When You Don’t Need an Interim

I’ve written several posts explaining the importance of having an interim preacher when the previous preacher has been at the congregation a long time (five years or more). We’ve discussed the necessity of grief, wandering in the wilderness during the time of disorientation. I’ve written about evaluating strengths needed for the next preacher at this church, the search process, preceded by a self-study, meetings of a Transition Monitoring Team, and other tasks of preparing for the next phase of this congregation.

I want to end this with a final suggestion: you may not need an interim preacher, even after a long ministry.

Suggestions for a Good Transition Without an Intentional Interim

  •  Intentionally grow as an eldership and staff. Every year there should be continuing education for elders, deacons, preachers, and secretaries who will plan classes and learning activities for the entire church. There are so many areas for growth: Bible study, communication, evangelism, counseling, and technology. My forgettery works better than my memory. If I don’t grow by learning and experiencing new ideas, I’ll drain in knowledge and enthusiasm, become stale, notice things aren’t going very well, and start blaming everyone else because the church isn’t growing as it should.
  • Start the next transition before your previous preacher has preached his first sermon. Two things that upset a congregation:
    • A well-loved preacher finding a new place to preach and suddenly announcing it to the congregation.
    • A well-loved preacher suddenly being informed by the elders he is no longer needed and wanted at this church.
  • My recommendation to prevent both:
    • Before the first sermon, talk about how long the preacher plans to stay and how long the elders want him to stay. There should be a common understanding before beginning. If a preacher wants to move every three years so he can recycle his sermons and the elders want a long-term ministry, there will be disappointment. If the preacher sells his house in the previous location, buys a house in this town with the aim of staying many years, and the elders inform him four years and six months after he arrives he needs to start looking for another church because their practice is to change preachers every five years, there will be disappointment.
    • Before the first sermon, discuss with the preacher not only how long he’d like to stay but also how he plans to leave, especially if the elders get ready for him to leave before he gets ready. Many preachers have ruined an otherwise good ministry by throwing a fit on the way out.
    • Get the agreements from both the elders and the preacher in writing and review them once a year. If the preacher plans to stay until retirement, discuss his plans for all aspects of his retirement: finances, his and the elders’ expectations after his pulpit time is over, where he plans to live,  and how he plans to give space and encouragement for the new preacher. If anyone is reconsidering the initial intent, discuss it.
  • As the time for a change draws closer, start talking with more details how to make a helpful transition. One suggestion I read was giving the preacher a three-month sabbatical seven years before his retirement for him to rest, plan for his finish in the next seven years, and make them the best years of his ministry. That’s what we did at Berry’s Chapel. We didn’t know we were doing it right, but it was the best gift I’ve ever been given as a preacher. We started talking about three and a half years before I left and I announced my retirement three years before. The elders said, “As far as we know, there’s never been a planned transition at Berry’s Chapel. We’d like to try it once and see how it works.” From my perspective and their continued peaceful good work, it was a good transition.
  • Cultivate honest, open communication. 
    • There should be freely flowing verbal and non-verbal communication expressing encouragement and gratitude — both planned and spontaneous. Prayers, public and private, will often thank God for the elders, preachers, spouses, other leaders, and every member of the congregation. Writing notes of gratitude for specific acts will show and remind everyone of the unity that exists in leadership.
    • It will be healthy to have planned, caring, consistent, and creative conflict where disagreement is encouraged and appreciated. If everyone always agrees with the same person, the rest can be dismissed. A group is deprived of wisdom when most or all are afraid to disagree and express their thoughts and feelings. Without rules and an atmosphere of being able to disagree and question, there will eventually be a major conflict that will not be planned, caring, consistent, and creative. Then you will need an interim.

Three Helpful Books

Two books with good ideas about how to plan for a transition:

Next: pastoral succession that works, by William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird

Transition Plan: 7 Secrets Every Leader Needs to Know, by Bob Russell

One book to give a bad example of how not to do it:

Too Great a Temptation: The Seductive Power of America’s Super Church, by Dr. Joel Gregory

Summary: intentionally go through the discipline of constant growth, practice building good relationships, engage in honest discussions of painful as well as pleasant topics, continue to encourage and care for each other, especially in the leadership team, and plan a good funeral for your relationship before you die (literally or figuratively). Many relationships die years before they end and everyone wonders what went wrong. L. W. White wrote a country song first released in 1971 with the refrain: “there’s nothin’ cold as ashes after the fire is gone.” That’s not only true of some marriages but also of too many elder-preacher-church relationships.

With good planning, prayer, and hard work, it can be a good, sad, and happy ending with even better days ahead.

What have you found helpful in planning for a good transition?

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Jerrie Barber
Disciple of Jesus, husband, grandfather, preacher, barefoot runner, ventriloquist

3 Responses to “When You Don’t Need an Interim

  • Dear Jerrie, I drove 75 miles every week to help a congregation. We built a larger building and they asked me to take over full time which meant to move. I turned down the job due to the moving situation and I am 72. I thought I was going to help another congregation and waited, but they became to small. Do you know of any congregation that give support to me while I keep looking. Not many congregations in this area. Love and Support.

  • Randy Travis
    6 years ago

    Even though I am no longer an Elder, I still enjoy the wisdom of your blogs. In my experience as a member, deacon, and elder, these are great guidelines to practice. Keep up the good work.

    • Jerrie W. Barber
      6 years ago


      Thank you for responding. I tell your root canal story often. I appreciate your encouragement.