After spending 20 years as the bivocational pastor of a small church and the past 13 years as a leader in our judicatory often working with smaller churches I have decided the most critical time in the life of a small church is the time they spend between pastors. This is a time that should be spent in reflection as they review their history and look towards the future. It is a time to discern a fresh vision from God regarding their future ministry. The selection of their next pastor is a critical decision that will largely determine whether or not that vision is fulfilled, and the person they call will shape their congregation for good or bad for years to come. Unfortunately, many churches do not use this time wisely and end up calling someone who is not a good fit for their church and/or does not have the gifts to lead their church towards their God-given vision.
Some smaller churches cannot stand to not have a pastor. Their attitude seems to be that most people wouldn't want to come to their church so they will take the first person who shows an interest. This usually does not end well for the church. Sadly, many of these churches do not learn from their mistake, and when they begin the search for their next pastor they take the same approach...and they continue their downward spiral.
I have worked with some smaller churches that are unwilling to spend the money for a quality interim pastor who can help them become better prepared to call a pastor. These churches view the interim time as an opportunity to build up their financial coffers. They look for someone willing to preach for little salary so they can replenish their bank account. As a result they lose the opportunity to have someone lead the reflection they need before calling a new pastor. A good interim minister will have some skills that can be very valuable to a church in a pastoral transition, and these folks should be used as often as possible.
Some of these churches really do not want a pastor, or at least one who will provide leadership to the church. These churches want a chaplain who will care for the flock. They simply want someone to preach on Sundays, visit people in the hospital, and perform weddings and funerals. A problem arises when the number of funerals continues to increase much faster than the number of weddings.
Everything rises and falls on leadership. No church can be any healthier than its leadership, and this includes both pastoral and lay leadership. A church will not be healthy and growing if it does not have a healthy, growing pastor who is willing and able to provide leadership to the church, and the church is willing to follow that leadership.
Equally important is that the pastor is a good cultural and spiritual match to the congregation. I have seen too many short-term pastorates because the pastor and the congregation were not a good fit. There is little excuse for this if the church has done proper reflection and has performed a quality search. Smaller churches cannot afford short-term pastorates if they want to go to a higher level of ministry which makes this search process even more critical.
A final mistake I'll mention in this post is that some smaller churches fail to utilize the services of their judicatories. Our region offers the services of our Resource Ministers to assist our churches in their pastoral searches, but some of our smaller churches refuse to use that assistance. I'll be the first to admit that it is often not easy to find quality persons to serve in some smaller churches, but we do have some resources at our disposal that can help that process. We have a process that we can give our churches to help them through the time of reflection, and we have persons who can provide quality interim ministry during the search process that we can recommend. Call your judicatory and ask what resources they have available, and use them.
Remember - you are better off without a pastor than to call the wrong person to be your next pastor. The search process may take longer than you would like, but if results in a better match it will be well worth the wait.