The Role of an Interim Pastor


In my ministry I’ve had the privilege of serving as an interim pastor at ten churches. Those churches varied from 75 in attendance to 750. Some of the churches were in good shape, while others were in great turmoil. An interim pastor serves as the regular preacher at a church between the tenures of two pastors. My friend, Dr. Bill Whitaker once said to me, “You are really the interim preacher, not the interim pastor.” At some churches that was true; about all I did was preach regularly. However, at some churches I did counseling, consulting with committees, and some visiting in the community (on a limited basis).

I believe that when a church loses its pastor, the church should call an interim pastor. Usually, the interim pastor is a retired pastor, college/seminary professor, or denominational servant. I’ve known some churches that decided not to call an interim; rather, they just invited a different preacher each week. In those situations, the churches declined significantly. An interim pastor provides continuity and stability.

An interim pastor can help the church recover from hurts. Sometimes, a beloved pastor has died suddenly or left to go to another church. The members feel hurt and grief, and they need an interim who can help them process their grief and heal. Other churches have experienced a split, and they need both healing and reconstruction. One church I served split about a month before I was called to be the interim. At the first business meeting I attended, the church granted “letters” to 185 members who joined the break-away congregation. Now that will bless your heart! At that church, every church officer left except the WMU President. (I’m glad she did not leave. She was a good cook and often invited me for Sunday lunch.) So, we had to recreate the entire church organization—deacons, Sunday school, and everything., Of course, that took a while. Those members were angry, hurt, and confused. For sure, they needed help.

Many state Baptist conventions have an intentional interim program. This is a program for distressed churches. The interim pastors who serve in these programs have considerable education and experience, and the state convention trains them to help struggling churches. I have not received this training, but I’ve heard good things about it.

In some churches, the interim will find a situation, or situations, that need resolution before the next pastor comes. For example, a professor friend became the interim at a small church. The church had two men who served as ushers. One was living with a woman out of wedlock, and the other was a Mormon. He dealt with that swiftly. At a church I served, the deacons complained to me that the prospective pastors they interviewed all asked about the church’s vacation policy. They grumbled, “Bro. Smith never asked for a vacation.” So, I asked, “How many of you take a vacation each year?” They all raised their hands. I then inquired, “Don ‘t you think that does you some good?” They admitted that it did. At which I asked, “Don’t you think it might do the new pastor some good?” Actually, Bro. Smith did take a vacation each year; he just combined it with his trip to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. The interim pastor does not depend on the church for his primary income, so he can confront issues that beg for resolution.

When a church has had a pastor for many years, an interim can help the members adjust to the loss of the pastor and prepare the way for the new pastor. I believe it just takes folks some time to adjust to the loss of a pastor who served a long time. For example, it is common wisdom among Baptist preachers that you don’t want to be the pastor to follow a legend; you want to be the second pastor that follows him. A long interim can help alleviate that problem.

An interim pastor can also advise the pastor search committee. For example, at one of my churches the committee asked me about a couple of resumes they had received. The committee said, “We have never heard of these seminaries.” Well, there was a good reason why not. Two of the applicants had listed diploma mill seminaries—you know the ones where you send $100 and you get an Master of Divinity diploma back in the mail. I advised them to disregard those candidates and concentrate on candidates with real credentials.

I enjoyed serving as an interim pastor, and I believe I was able to help the churches I served. What has been your experience with interim pastors? Or, perhaps you have served as an interim pastor. Do you have any tales to tell?

Have You “Cleaned” Your Membership Rolls? (Mark Terry)

As ships pass through the water, they accumulate barnacles. The barnacles can grow to the point that they impede the ship’s speed considerably. Then, the ship must go to a dry dock, where the barnacles are scraped off. Church rolls are like that—they tend to accumulate inactive members who impede the church’s progress. Periodically, churches need to remove barnacle members from their church roll (list of members).

William Thornton and I are old enough to remember the time when most churches had two membership rolls: resident members and non-resident members. Today, some churches call these active and inactive members. I remember some years ago when the SBC admitted that while we had 16 million members on the rolls of our SBC churches, we could only find 9 million of these folks. What causes this problem? Actually, there are lots of “whats.” Members die, and no one in the family thinks to inform the church. Other members move away, and they do not join a church in their new place. Some folks join an independent church or a church of another denomination. SBC churches do not exchange “church letters” with those churches. So, the SBC church is unaware of these new affiliations. Still ,others lose interest in the church, and they just drop out.

Ok, there is a problem. What can be done about it? I was taught that a church should review its roll every five years. I doubt many churches perform a review that often, but for sure it should be done every ten years. How should a church go about doing this?

