Every pastor knows they will hear this question: “What is God’s vision for our church?” Or, it might be stated a little differently, like, “What are we supposed to be doing? What is God’s will for our church?” These questions will be asked either during an interview with a search committee, or right after the pastor arrives new to a church, or both.
Many pastoral candidates have a ready answer. They have gone to a seminary class, or they have attended a leadership seminar, or they have read a book, and they have a specific image in their mind of what a church—every church—should look like. Unfortunately, those pastors’ plans often have nothing to do with the reality of the church at hand. Even when the church initially supports the pastor’s vision, when it is time for action, pastors hear:
That won’t work here.
We tried it already, and it didn’t work.
If you knew us, you wouldn’t have even suggested that.
It is often at this juncture that a pastor leaves for another church, only to try the same vision on the next church. Otherwise, the pastor stays and relationships begin to get strained. This scenario is a very common cause of church conflict.
Why doesn’t this pastor-driven approach work? After all, isn’t it the pastor’s job to figure out what the vision is? Could it be that most pastors are on the introverted side of the personality spectrum? Could it be that more than 80 to 90 percent of pastors cannot pull off implementing a vision by the power of their personality and giftedness? Could it be that, in a volunteer organization, telling people what to do doesn’t work? Could it be the Bible offers another way?
When working with a pastor on this approach, I ask, “If the priesthood of the believer is biblical, and if it is a core value in a church, then why can’t the whole congregation work on discovering a vision—even when there is not an installed pastor?”
Just think, if a pastorless church could discover their vision, that vision could become part of their pastor profile. This clear profile would help the church call the right pastor because that candidate would already feel the same call from God as the congregation.
In this approach, the visioning process begins with the church body. Through surveys, small group meetings and/or town hall meetings, the church members would gather their thoughts and dreams. Over time, the Transition Team would gather and process the collection of ideas and dreams. The team would begin to shape them into possibilities. Back and forth, the dialogue would continue in the congregation, using a spiritual process, until the church united around a specific focus that creates a passionate commitment by a sizeable portion of the church
When compared to the pastor-driven approach, the church-wide approach is harder and longer. The inclusive approach also has its share of pitfalls, but the process is biblical and Baptist. It puts the priesthood of the believer into practice. This church-wide option is likely to lead to a church vision that doesn’t fall apart just because the pastor leaves. In fact, maybe pastors wouldn’t leave so quickly because the church said “no” to their singular vision. Instead, maybe pastors would stay longer as they helped their churches fine-tune the dream and continue together in a mutually-affirmed journey.
Imagine a new scenario. What if a search team asked, “What do you think this church ought to be doing?” And what if they accepted a pastoral candidate’s unexpected answer. “I don’t know. But I’d love the chance to lead this church in asking that question, and finding the answer, together.”
Thank you very much, welcome to the Late Show, this is our first show on the air since New York and Washington were attacked, and I need to ask your patience and indulgence because I want to say a few things. And believe me, sadly, I’m not going to say anything new. And in the past week, others have said what I will be saying, here tonight, far more eloquently than I’m equipped to do. But if we are going to continue to do shows, I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes [emphasis added] and so that’s what I’m going to do here. [September 17, 2001, New York City, NY, USA]
And then, for five-and-a-half more minutes, David Letterman poured his heart out about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The New “Post-Event Trauma”
We are entering a new post-9/11-type moment in history. According to Barna, church members are flocking back in droves to attend church in person. What Dave got to do in his special monologue, plus the rest of the show with Dan Rather, was good for his psyche. It was welcomed by his viewers. But when I was reminded of that Late Night episode this week, I snapped to attention and thought, “That’s what our church members are going to need. They need ‘to hear themselves talk for a couple of minutes.’”
Have you considered how your church will handle it? “Welcome back! It’s good to see everyone again. Doesn’t this feel good?”—may not be enough. Your speaking from the pulpit, on behalf of your congregation, will be necessary and helpful. But it won’t be enough.
