By: David Harkleroad
“Please call me,” the email requested. “I am the interim pastor at Faith Community Church, and we are looking for a pastor.” I dialed the 308-area code a bit reluctantly – Nebraska. He answered with a no-nonsense Chicago vernacular. I was not optimistic.
Rich Peterson was the man on the line, and I now treasure that phone call.
Rich Peterson was the transitional pastor at Faith Community Church in Southern Indiana, the church where I now pastor. Rich is a godly, wise, retired pastor. He has become a close friend and trusted mentor. I am deeply grateful for his transitional ministry. He has been an indescribable blessing to me and our entire church body. Rich’s approach to transitional ministry has had a profound spiritual and organizational impact.
Below are six transitional ministry objectives that can help a church flourish during a season of change.
These are first-hand observations of the blessing and spiritual growth that can occur through the leadership of a transitional pastor. My hope and prayer is that the following objectives will serve churches seeking a transitional pastor, as well as pastors seeking interim opportunities.
1. Preach the Word
This is far more than a conservative plug for Biblicism. Peterson’s primary concern was to faithfully expose the people of God to His Word. Rich was explicit:
“My emphasis has always been to teach the Word of God accurately and simply, believing that the Holy Spirit uses the Word to bring spiritual transformation and growth. So I assumed that God was opening the door for me at Faith [Community] because He wanted me to bring that emphasis. Therefore, I planned to be a teacher who handled the Word rightly as my primary and sole concern.”
Rich’s passion for God’s Word awoke a hunger and a spiritual readiness in the people at Faith Community. As an incoming pastor, this was oxygen. One young man in his twenties remarked with exuberance, “Rich actually tells us what God is trying to communicate to us and what it means for our lives!” I stepped into a church that was craving “the pure milk of the Word.”
2. Submit to the Leadership
The transitional pastor has a unique relationship with the church. He is not the primary leader, but he certainly has power – this can be a recipe for disaster. Pastor Peterson modeled a godly humility in his interaction with the elders.
“My Goal: To support the leaders in the direction they were giving to the church… My reasoning for this was to demonstrate submission to the leadership provided by the elders. I believe that if I am submissive there is a better chance the people will be submissive. I believe submission is the right character trait of a follower of Jesus.” – Rich Peterson
Rich’s submissive spirit trained our church body to be amenable to God and their elders. He exemplified a willingness to be guided by the good Shepherd and His under-shepherds.
3. Advise Responsively
Give solicited advice. Wise counsel is best received when requested.
“I did not interfere with leadership except when asked. The elders asked me how much input I wanted in leadership and I told them none. They should treat me as a consultant. I would give them my opinion when asked but would not try to influence the church into a certain direction that I preferred.” – Rich Peterson
Once again his forty years of ministry experience was a blessing to me and my church. Counsel grew commensurate with trust and rapport. Ultimately, Rich was able to give more godly advice with this tactic than another would have yielded.
At one point in the two year transition, the church was eager to cast a new vision and make some ministry changes. They approached Rich for guidance and leadership. Rich encouraged the body to prayerfully wait for their new pastor. Rich continued to teach the biblical foundation of a healthy church, all while waiting for the long-term pastor to set the particulars of the vision. This built an eager anticipation. I came into a church that was not only hungry for God’s Word but hungry for a new chapter of spiritual and organizational growth.
4. Pave the way for the Future Pastor
Have I mentioned how grateful I am for Rich Peterson? He consistently played the role of best man – never usurping the pastoral privilege. He helped the flock to remain eager and expectant for an incoming, permanent pastor.
“After the people learned to love and trust us, some would ask if I would be the pastor or if I would stay. I [vocalized that] I was the interim and my place was to be a short term pastor until God led us to the right long term guy. They were not to worry because they would learn to love him and his family more than they loved me.” – Rich Peterson
I was voted into Faith Community as Senior Pastor with 100% backing. This is not really a reflection on me. The unity and trust came from the wisdom of Rich’s transitional objectives.
5. Love the People
Any pastor worth his salt knows that ministry is people work. The old adage still rings true, “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
“My first order of business was to teach well. As part of that I had to get to know the people, be friends, and let any further ministry develop out of that.” – Rich Peterson
The Peterson family is still deeply endeared at Faith Community. Rich’s love for the people gave him a depth of ministry that many pastors never reach. His rapport was also instrumental in the congregation coming to trust and accept me as their new pastor.
6. Listen to God’s Timing
His intentions were clear,
“I told the people that I would be there only as long as the leadership wanted me to be there and no longer… I told the elders that if they decided I was not the right person for the job they would only have to ask once and I would leave without causing any ripples.”
Rich was a transitional pastor. The Petersons loved Faith Community, and we loved them. Rich and I co-ministered for about a year before God called their family to a new chapter of life and ministry. Throughout our overlap, Rich continued to promote my tenure and his departure. We were all heartbroken when the Petersons moved, but we knew that they were listening to God. I wish Rich were still here at Faith Community, but I also know that God is using him to serve other churches who need a wise, godly, retired transitional pastor.
I dial the 308 area code often – my mentor is back in Nebraska. He answers with a no-nonsense Chicago vernacular. It’s a dear friend’s voice. Rich Peterson is the man on the line, and I am so grateful for his transitional ministry at Faith Community Church.
Rich Peterson is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, IL. He was the senior pastor of Grace Chapel in Scottsbluff, NE for 35 years.
David Harkleroad is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is the Senior Pastor at Faith Community Church in New Albany, IN.