When I became pastor of the Bloomfield Baptist Church in Kentucky, I asked how long it had been since they reviewed the church roll. The members I asked said they could not remember the last time. So, I recommended to the deacons that we review the roll. They agreed, and the congregation approved the motion and elected a committee of three long-time members. They began the laborious process of working through the church roll. Of course, many members were both living in the community and involved in the church. Those were easy. The hard part was tracking down those who were not active. This tracking process involved lots of calling.

Bloomfield is a rural community, and most of the members are related to each other by blood or marriage. So, the committee called relatives to ascertain the member’s situation and contact information. As you would expect, the committee discovered that some of the inactive members had passed away. Others had joined other churches. Still ,others had retired to Florida. When they contacted the inactive members, the committee asked if they wished to remain on the church roll. Some did for sentimental reasons. “My family have always been members of that church.” Others readily agreed to having their names removed. By the end the process the committee had removed about two hundred names. The calls from the committee inspired a few to reengage with our church. By the end ,I believed the results were worth the effort.

What has been your experience with this? Do you have any advice for pastors with churches encumbered with barnacles?

How to Pray for Missionaries (Mark Terry)


The sad news I received yesterday (Ed note: this post came a few days ago) inspired this post. Here is an excerpt from a letter from David Platt to the IMB missionaries, staff and trustees, sent on Wednesday, March 14:

“It is with a heavy heart that I share this news. This morning (Wednesday, March 14), in the Democratic Republic of Congo, four colleagues in Africa were involved in an automobile accident: Randy and Kathy Arnett and Jeff and Barbara Singerman, along with a national driver named Jean Louis. Kathy Arnett was pronounced dead at the scene, and Randy Arnett was pronounced dead at the hospital in Kinshasa. Jeff Singerman has sustained injuries and is en route, with Barbara, to the hospital in Kinshasa from a clinic near the accident. Leadership on the field and in Richmond have been working on the situation. We wanted to let you know as soon as we could confirm that the families have been properly notified. Please pray for all involved in and affected by this situation….”

I knew Randy and Kathy Arnett well, and I’ve met the Singermans. All of these were/are IMB missionaries, who have served for many years in West Africa. Randy and Kathy Arnett in recent years served as the Theological Education Coordinator for the continent of Africa. Before that they served many years in the Ivory Coast and also as the Regional Leader for West Africa. Their tragic deaths have moved me to write about praying for missionaries. This is nothing new, of course. The Apostle Paul asked the believers in Colossae to pray for him: “meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak” (Col 4:3-4 NKJV). So, what and how should we pray for our foreign missionaries?

First, pray for their safety. Sure, we know that pastors and staff members are involved in auto accidents here in the United States, but driving in many countries overseas is much more dangerous. I taught one semester at the seminary in Ogbomosho, Nigeria. Every Tuesday morning in the seminary chapel service we had prayer for pastors and workers killed or injured in car crashes over the weekend. Whenever I had to make a car trip, the Nigerian professors would say, “I’ll pray for your safe journey.” Besides auto accidents, many of our missionaries serve in places that are rife with terrorists. In recent years we’ve lost missionaries to terrorist attacks in Yemen, Iraq, the Philippines, and Central Asia. We do well to pray a hedge of protection around our missionaries.

Second, we should pray for their health. In the 1800s the average career of a missionary in West Africa was three years. Most died or were sent home as invalids within three years. Dr. Ralph Winter called the missionaries who went to West Africa during that period “a suicidal stream.” They knew they were going to a dangerous place, yet they went out “for the sake of the Name.” Those missionaries shipped their belongings in coffins so a coffin would be readily available when they died of disease. When I taught at the Nigerian Baptist Seminary, I stayed in the Francis Jones Guest House. Francis Jones was a missionary from Kentucky, who died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1935. The Kentucky WMU raised the money to build the guest house in her memory. I walked past her tomb stone every day on my way to the seminary. I remarked about this to a Nigerian professor, and he replied, “Oh, yes, there are missionary cemeteries all around Ogbomosho.” When I went to Nigeria, I had to get eleven different vaccinations for tropical diseases. I was grateful for every injection. Modern vaccines have proved a great blessing for our missionaries, but tropical diseases still affect our workers. I’ve known missionaries who’ve suffered from typhoid, typhus, malaria, hepatitis, tropical sprue, not to mention all manner of digestive diseases.

