Marcus Merritt, standing, leads transitional pastor training at the Missions and Ministry Center in Duluth in March 2019. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index
DULUTH — The space between pastors for a church can be full of anxiety. It’s a time when members and leaders anticipate who will be the next to occupy the pulpit, leading the congregation in its mission to evangelize and grow in discipleship.
But an understandable eagerness to find the next pastor can result in a shorter tenure. With ever-increasing ministry expectations as well as cultural changes in which churches minister, it’s helpful to develop a clear picture of where the church is and how God is leading it into the future. Those factors, say Georgia Baptist Mission Board leaders, point to a position that has grown in scope and importance.
“The role of the transitional pastor was unheard of 25 years ago,” said Mark Marshall, lead strategist for the Georgia Baptist Church Strengthening team.
Marshall served in various roles at LifeWay Christian Resources from 1997-2007. He noted how during that time a pattern emerged when it came to churches without a pastor.
“We saw a need as approximately 10% of our SBC churches are without a pastor at any one time,” he said. “We felt the rapid turnover in pastoral tenure could be slowed if churches used the time between pastors to intentionally work through a process to determine the best kind of leader they needed to call.”
The resulting training, he added, called for ministers to not just ‘fill in’ behind the pulpit until the next pastor emerged. The end goal is to prepare the church for a fruitful time of ministry.
On March 3-4, Transitional Pastor training will be held at the Missions and Ministry Center in Duluth. As of press time a few seats remained, said Church-Minister Relations catalyst Marcus Merritt.
The case of North Lanier
Merritt said that when churches learn about the role of a transitional pastor, many prefer it to an interim.
“Requests for them have grown as churches become more aware,” he said.
Most of the time, transitional pastors walk into a challenging situation. “The neighborhood around the church may have changed. Perhaps the congregation has grown older and now fewer people are in the pews. There could be high debt and a lack of funds. The church may be inwardly focused or divided. In the training we address these as well as the skills necessary to work through them,” Merritt stated.
He pointed to the testimony of North Lanier Baptist Church in Gainesville. As transitional pastor, longtime Georgia Baptist minister Carl Marshall (full disclosure: Mark’s dad) arrived there and soon established a strategic planning team.
“The purpose,” said one church member, “was for us to learn everything possible about the community God had called us to serve, the congregation that makes up our church, and the inner workings of our organization. It is impossible to express the value of this period of exploration and discovery.”
In that process, the church gained a greater understanding of its community. In-depth evaluations took place of its ministries, resources, missions, infrastructure, communications, and worship. Leadership development was analyzed.
“We got an honest look at what we did well and what we did poorly,” said the church member. “I praise God for the experience we have had with our transition pastor.”
Each situation unique
Mark Marshall has been a transitional pastor in eight churches. Since 2009, Merritt occupied the role – if not in name at least in practice – in 11 churches.
“Each church is unique, so my expectations were different with each one,” said Marshall. “One of the keys is to negotiate expectations with the church on the front end. This helps them understand what they can expect from the process. It also helped me know what to expect before we started.”
As one would anticipate, each church varies as to its needs and culture. Some are in a state of desperation. Others just need a clear picture of the vision unique to them and their community.
Attendees at next week’s training “can expect to learn a proven eight-step strategy that will help breathe life and health back into a congregation,” said Merritt.
At North Lanier, Carl Marshall’s leadership as transitional pastor led to a lot of changes. Completion of a covered entrance happened, though it had been planned decades ago. The welcome center and education building underwent renovation, as did student ministry space. A capital campaign paid off the mortgage, freeing up $10,000 each month for ministry. The elder Marshall, Merritt added, will be a part of next week’s training.
For more information on the training, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (770) 936-5364.