By Chris Moon
The Christian Church Leadership Network wants to help churches find a better way to transition from one pastor to the next.
The organization has developed a working relationship with Michigan-based Interim Pastor Ministries, which supplies experienced interim pastors to churches who are searching for their next leaders.
“We’re noticing a number of our churches have baby boomer preachers who are getting close to retirement, so you have that whole succession thing that goes well or poorly,” said Rick Shonkwiler, who leads CCLN’s Find Your Next Minister service.
Too often, churches enter “panic mode” when their pastors leave, Shonkwiler said. And in that panic, they rush through the hiring process for their next ministers. Bad decisions can ensue.
Importantly, churches need to consider whether they are a healthy place for pastors to serve.
“A lot of times a person leaves a church because it’s just not healthy,” he said.
This is where Interim Pastor Ministries can help, Shonkwiler said.
The 31-year-old organization employs interim pastors who are trained to bridge the gap for churches that are transitioning from one pastor to the next.
IPM ministers typically are seasoned, retirement-age pastors, and they aren’t allowed to seek the full-time pastor position themselves. They work to help churches gauge their health before the church embarks on the search for a permanent preacher.
IPM has worked mostly with denominations throughout its history and is only now making serious inroads into the world of independent Christian church and churches of Christ.
Things started off at a Spire Conference when David Fincher, president of the CCLN Foundation, met executives with IPM.
Shonkwiler said CCLN already had sensed the need for better pastoral transitions in Restoration Movement churches.
“As opposed to trying to reinvent the wheel ourselves, why not take advantage of a like-minded partner?” he said.
‘HEALTHIER AND HAPPIER’
Rich Brown, western director of pastor and regional relationships for Interim Pastor Ministries, said IPM has about 90 interim pastors in place and works with 20 evangelical denominations.
Typically, churches will call IPM when they have openings. The organization does assessments of the churches’ needs.
IPM then pairs the church with an interim minister equipped to serve that church’s needs. In some cases, the church is healthy and needs someone equipped in basic ministry and pastoral care. Other churches may need an interventionist-type pastor to help resolve conflicts.
“There’s a slightly different leadership style, temperament, and skill set that’s attached,” Brown said.
IPM trains all of its interim ministers to take churches through a health assessment. The pastors meet individually with members of the congregation to determine their feelings about the church.
The idea, Brown said, is to help the church “to get healthier and happier, safer and stronger for the next guy.”
To cover the expenses of this, churches simply pay IPM what they would have been paying their full-time pastor. IPM keeps 12 percent for overhead costs and pays the interim pastor the remaining 88 percent.
IPM also helps the interim pastor with certain job benefits, like health insurance.
The minimum age of a pastor working with IPM is 50 years old, Brown said. Churches are assured to get an interim pastor who has been around the block a time or two.
“They [the churches] were relieved to have someone who was seasoned to have their hands on the wheel,” Brown said.
The average-size church IPM serves has an attendance of 111 people—meaning the ministry fits well with smaller congregations.
Shonkwiler said smaller churches many times don’t think about hiring an interim minister because they assume they cannot afford it. But the cost of IPM is no different than what they were paying their full-time pastor.
Most IPM placements last 9 to 18 months, Brown said.
With its working relationship with CCLN in place, IPM now will be attending more state conferences among Restoration Movement churches. CCLN also will provide referrals, and Shonkwiler said the organization will spread the word about IPM’s services with college presidents and other Restoration Movement influencers.
‘A LOT LEFT IN THE TANK’
Shonkwiler said IPM is a good option for pastors who are hitting retirement age but who still want to minister in some form, though perhaps not on a permanent basis.
“There are a lot of older guys with a lot left in the tank,” he said.
Shonkwiler said six Restoration Movement pastors already are in training with IPM, and he said he knows another 10 to 15 who are very interested in the ministry.
After each assignment, IPM pastors take a break from their work for several months before being moved to another church. As most of them already are retired from full-time ministry, they have their retirement funds to fall back on in the meantime.
Ken Harland is getting a firsthand look at what it’s like to be an interim minister working for IPM. He just began serving as interim pastor at Bland Christian Church in Bland, Mo.
Harland, 68, connected with IPM just as he was preparing to retire from a 28-year ministry at Capital West Christian Church in Jefferson City, Mo. He said he knew he wanted to keep ministering, even as he started to slow down.
And he has a heart for churches that are in transition.
“I’ve seen too many churches go through bad transitions,” he said. “Even if they fired someone, they just rehire somebody. If there were some issues that were going on in the church internally, they never fixed anything. I’ve just seen that happen over and over again.”
He said he tried out some interim pastor training programs and came away disappointed.
“I don’t know that they gave me any tools that help churches in distress or transition,” he said.
Now, he is preparing to meet individually with Bland Christian Church members to get their feel of the church, which is part of IPM’s protocol for church transitions.
Harland said he expects to be at Bland for at least a year, and then he’ll move on to another church. He likes the fact he can continue ministering even after retirement.
“They value and honor age and experience,” Harland said of IPM. “You don’t see that in our churches a lot anymore.”
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.