What Would Happen If…We Appointed Long-Term Pastors with Trained Interim Pastors at the Ready

I read with interest an article highlighted this week in the Harvard Business Review’s “Today’s Tip” on How to Succeed When Your Predecessor Was a Star. The author, Rebecca Zucker, states that new leaders should, “[not] try to take on [their] predecessor’s personality or leadership style.” Good advice. I have taken this advice once in my career as an ordained Elder in the UMC and it worked out great. The other time I took this advice, it was an unmitigated disaster!

How to follow a long-term pastor, often a “star”, has proven to be problematic for United Methodists. Our system of moving pastors from place to place in the itinerant system seems to work at odds with long-term pastorates. Many Bishops and District Superintendents are reluctant to allow pastors to stay long-term in one appointment since they may believe that the pastor who follows them will be ineffective, by comparison, “right out of the gate.” They judge it is easier to keep the pieces moving.

Our itinerant system has an inherit and fatal assumption in its midst. The assumption is that pastors under appointment are interchangeable and that churches are interchangeable. Most of our leaders would say that this assumption is not true. Yet, we move pastors from place to place often by circumstance rather than strategy. In all honesty, appointive cabinets play the cards they are dealt. In my experience, they do the very best they can do. They don’t get to pick the pastors they supervise any more than they do the congregations they oversee!

Our “big tent” form of Methodism has theologically conservative, centrist, and progressive congregations and pastors. We have churches and pastors that speak many different languages. Even within those language groups there is a great diversity in culture. This does not even take into consideration the varied congregational values and mores that shape their life together. Our churches and pastors reflect a deep and rich diversity that cannot simply be understood by race, location, or culture.

When a church and pastor make a good match within our appointive system, Bishops and their cabinets should seek ways to empower that church and its pastor for a long-term appointment. This long-term appointment could be consecrated in a covenant that lasts several years. This would alleviate the church and the pastor worrying if this is “the” year when they move. Covenants for long-term pastorates can lower that anxiety.

Study after study indicates that long-term pastorates make for healthier churches and pastors. Our churches and pastors are not interchangeable. When it is a good match, leave it be. Effective pastors and churches know they must reinvent their ministry with some frequency. Complacency within that relationship can be addressed with good supervision and support. These long-term relationships are the ONLY foundation where church multiplication can occur.

But, what about the question of succeeding one of these long-term pastors? Often, we are reluctant to have long-term pastors because we have no interim pastors. Having none, our system defaults toward a system of interchangeability of pastors and churches.

What happens when we equip two or three interim pastors in every district? We could invest deeply in their training for such settings and make them professional interims. When a long-term pastor moves or retires, one of these professional interim pastors serves a church for one, two, or even three years. By making these interims residential in each district, they are indemnified from uprooting their household to relocate. They simply commute to the church they are serving as an interim.

During this interim tenure the congregation can grieve the loss of an effective leader, staff members are allowed to churn, and the interim can help a congregation prepare for their next leader. Even more radically, the Bishop and Cabinet can work with the interim to prepare the congregation for their new pastor who is identified a year or even two in advance.

Several challenges to this form of appointment making are easy to see. First, how many pastors do we have that could be one of these long-term pastors? How do we combat the idolatry of pastors moving up the ladder to larger and larger churches (and higher salary?) Who would be called to be an interim pastor? How do we develop deep lay leadership so that congregations are not so centered around their pastors?

These are all good questions that we cannot answer unless we begin to live into new and innovative ways of making pastoral appointments. What we do know is that our current system, built on the assumption of interchangeability, is failing us. We need not become congregationalists to address our appointment issues. We do need to discard guaranteed appointments for Elders and cease our practices that support the best clergy entitlement system around. The church cannot be centered on its clergy. It must re-center itself on building the ministry and witness of the local church. Long-term pastors who disciple and equip the laity are one step in that direction.


  1. I heartily agree! We were blessed to serve one church for 12 years and it flourished, grateful for such stability, for the first time in over 100 years.

  2. Craig, I agree. When in seminary I found an incredible book by Thom S Ranier that studied, I think, 30,000 churches and what were the key factors if those churches that broke through major barriers and grew from one size to a much larger, healthy church that can transform their community. The book “Breakout Churches” was based on “From Good to Great” and took the concepts and translated them to the church.
    One of the key factors they discovered was longer term tenures. It pointed out that it usually isn’t until between years 5-7 when the church hits a crises, the oh …. moment when their is a real opportunity for change. It’s out if there conflict in those years that if there pastor doesn’t panic, but works through it, that the church begins to have a culture change and the opportunity to break through. I preached that at tree end of year one in San Bernardino and in year 5 there was a huge conflict, I reminded the leadership team of what I had said in year 1, we brought the Lombard Mennonite peace center in to lead a 9 month mediation process and coming out the other side were were much healthier. I had invited members of the 7 other churches in the area to the training sessions. That then allowed us to begin the merger process. It was 2 years later in year 8 of mmt ministry there that we were able to merge the 7 churches of San Bernardino into New Beginnings UMC, a three campus, multi-generation, multi-language church.

    • David,
      Great to hear from you. That pivot moment in the life of the church came at several instances for me. once after three years and in another never. It is as if the congregation is asking if you will love them. It is an honor to be present in that moment. If the Bishop and cabinet don’t allow pastors to stay long-term, the congregation often knows it can simply wait out the pastor and change seldom comes. Be well and blessed in these challenging days.

  3. Craig,

    I’m afraid I was unaware of your blog until you announced you are leaving. This particular post is something I’ve been thinking for many years. We have many trained interim pastors in the UMC already (including me) and this is one of two potential fixes to the problem of having too many short-term pastorates. I’ll get to the other one in a moment.

    I believe that pastorates should typically be in the 10-15 year range. One idea I read about suggested that a forty-year ministry should consist of two 19-year appointments with service as a two-year interim in between. However, not everyone has the temperment to serve as an interim. A better idea may be a two year paid sabbatical in which the pastor re-assesses his or her ministry, gains additional training, and does some discernment about how his or her call has changed, re-tooling for the second half of a long career.

    The other way of dealing with long-term appointments is by actually treating Circuits as Circuits, and not simply collections of congregations. Appoint the pastors as a team to be in ministry within a particular geographic area, such as, in the case of my current Circuit, East and Central San Jose. I have a lot more to say about this, but that’s enough for now.

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