Each person, not just the leader, needs a chance to verbalize what they have experienced—a type of debriefing. And they need to be able to do so in a safe and holy environment.
As a modest proposal, I would suggest that local congregations consider a post-pandemic ritual. We all need a service of reflection or a special gathering to remember what we have been through. Historically, churches have rung bells, or lit candles, to observe special moments. We might also have participated in the more casual burning (or shredding) of our written confessions. What would be something that would allow your members to share, to vent, to mourn, to celebrate, to hold each other up, and to do it in a corporate manner?
· Maybe not in a single service, but over time, at the start of each Sunday morning service, let a few people come forward and ring a special bell. Before, or after, ringing the bell, each person could share a short statement of what they experienced—good or bad. From the praise of “Everyone in my family kept their jobs” to the grief of “We all got sick, and my wife passed away.” Eventually, those returning for their first time to be back physically might be the ones ringing the bell.
· A special song service could include members (some or all) coming one-at-a-time to the altar with a pre-prepared placard, sometimes called “Cardboard Testimonies.” The written words could span the emotions from “My husband found Christ during the Pandemic” to “We are still grieving deeply in the loss of my mom.”
· There could be separate services for grieving and rejoicing, or a single service could start with the painful and end with the joyful. In some churches, it might be okay to allow folks to mix their responses randomly. This could be done in lieu of a singing/preaching service.
· Paint one of the walls in fellowship hall with “dry eraser paint.” During a directed time, let members write, or draw, on the wall. They could express their pain and/or their joy. Different color markers could be used for different emotions. Positive and negative memories could be mixed or grouped. As one writes, or later after everyone has gone, give each person a chance to explain what they wrote or drew. Cover the whole wall.
o In larger congregations, where allowing everyone to speak would be impossible, seat everyone in a small table group with a prepared table leader. Let each person share out loud with their group.
o Eventually, the wall could be erased as the church moves on. On the other hand, a clear coating could be painted over the wall to preserve it for however long desired. Perhaps an artist could create a giant work of art, a mural, by adding finishing touches later to the wall.
· Some people might want/need to voice their experience, but they just can’t. The emotions will be too much. Allow someone to speak for them.
· There could be people who would make a mockery of pain that is expressed. If you have such people, you know who they are. The announcements you make, and the tone of the service, ought to take care of that issue. But if not, be prepared to address those people before, during, and even after the service.
· We do not need to be 100% past the pandemic. Keep up with the latest science and proceed as it feels right in your situation.
· You may need to do it again! The Polio Vaccine story makes today’s story feel like déjà vu. An effective vaccine took several years to reach a large minority who ignored the science or believed unfounded rumors. Time your observation for what seems right to your folks, which may have nothing to do with when we achieve true herd immunity.
Every church is different, so plan such a service with many voices contributing to the planning and thinking through the cautions. It may be a Sunday morning is the best time, or it may be better to have it in a special extraordinary venue, even with a giant pot-luck dinner—when it’s wise and safe to do so again. When your leadership thinks it’s the right time, move out!
On Thursday, November 12, 2020, Dr. G. Dean Dickens became the 12th annual recipient of the Maples, Williamson, Daehnert Award as the Texas Baptist Interim Minister of the Year. The award, a perpetually spinning globe, represents his world travels around the planet Earth and his life of multinational ministry.
Dr. Dickens has served Baptist churches during the interim period at First Baptist Church in Texas City, Audubon Park Baptist Church in Garland, Agape Baptist Church in Fort Worth, and South Garland Baptist Church in Garland. His interim ministry has helped churches following extremely challenging situations. These circumstances include grief, conflict, financial crisis, and the need for new direction. Dr. Dickens previously served as a pastor, church starter, missionary, and professor.
Joining Dean for the virtual meeting and presentation was his wife, and co-minister in every place of service, Karr La Dickens. They have been married for 50 years.
