By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
While many think that a transitional interim pastor is just called to churches that have had a bad experience with a previous pastor, that’s not always the case, said Bob Brown, former church revitalization specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board and a transitional interim pastor himself.
Brown has served in seven transitional interim pastorates over the past few years and will begin his eighth in January. He has been in large and small churches and situations that have been both good and difficult.
“In those difficult ones, you don’t expect to clear up all the problems. You try to get the church members to act more like Christ and deal with the major issues,” he said.
Primarily, a TIP allows the church to “bring in someone who has a fresh set of eyes, someone with experience, who can help them redeem the time between pastors. “It’s not just waiting for that next guy who will lead the church to the promised land,” he said.
A TIP allows “the church to examine itself, see where it has been and where it needs to go,” Brown added. Brown noted while there may be churches that don’t want to admit there may be problems, he said typically churches “know when something is not right, but they are not sure of the gravity of the situation.”
Mike Kemper, transitional interim pastor at First Baptist Church, Rutherford, noted that a TIP “can take a lot of pressure off a church to be in a hurry to get the next pastor.” In addition, he said, a trained TIP has the wisdom and ability to guide and lead a church during a transition as it prepares for the future.
Kemper, who has had four transitional interim pastorates over the past few years, said he makes it clear that he is not a candidate to be pastor and that he observes and looks for areas that need to be changed, improved or eliminated and later shares those observations with the congregation.
Brown, now executive director for Lakeway Christian Schools, based in Morristown, noted that a TIP must have a “triage type of mentality. You have to deal with critical immediate issues but look at the long term systemic issues as well.”
He noted that it is a temptation to see a transitional pastor as a “miracle worker” but that’s not the case. Some people may have the idea that a TIP is “a hired gun who will come in and get things ready for the next pastor.
“I try to be realistic and tell churches that I don’t have all the answers or that there is a ‘one-size fits all’ approach.”
Mike Dawson, former pastor of First Baptist Church, Columbia, has done 10 transitional interims since he retired. And while he has a general approach, he noted that “every church has a unique personality and you can’t do the same things at every church.”
One thing he consistently does is to take the temperature of a church by interviewing every member willing to talk with him.
He asks three questions: Who are the five most influential people in the church? What, in your opinion, are five hindrances that limit the church from moving forward? What, in your opinion, will it take to move the church from where it is now, to where God wants it to be?
In addition, Dawson goes to each Sunday School class beginning with the youth and teaches a lesson on “How to Have the Pastor of Your Dreams.”
Basically, he teaches the members of each class to understand that the only way to get the pastor they dream of or who God wants them to have is “to pray him here.”
Dawson also makes sure the church elects a transition team to work with him.
He uses the answers gleaned from the second and third questions above to make recommendations to the church near the end of the transition.
“My goal is to set the table for the new pastor so that he will have things affirmed by the church that need to happen,” Dawson said.
Brown has seen varying degrees of success. One church where he served discovered it needed to “replant” as a campus of another church and is doing well, he said.
Other churches have made changes up to a point, then dug in their heels and would not go any further while others made painful changes that helped them grow in the long run, Brown observed.
One of his “success” stories has been First Baptist Church, Seymour. “We had to make some hard, painful decisions which revolved around staff members,” he noted. “It was painful.”
But, the church members realized that though they were in a growing community, they were seeing a decline in membership and had lost young families.
“They had to realize they were not where they needed to be,” Brown said. “It was not an indictment of the former pastor. They just needed some change and they were willing to make those changes.”
Corey Cain, second vice president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, moved from West Tennessee to Seymour about six months ago to become the pastor of First Baptist Church.
He has seen firsthand the benefits of having a transitional interim pastor.
“Bob Brown helped to get the church to a healthy point where it was ready to set a new vision and mission and go forward,” Cain said.
“If that had not happened, it would have taken me probably a year to get it to that point and it may have isolated me from certain people in the church,” he added.
Cain noted the church has responded well since he has been on the scene.
“They are very loving and caring. We have gotten to some things quicker than I originally expected,” he said.
Cain is an advocate for transitional interim pastors. Because they will not be considered as the potential pastor, they “have more freedom to make changes and lead more effectively,” he said. B&R