In a morning worship service you have just heard your minister communicate to the congregation his acceptance of a call received from another congregation. As a serving elder you were aware of this situation and, with your fellow elders, you have to face a unique situation and decide what needs to be done and in what order of priority. The congregation is looking for your leadership and your direction.
Each vacancy is unique, and there are other reasons than a normal call and acceptance for it to occur. Among the causes are emeritization, a new church being organized, or the removal of a minister for cause. The aspects covered in this article are intended to be generally helpful but may even be harmful in some situations. The elders need to agree on what is needed and who is going to do what needs doing in your own situation. Pray early and often that the Lord will provide a new pastor quickly and that he will protect and nurture the flock under your care at this time.
Review the membership of the church and give some special care to those who come from outside of the Reformed tradition. Today the independent evangelical church is often defined by a cult of the leader. A man with gifts starts a church and draws large numbers, sets policy, conducts worship as he sees fit, hires staff, and, of course, remains with what he has made and often passes it on, just like a business, to his children. A woman in a church I served came to me distraught after hearing that the minister was leaving. What had he done, did he no longer love us, what will we do? A time of teaching will need to happen.
A few guiding principles should factor into most situations of vacancy.
1. Vacancy should be short, and vacancy is always something to be solved quickly. The council should agree that this is not a time to sit back and weigh options, to get a long-term interim pastor to fill the pulpit, or to save some money. Vacancy is not good.
2. Assist in every way you can the process involved in your current pastor taking up his new charge as quickly and smoothly as possible. His call, his heart, and his thoughts are now there. Get him there. Work with his new council in this matter.
3. Get an ordained, experienced pastoral counselor to advise you on issues of vacancy and calling. This is a practice from the past that has fallen on hard times as we strive to do it alone and to make up our own mind on so many things. A minister will give invaluable advice. In this day of good long-distance communication, asking for advice presents little burden.
4. Meet as soon as possible to appoint a committee to search for a man. Even if the elders choose to delegate some of this function outside the council, you must set clear rules and steps to be followed.
Item number one should be the needs of the congregation and who is going to meet those needs. This takes an honest appraisal of the abilities and resources of the consistory (session), the council, and the congregation. Who is going to preach the Word and lead worship? Who will lead the Bible studies and classes the former pastor taught? Who will visit the sick and shut-in? These issues are top priorities.
Is local pulpit supply available? If not, can the church handle the costs of obtaining men to fill the pulpit from a distance every Sunday? A stated supply situation could be sought immediately from an ordained man (less work for the elders) or a graduated candidate for the ministry (more work for the elders). The advantages of supply are many: some familiarity with the congregation and its needs can develop, an ordained man could also serve as a counselor in the calling process, and he could help with visiting, teaching, and special worship and family services. As mentioned above, a stated supply situation should never be allowed to reduce the urgency of the calling process.
If you are blessed to be in an area that offers seminary students, professors, emeriti, or churches of the denomination or federation that are near, please take a few additional steps to offer continuity and to show your leadership to the congregation. With a different man in the pulpit each week, appoint an elder by rotation to introduce the man with a few words of welcome and background along with a handshake of trust and confirmation. Whether it has been your normal practice or not, consider making any announcements via that elder as well. This practice is appreciated by all your guest pastors because, young or veteran, they have enough going on already. Another step to consider would be an elder offering the congregational prayer. If the elders are shouldering the pastoral care of the members they know the needs, and they know those in need, far better than a guest. Consider the preference of your guest pastor, but most if not all will appreciate the efficacy of this practice.
The elders are called to be in prayer for the church in Scripture (1 Tim. 2; James 5) and in the URCNA Church Order. In these days many of the well-intentioned shepherding acts of the elders are labeled as meddling or attempts to clean up the books, the pastoral and family visits of the elders are even considered of lesser value than those of the pastor. If we are seen to be publicly praying for our people and their trials and illnesses, our love is clearly seen and our effectiveness will be enhanced. Consider this practice in your congregations, vacant or not.