As part of the virtual award event, an annual Fall Update was held. Interim pastors obtain continuing education at the bi-annual meetings. Dean spoke on: “Preaching in Covid’s Grip.” He asked the interim pastors’ group, “What adjustments are you making for more effective pastoral preaching during these stressful pandemic days?” For instance, did each SPEAKER have a ministry peer they could share with about all-too-common confrontations? Battles are being started over whether a church should open or not, or if a sermon on ethics was too political (when it was just biblical). Pastors need peer support. He asked, “Does your MESSAGE address the needs of the day?” Common needs during the pandemic include the loss of income, jobs, health, or family time. Dean concluded by asking, “Are your LISTENERS given an opportunity for a tangible response?” A scrolling banner inviting online attendees to call the church about their needs, with live responders available after service times, was one suggestion to show “we care.”
The MWD Award was originally presented to its namesakes: Dick Maples, Charles Lee Williamson, and Jan Daehnert. These men brought the vision for a specialized interim ministry to the BGCT. Also previously receiving the award are: Wallace Watkins, James McGlothlin, Nolan Duck, Les Robinson, Fred Meeks, Jimmy McLeod, Skip McNeal, Dwight Reagan, Levi Price, and Rusty Walton.
The award reflects accumulative service, as all these men have helped multiple churches through difficult interim periods, excelled in peer reviews of their Intentional Interim Ministries, and provided additional leadership for the Interim Ministry Network of the BGCT.
Congratulations to all these, the best of the best, and to the 2020 MWD Award winner, Dean Dickens.
Three stages in a pastor’s life, when difficult choices must be considered: the interview process, when being attacked by a small group, and when approaching retirement (or any time ministry no longer works). A blog from B. H. Carroll Theological Institute.
In Part I, we looked at how a bad match between a prospective pastor and church should stop the call process before taking both parties down.In Part II, we examined how a seemingly stable pastorate can be destroyed by a small group attacking the pastor. This is especially true when the attack is kept secret by the pastor, who asks for no help from mentors, denominational resources, or (especially) church lay leaders.
Twenty years ago, I was introduced to a common problem for pastors who followed a beloved, long-tenured pastor. The new pastor usually turned out to be an “unintentional interim” because there was no way the new pastor could measure up to the former pastor. “That’s not how Rev. ______ did it,” members would grumble.
New vision was snuffed out; changes in pastoral duties were not tolerated. The failure to let go of the old pastor and accept the new was especially true when the former pastor stayed attached to the church. After a short tenure, the new pastor would become a ministry fatality, leaving ministry for life and leaving the church in turmoil.
Today, I recognize this scenario is still alive and well. However, there’s another likely scenario that is just as common—if not more common—following long-tenured pastors.
Pastor Bentley experienced a decade of success. Loved, followed and trusted, the congregation became more and more like Pastor Bentley in its personality and practice. Unfortunately, what worked in the beginning, what GREW the church originally, quit working after 10 years. The gradual decline went unnoticed for about five years. Then, the church spent another five grumbling and wondering why.
Younger families had left; the church had grown older. Under the surface, everyone knew the church and pastor both needed a fresh start. However, the pastor was by then approaching retirement age and feared unemployment and loss of income. “No one would call someone my age to be pastor,” Bentley reflected—likely a true observation—so resigning was off the table.
What did change was that Bentley began to slack off, thinking, “I’ll just keep working at half-pace until they fire me.” Still, no one said a word. No one wanted to hurt their beloved pastor’s feelings. The slow, annual rate of decline increased until a church that once ran 300-plus dropped to 125, and was soon counting only 50 senior citizens on an average Sunday morning.
Finally, a small group of leaders asked (or rather, demanded semi-nicely) the pastor retire. The pastor did, with whispers about being “forced out.” With the horrific decline now attached to conflict over the pastor’s departure, the church found itself beyond desperation. It would take a miracle for it to recover. In fact, most outside observers would declare, “The church died long ago. It just hasn’t been buried.”
