My friend Reggie often serves churches as interim pastor. Since he’s a seminary professor — not only teaching several classes of future preachers but handling a heavy administrative load outside class — he does not have enough time or energy to do much more than preach for the church that engages him.
A colleague told me yesterday that when Reggie begins his work at a church, he tells the pastor search committee, “I am not interested in becoming your pastor, so please don’t ask me. If you ask me once, I will say ‘no.’ If you ask me the second time, you will have my resignation.”
He adds, “Because that tells me your committee is not actively searching for a pastor for your church, but is looking inward.”
I’ve known a hundred interim pastors over the years but have never known of another one saying such a wise thing. In fact, the average interim pastor gets his head turned all too easily by the wooing of the pastor search committee or by members of the congregation. (I am all too aware that occasionally the Holy Spirit chooses this method of matching a preacher up with the right church, so this is not a blanket condemning of the process.)
Ernest is a retired director of missions and a longtime friend. Recently, I was speaking in the association where he put in many years and over supper was hearing about his post-DOM existence.
“I’ve been retired five years,” he said. “And there has not been one Sunday when I’ve not been interim pastor in some church somewhere.” He continued, “I might have missed a few Sundays preaching, but I was always the interim pastor at one church or another.”
I told him that a mutual friend, J. C. Mitchell of Columbus, Mississippi, once told me after he retired from being director of missions that serving as interim pastor of churches was so liberating and gave him such a podium for making a difference in the church, he thinks he might have been called by God to be an interim pastor!
Ernest laughed and said, “I know exactly what he’s talking about. A church is willing to receive counsel from the interim they would never take from the regular pastor.”
“That’s strange,” I said. “Why do you think that is?”
“I know exactly why it is,” he said. “When you’re the interim, the church feels you are doing them a favor. But when you are the pastor, they think they’re doing you a favor.”
“Whoa!” I said. That insight was profound and needed dealing with.
Ernest went on. “I knew one church that had an interim pastor for four years. They loved him to death and the relationship was so great that they finally made him the permanent pastor. Within a year, they had run him off.”
“What was going on?” I said.
“Just what I said. They changed in their attitude toward him once he moved into the parsonage and was dependent on them for his full-time salary. He was no longer their welcome guest, but was the spiritual authority over them — and they couldn’t handle it.”
“Did they realize it?” I said.
He smiled. “They did after I told them what they were doing. I spelled it out and showed them exactly what they had done to this good man.”
Don has been serving his present church as interim for over a year. He read my comments above and said, “I agree totally with Ernest. I wish we could help church members to see the ministers not as hirelings but as God’s gifts to the congregation.”
Don admitted that being interim gives him a freedom to speak plainly and boldly to situations the church is facing. I asked, “Is that because you have another income? What about the pastor who depends on this church for his livelihood and fears alienating the people who pay his salary?”
Don said, “I guess I’ll have to go back to a little cartoon you did. The pastor told his people ‘I’m not here to make you happy; I’m here to make you healthy.'”
He added, “And you know something else? This business of the people looking on the interim pastor as doing them a favor? It reminds me of Ephesians 4:11.”
I laughed. “I was thinking the same thing.”
We opened the Bible on my desk and turned to it.
“And He Himself (the Holy Spirit) gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry.”
Don said, “There it is in black and white: the pastor-teacher is God’s gift to the congregation. They are not hirelings to be ordered around, to be hired and fired. They are not employees. They are gifts from the Heavenly Father for the welfare of those people.”
I pulled down a commentary from a shelf and turned to that text. I knew Kent Hughes would have something to say on that text. He did.
“The apostles and prophets are the foundational gifts to the church.”
“Today, evangelists are the ‘obstetricians’ of the church — those gifted in bringing new births.”
“Then there are the pediatricians, the pastor/teachers.”
Hughes goes on to say, “‘Pastor’ literally means ‘shepherd.’ This tender, caring, nurturing title suggests a touch here, a kind word there, a gentle prod at the right time. Yet it also suggests resolute strength and protection of the flock.” (The Hughes commentary is “Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ.”)
I am well aware that some pastors have abused their roles in the church, and fully aware that some people in every congregation fear the authority of the pastor and want to keep him on a short leash. But my own observation is that the healthiest churches in the land are those which treat their shepherds as representatives of the Good Shepherd and honor their service and their leadership.
Whether the pastor has been with our church for 3 months or 30 years, let us be thankful to God for the gift of him and the ministry he brings to us.