In the past I have been an advocate of a ‘pastoral vacancy’. As Tony Bradley argues in his booklet Understanding the Interregnum (Grove, Cambridge 1996) it provides a “window of opportunity… for assessing what sort of team we are and what sort of leader we need next”.
A ‘pastoral vacancy’ can prove to be ‘a significant interval’ for a church. The significance of this interval has been well expressed by an American denominational officer addressing a ‘vacant’ congregation:
“This could be a most significant time for your congregation. It is a time when you can review the past with its symbols and images of identity and purpose as well as its losses and disappointments. You can allow yourself time to feel those losses and the elements of leadership that are sure to follow along an effective ministry. You can also begin to value the strength and gifts of people in the congregation who step up now to offer leadership, knowing that, with the loss of a significant leader, others will be called upon to provide wisdom and guidance. You can begin to glimpse new opportunities made possible because of the fact that your pastor has left. Above all, as a congregation, you can take responsibility for identifying new directions for your church’s ministry, a new vision for your church’s mission and a ‘grassroots’ definition of the church’s purpose. This is and has always been your church. Your former pastor believed that and sought to serve your mutual understandings. If the new pastor is to do the same, it will be necessary for you as a congregation to clarify your own church’s mission” (quoted by William Bud Phillips, Pastoral Transitions (Alban, Bethesda, Maryland 1988).
I used to say that churches need time to ‘grieve’ their former pastor. I argued that the relationship between pastor and people is in some ways similar to a marriage relationship – and just as a after the death of a partner a hasty re-marriage is inadvisable, so too is a hasty calling of a new pastor. Indeed, I said that as a ‘rule of thumb’ the pastoral vacancy should be at least as many months long as the years of the former pastor. However, everything depends on the length of the ministry. My first ministry was thirteen years in length, whereas my second ministry was twenty-one years in length. On reflection a pastoral vacancy may not always be a good thing.
I recently came across some interesting research by Bob Jackson, the Director of the Church Growth Centre at St John’s College, Nottingham:
“Church growth is 50 per cent about helping new people join and 50 per cent about stopping existing members leaving. The main point at which Anglican churches have been losing people in recent decades has been during lengthy vacancies of six months or more between vicars… The longer the vacancy the more the church shrinks… Much of the average loss during a vacancy is permanent. In fact the size of the average vacancy loss is such that it would seem that vacancies are the occasion of most of the Church of England’s recent attendance loss. Churches with vicars in place have on average been steady or even growing – the damage is being done in vacancies.” (What Makes Churches Grow? Church House Publishing, 2015).
So what should churches do? Currently within a British Baptist setting churches are dependent upon a slow and unimaginative system of ministerial settlement, in which churches are encouraged not to head-hunt nor to advertise, but instead leave matters to the judgement of ‘regional ministers’. Furthermore, churches are told to pursue just one name at a time. Not surprisingly most pastoral vacancies are far longer than six months. As far as I am aware, there are no statistics available, but one often hears of churches where the pastoral vacancy has lasted two or more years. Perhaps the answer is to create a new system which recognises that we live in a different era where Youtube, Skype and Facebook is the norm; and that which therefore encourages churches to take the initiative to seek for their next leader; and where ‘regional ministers’ no longer control, but simply advise churches in their care. For if Bob Jackson is right, a pastoral vacancy of longer than six months can do real damage.