    I’m not for increasing the size or cost of middle governing bodies, but it would be great if there were someone available in each Synod who frequently visited seminaries to talk with students, and then met with Presbytery COM’s, and was available to speak with those searching – either pastors or PNC’s.

    The process of getting a CIF online should be streamlined. This generally takes many months.

    I do agree with the need for good interims, especially when the previous pastor has broken the trust of the people.

  9. BTW – A “head hunter” might be good for the larger congregations, though this person probably wouldn’t be dealing with seminary students very often.

  10. Glad you posted on this, Carol. I tend to concur with John…and look forward to Cindy’s response.

    The mandated interim is necessitated by the way in which the PC(USA) call process is structured…and it just takes too dang long. When I’ve spoken with anyone outside of the PC(USA) about how we approach the process of pastoral transitions, I’ve almost invariably been met with incredulity. When I’ve engaged in conversation with folks who have served on PNCs, they tend to feel that the process has moved from being exhaustive to just plain exhausting.

    Interims are certainly necessary for some churches, particularly those in which a pastor has been involved in some form of malfeasance or there is intense bitterness following his or her departure.

    But if a pastor leaves amicably, a prolonged interim period traps a congregation in a mandatory liminal period, with pastoral leadership that is by design unable to develop the kinds of deep and lasting interpersonal relationships that are necessary for a collegially governed church to thrive.

    However we approach it, I tend to think that the process by which a pastor is called should take only very slightly more time than the process by which an interim is currently called.

  11. The UCC process is similar to yours, although I haven’t heard of any recent stories where the search extended to 3 years. Frequently the problem seems to be not the quality of the candidates but the gender, as you have discussed in other posts. A committee that dismisses women as “unqualified” will have trouble these days, having cut themselves off from half or more of the available pastors.
    I am presently serving as an Interim Minister, so I’m sorry to hear such eager dismissals of the need for an Interim. My last church rushed through a search after a misconduct situation, hired someone in a hurry, and lived to regret it. Instead of an interim minister, they had a retired pastor from the area, who advised them to forget about the financial malfeasance and community embarrassment and would not let them work through it. Seven years later we did the work they could have done immediately after the misconduct: seven years and much unhappiness inflicted on the pastor they hired when they were still angry and ashamed and fearful.
    Churches are not corporations, so I reject the idea that a Senior Pastor and a CEO are the same. People have attachments to a pastor on a different level than people will have to a leader in business. I have noticed more situations in which there is a clear “grooming” process being offered, with an Associate being hired to prepare to replace a near-retirement pastor. It will be interesting to see how those situations play out over time.

  12. It seems like there’s agreement that a good interim is needed and valuable when there’s been a trauma. And, sadly, Cindy writes “which unfortunately happens all too often.” And Cindy would know…

    I worry about the healthy congregations who typically have a loss of attendance, giving, and even membership when there’s an interim. People tend to drop off quite a bit during those times, and when months turn into years, and there isn’t important transitional work occurring, that can be difficult.

  13. Songbird surfaces several very useful points, particularly regarding the difference between CEOs and pastors. They ain’t the same…but I’m not sure that diminishes the need for more expedited call process in some instances.

    Songbird also highlights a significant difference between the way calls are handled in the UCC and the PC(USA).

    We PC(USA)ers do not permit “grooming” of an associate. The Book of Order explicitly forbids associates from moving into the position of HOS (G-14.0501d). The purpose of this is clear: to prevent churches from Machiavellian maneuvering, as associates plot and conspire for the plum call. It also prevents associates from resenting a church for not giving them the position they might feel is their right. I understand the logic in it, but have often wondered if it is a rule that should be invariably followed.

    As women in the PC(USA) fill many associate slots but relatively few senior pastor calls, might this aspect of our polity have become another barrier to growing women in leadership? If I’d developed a deep relationship with a congregation as an associate, I know I’d be reluctant to leave folks I loved to take another call elsewhere.

  14. like songbird, i hail from the ucc. my church is in the middle of an interim right now, and it is the most exciting time in the church’s recent history.

    our previous pastor was with us for 18 healthy years, and left on very good terms. but like any long-term relationship, things had gotten stale without us even knowing it.

    this interim period has allowed us to fall in love with ourselves as a church again, to really discover our identity as a church separate from our pastor – something that would be harder to do with a new settled pastor.

    we are in the early stages of reviewing profiles and interviewing. we expect to call someone before the summer, giving us approx. 20 months of interim.

    i wouldn’t trade this time for anything.

  15. David,

    I’m so impressed that you know the specific BOO reference.

    From what I understand, the AP position used to be seen as important prep work for a HOS. There was a bit of grooming involved, even if the AP was going on to another church.

    Now, women are often seen as lifetime APs. And, sometimes, when women try to take that step from AP to HOS, they are told that they don’t have the necessary experience. That was not always the case, was it?

    So, I wonder if the AP role has changed a bit in our institutional understanding.

    I have a limited history with all of this. Anyone else know?

  16. The proposed new Form of Government would eliminate the absolute ban on calling associates — and interims, for that matter — to the installed senior pastor position — although approval of such a call would require a supermajority vote of presbytery.The FOG Task Force did this explicitly to provide flexibility, recognizing that in certain situations it would make sense to allow an associate to succeed as HOS. The Task Force got a LOT of flak on this in our first-go-round, to the GA in 2008 — we’ll see what happens in 2010.

  17. Thanks! Nothing is a bigger hit when I go out clubbing than my encyclopedic knowledge of the BOO. That and my ability to imitate the calls of 45 different species of cricket.

    I’m pleased to hear from Cindy that there’s some openness to this in the new draft Form of Government.

  18. Yes. It seems that we limit things an awful lot. Of course, there are a whole lot of churches we can point to where the AP to HOS transition did not work. But, of course, there are a whole lot of churches we can point to where calling an HOS from the outside didn’t work either.

    We seem to take a failure and make a rule out of it. I.e., I’ve often heard church members say, “We hired a woman, and it didn’t work out, so we’ll never do that again!” And I wonder… what if we held men to that universal gender standard? Surely, most congregations have had a man in their history that didn’t work out, and do we stop hiring men on that basis?

    Many organizations promote from within. I can see the fallbacks, but I can also see the advantages.

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