by Louis Ondracek.

At a fellowship meeting in the Seattle area nearly two years ago, a pastor friend greeted me with “I hear you’re the interim pastor in Bellingham. That’s good – there are times I wish that’s what I was doing.”

“And why is that?” I asked.

“Easy to answer,” he replied. “You preach once a week, hold a funeral or two, pray for a few people, and the work’s done. No need to deal with sensitive issues or problems; you leave them for the next guy. You’re the nice fellow with little demands or responsibilities.”

Well, actually, there’s quite a bit more to interim pastoring than that.

Living Hope Fellowship in Bellingham had lost their pastor in an automobile accident six months before I arrived. The congregation was understandably shaken and trying to find its way again. While waiting for the church to decide what to do, many people had left, leaving a handful of faithful souls trying to hold the ship steady.

After being at Living Hope for a few months, my heart and spirit began to move beyond thinking I was there just to preach safe sermons, pray for people, and shake hands. I said to my wife, “You know, I think God wants us to get this church out of neutral and moving forward again.”

We knew it would take a huge amount of energy as well as time. Were we up to the task? Would this church follow our leadership even though we held the title of only “Interim Pastor?”

Decisions, Decisions
We rolled up our sleeves and went to work. One of the first changes we made was to move the monthly Fellowship Dinner from the fourth Sunday evening of each month to a Fellowship Lunch immediately after the morning service. Nearly everyone liked that change and yet for some, it was a “major move.” (Wow, I can’t imagine what would have happened if we had indeed done something serious.)

Soon after my arrival, my ear was bent by a few who thought I should make changes to advance their personal agenda. One person asked me, “Are we going to continue this contemporary style of worship? Or is the guitar going to go?”

I didn’t dodge the issue. I said quietly but firmly, “We’re not changing our worship style. The guitar will stay.”

“Then I guess I won’t be in that part of the service,” the person announced, and they lived up to their promise.

That was okay. There was no sense pushing this issue farther down the road for someone else to handle. I felt I should just go ahead and take care of it promptly.

Another person reminded me, after my message on the work on the Holy Spirit, that “not everyone believes the way you do on that subject, you know.” It was a veiled test to see if I could be nudged.

“Oh, yes, I’m aware of that,” I cheerfully replied. “The thing is, this is an openly Pentecostal church. It’s right there in our doctrinal statement–because we believe it’s right there in the Bible. I encourage everyone to check out what the Scripture has to say on this.” That individual and his family are still in the congregation today.

In some ways, an interim pastor is like a spiritual doctor, taking the church’s spiritual temperature and pulse, poking and probing, looking into people’s eyes, asking questions and trying to get a sense of what the needs are and how God might want to go about addressing them. The goal is to do as much as possible to set the church up for a strong and healthy future.

Unique Advantages
In many ways the interim pastor has more leadership freedom than the permanent pastor. We were able to initiate a Saturday Children’s Fair that touched a number of new families and got our people’s eyes off of themselves long enough to reach outward. Together we worked on a fresh, new initiative. I overheard members say, “We didn’t know we could even do something like this!”

Obviously, it’s not the interim pastor’s place to launch a building program, overhaul the constitution and bylaws or change the name of the church. But we can and should make judicious, Spirit-led changes. It is an opportunity to help the church move forward as they walk through the steps of finding a new pastor. In doing so, we should not be afraid to address issues that will help each body of believers obtain or maintain balance and health.

As an interim pastor, I can take care of a lot of needed business in preparation for the new pastor’s arrival. I can deal with some things more easily than putting those on the incoming leader. For example: I’m working with the church board on salary and benefits for the new pastor as well as teaching them how to honor the shepherd God will give them. The interim pastor in some ways is the voice in the wilderness crying, “Prepare ye the way for your next pastor.”

Has my first experience as an interim pastor been positive and fulfilling? Very much so. Would I do it again? Yes, I definitely would.

Serving in an interim position can be a great blessing to a church in the gap and if you’re not careful, you just might fall in love with all those people who are calling you “Pastor.”

Louis and Sandra Ondracek have served as FCA pastors in Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Washington dating back to 1965.

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