How Do We Talk About the Local Church Pastorate?

This week’s post is written by Rev. Malcolm Himschoot, Minister for Ministerial Transitions in the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team within the UCC’s national setting. The vocabulary described below is the result of many months of Malcolm’s research on how local church pastoral leadership transitions have been described in conference and association settings. In this piece, he provides the foundations for a common vocabulary for the denomination. 

At times people think that all churches searching for a pastor are in the same position, and should be searching for the same thing. They’re not, and they shouldn’t.

New vocabulary for UCC Local Church Search and Call makes plain four umbrella categories for congregations to consider.

  • Settled Ministry
  • Intentional Interim Ministry
  • Designated-Term Ministry
  • Supply Ministry

If a church is ready for a Settled Pastor, they have done some transitional preparation with the help of an intentional interim minister or consultant. The settled pastor search committee receives as many ministerial profiles as possible through the conference, and shares with compelling candidates their local church profile as well. The conference supports a local church in this case with guidance about the formation of the search committee, and recommendations to support the new minister in ways that minimize pastoral turnover. A settled position might be many things – Solo, Senior, Associate, sometimes Shared or Yoked – and it might be Part-Time or Full-Time. Ministers are given various titles across various churches, with the commonality of a call agreement that does not specify an end date. The goal is partnership over time.

To prepare for a settled pastorate, a church may call an Intentional Interim Minister for about 18 months. The overall goal during this time is forward momentum and creating space for a new ministry chapter. This can happen with a very different focus in a variety of situations: at the end of a long and successful pastorate; amidst congregational conflict; or, after ministerial misconduct. With an intentional interim minister the congregation can go through processes that help renew a cycle of life and vitality, whether engaging activities of mindful healing, or pro-active exploration of new creative possibilities. The conference usually provides some ministerial profiles from which church lay leaders can select, along with a reference guide for the congregation (often with a transition team) to make best use of the time for the work that accompanies leadership change.

If more than leadership is changing – if a church is facing staffing reconfiguration, financial changes, culture changes, building changes; or if the church has open questions about the future, whether a pastor at all, merger, closure, or revitalization; or if the church has a trend of rapid sequential pastoral changes – then that church is in growing company, experiencing a common phase of the congregational life-cycle. This church may not be positioned for an open-ended commitment to a new minister, but may be well-positioned for a Designated-Term Ministry commitment. In this case the church can name any of dozens of possible purposes for a designated term. Lay leaders call a minister for a defined time for that purpose, whether 2, 3 or 5 years, indicating for example closure/legacy, discernment, or revitalization. The church draws on conference support for a relevant batch of profiles, and commits to the conference to assess progress near the completion of the term, but not to engage a new search before then. Throughout the term, the congregation commits to the same goals for which the minister is brought aboard. According to the terms of the call agreement, the Designated-Term Minister might move on at the end of the term, might renew their term, or might become the settled minister.

(A Designated-Term call agreement is also appropriate for the development of a new ministry. Calling bodies might create, for example, a 10-year commitment to a new minister for the purpose of building up a new worshiping community. Assessment of various strategies is built in along the way. At the end of the Designated-Term, when the congregation is its own calling body, this person’s ministry can become a settled pastorate.)

Lastly, a congregation may not have a specific scope of work in mind. In this scenario the church is looking for someone to temporarily serve and maintain the office of a minister. This is called Supply Ministry. The congregation can approach the conference to request at least one profile of a minister with availability and capacity to serve in the role of a Short-Term Supply minister, Bridge Pastor, Sustaining Pastor, Long-Term Supply, Sabbatical Supply, Pulpit Supply, or Student Pastor. The call agreement is written with a specified ending.

Each minister’s standing in a UCC association, if not correlated to the congregation served (in a settled position), still correlates to the local church of the minister’s home membership (in designated-term, intentional interim, or supply positions).

Upon departure a minister must support the congregation’s work with the minister who follows them. This involves a boundary of non-contact for a minimum of 1-3 years, and only then might a possible role be negotiated for the former pastor with the current pastor and a representative of the wider church. Interim ministers are ineligible to be called as settled pastor. A designated-term pastor must conscientiously fulfill the terms of call, whether that means staying or leaving well. These guidelines are spelled out more fully in conference resources provided by the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team. They relate to the present and future of the church, so that each congregation can best find its footing for the future God has for them.

For more information and definitions, visit MESA’s webpage.

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