Is there a Doctor in the House?

A doctor was awakened at 4:00AM by a caller who wanted to know how much he charged for a house call. In a sleepy voice, the doctor said, “$200.00.”

“Umm, that seems a bit high,” replied the caller. “How much do you charge for an office visit?”

“$75.00,” came the muffled and somewhat irritated answer.

“That sounds fine,” said the inquisitive caller. “I`ll meet you at your office in 20 minutes.”

Not too many physicians make house calls anymore. The country doctor who knew his patients and who would fight snow storms to care for them in their home seems to be a fading apparition in our society. Dedication is not the problem, for most doctors are very dedicated to their calling and to their patients. Times have changed, however, and the health care system has evolved so dramatically that house calls are now unnecessary. With specialized health care personnel available at a much lower cost than a physician it is more practical to have visiting nurses and hospice care. Furthermore, making house calls would not be financially feasible for doctors when they can see so many more patients in their office during the day.

In the church-at-large there are still general practitioners that make house calls. These are the people who consult with churches about vision and mission, who spend hours with leadership and congregations in resolving conflict, and who readily uproot themselves to pastor a church for a season. One such church doctor is the dedicated interim pastor who relocates to the neighborhood of the church, consults with leaders, shepherds the flock, manages the staff, and prepares the congregation for the arrival of the new senior pastor.

When a church is without a senior pastor, a gap occurs in leadership, vision, and shepherding the flock. Many churches believe that they can fill the void with their present staff, hiring pulpit supply for each Sunday, or having elders preach. What leadership fails to realize is that the problems they had with the old pastor, the lack of vision they have unknowingly encouraged, or the mismanagement of staff is still present! A new minister will be confronted with the issues, seeds of discontent, and any other problem not solved or healed in the past. His ministry will, therefore, start with a precarious step, for lurking behind the smiles and gratitude of his coming remains the problems that caused the demise of the prior pastor or contributed to his leaving for a new call.

The true interim pastor is not only a shepherd, but also a church doctor who displaces himself to establish his clinic with a new church. He doesn’t just fly in on weekends and meet with leaders and then preach a Sunday sermon. On the contrary, he is a man who lives with the sheep on a daily basis, binds up their wounds, brings resolution to personal and family concerns, and feeds them the gospel. As acting senior pastor, the interim will grow to know and love the sheep, which in turn will make his preaching more relevant to their needs.

A dedicated interim pastor is not just a weekend pulpit supply person. Although different preachers will expose the congregation to a multitude of preaching styles and pulpit personalities, they will not normally endear themselves to the sheep for lack of attachment nor will they understand the depth of the problems and seriousness of the hurt in a conflicted congregation. Weekend warriors, as good as they may be, will normally preach from texts they have previously delivered to other congregations, which may or may not be relevant to the disaffected congregation. This hardly provides cohesiveness from Sunday to Sunday. Although a church should seriously think about calling a church doctor and employing an intentional interim pastor when the prior pastor leaves for any reason, there are some special situations in which an interim should be called without question. So, what are the occasions that would be appropriate to hire a committed interim pastor?

First, if the church has experienced major conflict and the senior pastor has resigned, then an interim should be employed by the leadership on behalf of the congregation. According to Life Line for Pastors, 1500 pastors per month leave their pulpits.[1] Another 50% of pastors said that they would leave the ministry if they had viable alternatives. The main reason recited by departing and frustrated pastors was the difficulty in dealing with problem people and dissatisfied leaders. An interim pastor, who is an unbiased church health specialist, has no “dog in the fight” (i.e., he takes no side and has no personal interest in the outcome). As an objective outsider, he will deal with the conflict biblically, attempt to bring peace to the congregation, and lead warring factions to reconcile or leave the church. This needs to be accomplished so that the new man is not faced with a split congregation and then have to deal with the conflict himself. His ministry is to start afresh and not be burdened with discontented sheep that are butting heads among themselves.

A second reason to call an interim minister is when a well-loved pastor has suddenly died or has become incapacitated because of illness. A buffer zone is needed for the congregation to process the sudden departure before accepting another pastor. Hiring a new pastor too soon will not allow the congregation to grieve their loss. To engage a new man without the intervention of an interim may be setting him up as a “sacrificial lamb.” In other words, the new pastor will normally be opposite in some way to the beloved pastor, which causes disappointment in many people. If the congregation cannot be unified because of preconceived ideas of what the pastor should be and look like, then the new man becomes an unintended interim and struggles for a couple years before he resigns. A qualified interim will not only help the grieving process, but will aid the church in finding a pastor with the personality and characteristics that will fit the persona of the church.

A third reason for the need of an interim is when there has been moral failure of the previous pastor. The congregation will be hurting – some in shock; some very angry; and others quickly forgiving, which causes consternation from those not so understanding. Much effort will be needed to soothe the pain and to bring reconciliation among the flock. The interim pastor is better equipped at doing this since he will involve himself in the healing process to include confrontation when necessary. A new senior pastor should not have to expend his energy in counseling members because of a former pastor’s indiscretions. He needs to ease his way into leading the sheep and have a honeymoon period with the congregation.

A fourth reason for employing an interim pastor is when the previous pastor has been asked to leave. It is not because he had moral failure, but because he and the leadership have continually disagreed with the direction of the church. The leadership normally splits into two groups – those who support the pastor and those opposed. Eventually, the opposition becomes the majority, has the ear of the congregation, and makes it difficult for the pastor to continue his ministry. The pastor fights back with the outcome splitting the leadership and causing schism in the congregation. Peacemaker Ministries or similar conciliation services may have been consulted and retained to resolve the conflict and in so doing may have advised the pastor to resign, even after reconciliation, for the good of the church. In such cases, an interim pastor should be brought in to continue the reconciliation process and help the church ease into a new era.

The fifth reason to have an interim pastor is when a beloved senior pastor (known as a legacy pastor) has retired after a long tenure.[2] An interim, because of his experience with different types and styles of churches, can help a pulpit committee hone in on the traits needed in a new senior pastor. To prevent the sacrificial lamb syndrome described in the second reason above, a period of time is needed to transition from the old to the new pastor. In such instances, it may be wise to hire the interim a couple of months before the actual retiring date of the old pastor. This may simplify the transition process, making it more painless for the sheep to accept and adapt to the change that is unavoidable.

[1] Life-Line For Pastors is a publication of Maranatha Life (P.O. Box 1206, Donna, TX 78537)

7 Length of time at a church will vary, but normally any pastor that has served over 10 years has left a mark that makes it difficult for his replacement to reach. In other words, his legacy will invariably cause comparisons to the new pastor’s ministry, making it difficult for the new man to live up to expectations, which may have been unwittingly imposed on him.