This scenario’s name is “Legion,” for there are many, many, many churches in this state.
In this case, the lay leaders were right and wrong. They were right to call for change; they were wrong to have waited so long.
The third lesson: As painful and scary as it may seem, if a time comes when you have given up, then … give up. Pray. Get counseling from an honest and impartial source—not a friend. Trust the Lord. It’s time to find another job. There’s nothing shameful about secular work. Your church is made up of people involved in just that. Or, find a new call that matches your abilities and energy level. It’s amazing how a new start can re-energize a pastor! Or, maybe it’s a combination of the two—part-time secular and part-time ministry employment. Indicators say this is the growing area of future ministry. But for the sake of your church, let them try something new before it’s too late to change course.
News Flash: One doesn’t have to be a long-tenured pastor for the above scenario to take place. Sometimes, it just isn’t working and can’t be fixed.
While weddings have changed a lot over the decades, one thing has stayed true–Summers are a great time to get married (unless it’s an outside ceremony in Texas). Congratulations to Randy and Nancy Sprinkle on their 50th Wedding Anniversary this month. Randy was the visionary and founder of a partnership, between Texas and New England Baptists, for training and placing interim pastors in New England.
The Sprinkles are now retired and in Colorado, to be close to some of their family (think GRANDKIDS!). They are greatly missed. Nevertheless, their legacy of faith and faithfulness is celebrated–as is this wonderful event. God’s continued blessings on the Sprinkles!
Another of our interim pastor couples, Dean and Karr La Dickens, also just celebrated the big FIVE-O. Together, they have previously served in missionary, academic, and pastoral settings. They still travel to the Philippines, to lead conferences, one of which is named for Dean. The Dickens make a great interim ministry team, too, like at South Garland Baptist Church, where they just finished up. Our heartfelt congratulations to Dean and Karr La Dickens, with our prayers for God’s continued blessings!
As I reflect on these two wonderful couples, I’m deeply impressed by what they represent regarding our interim pastors. Yes, we have interim pastors who haven’t reached retirement age. However, many of our interim pastors are retirees. They come with a strong calling from God, with energy and passion for the local church, and with extra wisdom that comes from seasons of ministry experience. I’m blessed, every day, to rub elbows with these gifted servants of God.
In our circles of Texas Baptist interim pastors, most of us have known Linn Self as an interim pastor par excellence for his “temporary shepherding” of eleven churches. Of course, he had a vital ministry before this, which included serving four churches as their installed pastor. Then, he followed a new calling into theological education. Linn served as the president of the South Texas School of Christian Studies for almost a decade. The school, recently renamed Stark College and Seminary, honored Linn with an annual lecture named in his honor. Now, they honor him again with his serving as this year’s commencement speaker on May 13, 2019. During the graduation services, Linn will receive his own well-deserved honorary doctorate. Congratulations to Dr. B. Linn Self. The BGCT’s Interim Ministry Network is blessed to call him one of our own!
Just a short note to say again how much I value these sessions. I find your classes to be head and shoulders above anything that I have experienced before. This is the “real deal” in my view. Thanks for your friendship and most of all for your investment in helping the “Church” to be healthy. John Crandall, Saddleback Church... Read More →
I am writing this letter to share my thoughts on the Intentional Interim process our church has journeyed through over the past couple of years. Honestly, this was one of the best experiences in the organized church I have ever been through. I did not grow up in the church but became a Christian in school my freshman year at Baylor University. I have been a member of several churches over the years through my life experiences as well as moves. I... Read More →
I understand very well your situation and empathize with your church members who question the need for and the value of the Intentional Interim Ministry process. I had never heard of the IIM until it was recommended to our church by a couple of members and by our D.O.M. A little background may be worth knowing about FBC. Ours has been a stable, flagship church for our town and for our association for many years. It is over 160 years old, and has... Read More →