Beginning the Search
If you have addressed the immediate needs of the church, begin the search for a new shepherd immediately. Do have special meeting(s) of the church leaders and discuss the current needs of the congregation. In this process, consider honestly your own capacity and skills in the offices to which you are called. Answer through consensus basic questions about experienced/fresh out of seminary, the need for polished pastoral skills, the need for teaching and leading Bible studies, counseling experience, leadership skills, mentoring skills if you have men studying for the ministry, and so much more. The other aspect is honesty about the congregation and their expectations of a pastor; have they the patience for the period required for a young man to find his feet?
At times this can be the point where material and other concerns begin to cloud our judgment. A young man fresh out of seminary can be a bargain: fewer and younger children can spell a lower salary, lower-cost housing, Christian education, even insurance costs. In addition, he has not picked up his own way of doing things—we can mold him . . . Do not go there unless you have the abilities and the means to nurture and fill in the gaps while you teach a young man in his life’s calling. Seminary does not make a finished product, and elders who think so do the man and their congregation harm if they throw him the keys and then sit back to judge performance. If you cannot provide this, find an experienced man.
The result of this process should be an agreement on what is needed. Asking the congregation for suggestions of suitable men, leaving it all to an appointed search committee, sending out a questionnaire, making “informal” individual enquiries and other common practices today create a search into which personal opinion can easily creep in. Elder or session control begins with agreement on what is needed.
It is also easy to make this a subjective employment search: a “help wanted” ad in the denominational paper, sending a questionnaire to all the possible persons, networking. It is not that for several vital reasons.
One aspect of a pastoral search undeniably makes an unordained candidate very appealing. He needs a call and needs only to consider whether this is the right one. The ordained pastor serving a congregation is considering much more, and so must you as you consider how to go about this. A useful perspective to keep in mind is that you are trying to have an affair with a married man. As outrageous as this seems, it is a useful metaphor. The minister in whom you have some interest has a call. His relationship with his current congregation has many aspects, but it is the most important relationship after his love for the Lord and, if married, his love for his wife. The relationship with his church is defined by his relationship to the church elders or session.
He can consider a call only if allowed to by these men. Start your enquiry with them. Let his elders know you have an interest and would like to visit to hear him and speak with him. If he is not free to consider a call, they will tell you, and it is over. If you go further, starting an e-mail dialogue, sending a questionnaire, making a visit, and then finding out he is not free to consider your call, you have wasted your time, none of which you have to waste. Your formal inquiry to the clerk will get it on the table in his current church. If you send him an e-mail and ask if he would consider a call he is free to choose. If you send an inquiry to the elders they are free to offer counsel to him, even to recommend that he proceed if it is best for him and the church. Yes, elders, at times a change is good for your man and for your church. Not all men are built for ten- or fifteen-year pastorates. If you cannot have these kinds of meaningful conversations about his ministry and the health of the church in open meeting with your pastor, you should.
If you receive approval, you go to him. He is married and not free to date you for a weekend. To ask for a weekend off, arrange pulpit supply and someone to teach his class in order to go elsewhere is awkward. To learn about him, hear him on his own turf, in his own pulpit, and see how he deals with his situation and those under his care.
Suppose that he seems like a good possibility, you have a clear path from his current elders, and he meets the agreed-upon congregational needs. Why should you keep looking? Is a duo or trio desirable? I will go out on a limb again in this article and say yes, in almost all cases. Give the congregation a choice of qualified men given the need for careful and considered haste. The next steps toward a congregational meeting and letter of call can vary. One last thorny issue is always the letter of call and the “package.” After the congregation has voted to call, do all you can to avoid a negotiation process. The package is not a job offer and should not be a part of the congregational meeting. Ask him what he needs for his family: housing, down payment, schooling, insurance, pension, moving costs, and then offer it. If it varies from the annual budget, make the extra need known or handle it on the next budget.
This article is to a degree an opinion piece and is certainly anecdotal, but it goes to doing our work as elders decently and in good order. Your situation may have other factors that call for other measures, but always be guided by consideration and openness.
Mr. Martin Nuiver is a member of Faith URC, Beecher, IL, where he serves as an elder and the clerk.