#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, the congregation will probably 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 2011, then looking for another-pastor-the-same would be to recruit for the needs of 2011 and not for the very different landscape of 2021.

For these reasons it is helpful for a church to pause between pastors and allow an Intentional Interim to work with the people towards a keener awareness of today’s pastoral and missional environment, and so align the selection criteria to 2021 and not 2011.



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.

In 2016 Riverside Family Church had 10 core families in its number who were pioneers, generators and leaders of ministry. The couple newly married in 2016 now has a baby. The couple with one child in 2016 now has two plus a new baby. The parents who in 2016 had young kids is now responsible for teenagers with Sunday morning sport fixtures and three evenings a week booked for team commitments. The mum who in 2016 was a classroom 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, holidaying around Australia “spending their kid’s inheritance!”

For all those kinds of reasons people who were previously driving and generating ministries, and who still love and identify with the church, may now be frequently absent, only semi-present when they do attend and/or needing to receive ministry themselves!

Clearly the culture (meaning the patterns of behaviour) of Riverside Family Church has shifted. Patterns of participation and attendance have altered. The ministries the core people previously generated have lost the collaborative, all-in-this-together, grassroots vibe and have become more consumerized. However even though the congregation’s culture has shifted the people’s values have actually remained unaltered. The people of Riverside Family Church love the “grassroots, amateur, all in this together” kind of vibe and are ill at ease with more consumerized or staff-led ministries. So there is a dissonance.

The 10 core families long for the collaborative family-feel they had enjoyed before – even if they can no longer be the ones to generate it. They now look to the small staff team to create an energetic environment that in 2016 was generated by 20 or 30 people.

puzzled looking Grant

The story of Riverside Family Church illustrates how the leadership and pastoral needs of the church can shift very dramatically in a very 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.



What season is it in your church’s life-cycle?

To recruit successfully a church will need to have a good gauge if what cycle of life it is in. With a high participation rate it maybe in a growth cycle. In a season of maturation it maybe in a stall or a decline in terms of numbers or participation. In a later season of maturation members may find themselves with more time and energy on their hands to participate, others may join the grey nomadic lifestyle and pillars of previous generations may step back.

These changes impact what ministries are retained or started and how they are led. They also impact the financial needs of the church – and therefore the new pastor’s remit. More than once I have been invited into churches which  used deficit financing to fuel growth. Each year a deficit would be budgeted for, offset by anticipated growth. In a church that I was involved in planting we financed growth that way for five years in a row. Successfully. A certain kind of pioneering leadership is required for that season. On the other hand if a church is using deficit financing during an extended period of decline it will push itself into even deeper trouble. If the church’s debts exceed the value of is assets the trouble may be terminal.

On two occasions I have been invited into churches which have been on such a downward curve, trying to maintain a large paid staff on the basis of income levels 7-10 years out of date. They had got used to deficit financing during their growth phase but had not undertaken an exercise of “telling the time” to notice that their church operations were now in an extended period of decline. The decline was not obvious from the pews because in each case attendance was stable. What was declining was participation and income. It is the task of the board to observe these trends and invite a process that will bring the congregation into such an awareness. This enables the search team and the congregation to get on the same page in terms of envisioning the new pastor’s job and the needs of the church, moving forward.



Telling the time is an exercise that is not best done by the new pastor – for all the same reasons outlined in my post on Naming Problems and Consensus Decision-making. Some denominations employ Archdeacons, or District Superintendents to do this work with congregations during an interim period. If it is not part of the culture of your network or denomination it is a strategic moment for your church Board to step up and engage the services of an external consultant or Intention Interim.

A healthy process will provide your church with an accurate read of the environment in which your new pastor will be operating.

If an accurate telling of the time informs the congregation and the search team as they shape up PD and search criteria then you will have positioned your church 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 are usually 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.