  • We should pray for our missionaries’ health.
  • We should pray for their communication skills. This involves both language learning and contextualized communication. Of course, most missionaries must study language. Some languages (like Japanese and Chinese) are quite difficult and require years of study. Others (like Spanish and Indonesian) are not as hard. Some missionaries learn quickly, while others struggle mightily. Whatever the case, we should pray for new missionaries that they will learn to speak the language well. Beyond that, it is important for missionaries to learn to use the right form of communication. Adoniram Judson was the pioneer Baptist missionary to Burma. After he learned to speak the language, he began preaching to the Burmese, but he preached for several years with no response. Then, he studied how the Buddhist monks taught the Burmese. They sat on mats and taught conversationally, answering the people’s questions. So, he built a pavilion (a zayot) in front of his house. He began to sit there for several hours each day. The Burmese passing by found this strange and stopped to talk with him. In the first year that he used this communication form he baptized 19 people. Missionaries need to learn contextualized communication so they can proclaim the gospel in a culturally appropriate way.
  • We should pray that the Lord will protect our missionaries from spiritual warfare. In Ephesians 6 the Apostle Paul reminded his readers that he had wrestled against “principalities and powers.” Most of our missionaries now serve in the 10/40 Window, evangelizing Unreached People Groups. These folks live in territory where Satan holds sway, and he does not relinquish territory without a fight. I’ve heard many missionaries testify of oppression and persecution by evil spirits. Just because this is unfamiliar to you does not mean that it is unfamiliar to our missionaries. Again, we must pray a hedge of protection around our missionaries.

I do not have the space to write about praying for the missionaries’ family lives, devotional lives, discouragement, loneliness, and many others. However, our missionaries to struggle with stresses in all these areas of their lives.

How can we pray effectively? If you know a missionary personally, pray for that missionary regularly. I encourage every church to adopt a missionary and pray for that missionary or missionary family regularly. If you need help with this, the Prayer Office at the IMB will be glad to assist you. Of course, in our SBC devotional guide, “Open Window,” we have a list of our IMB and NAMB missionaries, listed by their birthdays. Many missionaries have experienced miracles on their birthdays because Southern Baptists prayed for them on their birthdays. We can’t all go as missionaries, but we can all pray.

My Approach to Missions Strategy

Dave Miller asked me to write this post. Full disclosure: I served as a missionary with the IMB for twenty-four years in Southeast Asia. I received a Ph.D. in missions from Southwestern Seminary. I’ve taught missions at Southwestern Seminary, Southern Baptist Seminary, and lately at Mid-America Baptist Seminary. For many years I’ve offered both a masters course and a Ph.D. seminar on missions strategy. At the end of the course, I share my convictions about missions strategy with my students. These are not all original with me. Dr. Cal Guy, my mentor, and professor at SWBTS taught me many of these. For these many years, I have tried to honor Dr. Guy by passing on to my students what I learned from him, though I do differ with him on some points. Of course, all these points could be expanded into a chapter in a book, and in fact, they have been. If points are not clear, I’ll try to clarify them in response to your comments.

  1. Strategy is no substitute for the power of the Holy Spirit. The apostles of the first century did fine, and they did not take my strategy course.
  2. Prayer is essential to the planning, preparing, and implementing of strategy.
  3. Your strategy should result in Kingdom growth. We are not seeking to just grow a denomination.
  4. Strategy should be holistic. That means our strategy should bless people spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Jesus came preaching and teaching, and He also healed and fed the people.
  5. Strategy must be based on sound research. Good research helps us develop good strategy and make informed strategic decisions.
  6. Effective strategy is results oriented. It results in measurable growth. Of course, growth in spiritual maturity is essential, but a good strategy will result in baptisms, churches, and church leaders that can be counted.
  7. Multiplication is the key concept. Our strategy must multiply believers faster than the population grows, or Christianity will constantly fall behind.
  8. The world will be won to Christ by means of church planting. This was the pattern of the early apostles. They fulfilled the Great Commission by planting churches.
  9. The church multiplies through new units. On the mission field, these are usually evangelistic Bible studies, normally in homes, that develop into house churches.
  10. Discipling and leadership training are the fuel that sustains church multiplication. Matthew 28:19 commands us to make “disciples,” not “converts.” Leaders for the new churches arise from the pool of disciples. If discipling and leadership training do not continue apace with evangelism and church starting, then the church planting will slow or even stop.
  11. Every strategy must be adapted. A strategy that works well in one culture will not necessarily work well in another, at least not without adaptation.
  12. Foreign missionaries must maintain an apostolic role and resist “pastoring.” Missionaries should imitate the Apostle Paul and engage in itinerant church planting.
  13. Local believers are the key to growth. The missionary must disciple them and train them to lead the new churches. They can win hundreds to Christ by witnessing to those in their social networks.
  14. Simple plans are best. With a complicated plan there is more that can go wrong.
  15. If your strategy depends on money, then you can only grow to the extent that funds are available. Many church planting strategies depend on an infusion of outside funds. These have inherent growth limitations. Indigenous church planting emphasizes planting churches that are self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating from the beginning. This was true of the churches the Apostle Paul planted.
  16. Make sure every method is reproducible. The missionary must ensure that everything done is done so simply that the local leaders can do it, also.
  17. There is no such thing as a “Golden Key.” A golden key is a strategy that will work anywhere and anytime. Cultures and situations vary so much around the world that different strategies are needed for different people groups. In other words, the missionary must “tailor make” a strategy for a specific people group.