#2 – Telling the Time

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When a Pastor sees it’s Time to Move on…

Another great reason to pause between pastoral tenures is that, if the previous pastor left after a fruitful 10 years, say, still looking to the people like a silver bullet, the congregation may wish to replicate him/her.

But what if the outgoing pastor left because they felt that they had made their contribution and could see that a different kind of contribution would be required to meet the needs of the church’s next season? In that case replicating – or just getting a younger version of – the previous pastor would be to hobble the next stage of the journey.

Viewed another way, if the previous pastor arrived in 2008, then looking for another-pastor-the-same would be to recruit for the needs of 2008 and not the needs of 2018.

For these reasons it is helpful for the church to pause between pastors and allow an intentional interim to work with the people towards a new awareness of today’s needs, today’s missional environment, to ensure that today’s selection criteria match 2018 and not 2008.


When a Group’s Culture Shifts while its Values Stay the Same

Assessing the season in lives of the congregation’s members is another vital aspect of the kind of time-telling a pastoral search team needs to do. Perhaps in 2015 the congregation had 10 families who were pioneers, generators and leaders of ministry. 3 years later the newly married couple may now have a baby. The couple with one child may now have two and a baby. The family with young kids may now have teenagers with Sunday morning sport and three evenings a week booked for team commitments. The mum who was a teacher may now have the greater responsibility of a department leader etc. The leading elders may have now be off all the rosters as they follow the grey-nomad trail around Australia. For all those kinds of reasons people who were previously driving and generating ministries may now be either only semi-present or needing to receive ministry themselves!

The culture (meaning the patterns of behaviour) of the group has clearly shifted. Patterns of participation and attendance will have altered. The ministries those people previously generated may lose the collaborative, all-in-this-together, grassroots vibe and become more consumerized. But though the group’s culture may shift the probability is that the people’s values will have remained unaltered. This creates a dissonance. People will still want the collaborative family-feel they had before – even if they can’t continue to be the ones to generate it. This often means that the staff team, or in a smaller church the senior pastor, will now be looked to to generate a culture and vibe that previously was generated by 20 or 30 people.

puzzled looking Grant

In those kinds of ways the leadership and pastoral needs of the church can shift dramatically in a relatively short time. Such changes directly impact both the PD and selection criteria for any new pastor. So it’s important to have the measure of them. Not to take a moment to “tell the time” in that way, or simply to wheel out the PD from 3 years ago clearly is going to miss the mark.

If a search team reads the time wrong it will not only miscalculate how much leadership energy the new pastor can bank on from among the people – but will also misdiagnose what shape the new pattern of ministry will need to take.

Churches sometimes read the fall-off of corporate energy as a symptom of the concluding phase of a pastor’s tenure or as an affect of the interregnum between pastors. However the opposite is often the reality. Often it is as they sense participation-fatigue in the congregation that pastors make the call to conclude their tenure. Sometimes it’s that way round. And in reality, within the most common time-frame of a pastoral search, participation levels usually lift as members of the congregation pull together to get through and offer the healthiest environment for the new incumbent. So it is important to read the signs right.

If a church optimistically assumes that any participation-fatigue will simply fix itself when the hopeful new pastor arrives, it will be setting itself up for a significant disappointment – a disappointment it will be the new pastor’s job to communicate. Not the best way to begin a new chapter.


Telling the time is an exercise cannot be done by the new pastor – for all the same reasons outlined in my post on Naming Problems and Consensus Decision-making. It is a strategic moment to engage the services of an external consultant or intention interim. A healthy process can provide an accurate read of the environment in which the new pastor will need to operate. If this reading informs the congregation and the search team as they shape up PD and search criteria then they will have positioned themselves well to match the pastor to the new environment and help the congregation adjust to new expectations.

When congregations are invited into these kinds of conversations they can be remarkably perceptive and adaptive. Including the whole community in the assessment process – from the youngest to the oldest, and the newest to the longest standing – is a vital aspect of a “telling the time” exercise. It takes a bit of nerve. It means taking time to pause when people might prefer to “crack on!” And it may need a small number of facilitated congregational meetings. But in my experience it is an investment well worth the effort.