Tips for an Interim Pastor
The interim pastorate is a tough gig. I’ve done it twice, once for four months and once for three. Both times it felt similar: you have the role of pastor, but you don’t really have the authority. It’s an in-between zone, almost like a baby-sitter who steps in for the parents but ain’t the real thing.
So if you’re one of the five people who will read this article because you find yourself in this situation, here are five tips on approaching an interim pastorate:
1. Don’t change anything. Before my first interim pastorate, Mark Dever gave me this one word of advice: “Jonathan, let me give you this one word of advice: don’t change anything! You’re not marrying the church; you’re just there to help it get to the next guy.”
That means you don’t lead them from one leadership structure to another. You don’t initiate new strategies or vision plans. And you don’t try to change the church into what you think it should be.
Sometimes university boards hire an interim president to do the dirty work so that the next president doesn’t have to. But a church should work differently. Whoever thinks such dirty work needs to be done (the elders?) should have the courage to do it themselves. Leadership in a church, of all places, should be transparent and honest. There shouldn’t be a “power behind the power.”
I cannot say you must never make such changes, but generally speaking you should use whatever time God gives you positively to set an example in the following two ways:
2. Preach the Bible expositionally. The most important think you can do as an interim pastor is preach expositional sermons. It might be tempting to preach a topical series on something you think the church might need to hear, like “How To Find a Good Pastor” or “What Is a Healthy Church?” But in most cases it’s better to exemplify what they should be looking for in a pastor—an expositional preacher. Don’t just tell them, show them.
In my first interim pastorate, I spent four months walking the congregation through the Gospel of Mark. The elders told me the church had never gone straight through a book of the Bible like that before. Gratefully, the church called an expositional preacher shortly after my departure. I’d like think that, by God’s grace, I helped prepare the way for that man.
3. Love the people. I don’t need to explain this, right? This is what you’re called to do simply as a Christian. But here are two reasons why it’s especially important to do this as an interim pastor. First, it will help offset any disgruntlement they may feel about expositional preaching if it’s their first exposure to such preaching.
Second, it will earn their trust and open opportunities for you to advise them on what to look for in the future. They’ll see that you really care for them, and not just your ideas, and begin to ask for your counsel.
4. Don’t feel compelled to do everything they ask you to do. I advised you not to make changes, but there may some things the church asks you to do which you believe are unwise. For instance, I was once asked to do altar calls because the church had always had altar calls. I explained that I preferred not to, and gave my reasons.
Now, hopefully I did this in a gracious way and, honestly, if they had been more adamant, I might have deferred . . . I’m not sure. But since they were not adamant, and since I figured I was helping the next guy have the freedom not to do altar calls, I didn’t do them. I did, however, look for ways to be even more vocal and explicit about inviting people to repentance and faith throughout the sermon.
5. Maybe do just a little discipling dirty work. Okay, so I said churches shouldn’t follow the university model of hiring an interim to do the dirty work. There I was talking about big changes, like firing a staff. But as an interim pastor you have a unique opportunity to speak an occasional hard word in the context of personal relationships.
I often found that church leaders spoke more freely with me because they knew I was leaving in a couple of months. For instance, one lay leader expressed his concern to me over lunch that the former pastor had asked for a lunch budget. That was an opportunity for me to shepherd this lay-leader in prioritizing discipleship as part of the church’s ministry, and encourage him to enable the next pastor to pursue this kind of discipleship.
So after you have begun building relationships, and after you have earned some trust, and after an opportunity presents itself, then look for quieter ways to serve your successor by speaking the difficult word.
But if you forget all this, just remember these two things: preach the Word and love the people.