There is a well-known saying that applies to any kind of organization involved in charitable giving. It is simply “Money follows mission.” You may have heard it before. People are inspired to give to a compelling mission and vision in an organization rather than just to support institutional maintenance. Where there is a clear sense of mission, generosity may follow. Where the mission has been forgotten, it is hard to inspire people to give. This saying makes sense to me, and I have found it to be true in the churches I have served.

There is another saying that is much less known, but just as important. Some wise mentor told this to me many years ago, and I have also found it to be true. It is simply “Mission follows morale.” Yes, mission is vitally important for generous giving to occur and for the health and vitality of organizations, but there must be some sense of healthy morale before people are in the right frame of mind to even consider a shared mission together. Mission and morale are extremely important for the health of churches, but morale usually needs to come first.

“Morale is the amount of confidence felt by a person or group of people, especially when in a dangerous or difficult situation.” (Cambridge Dictionary online) This definition tells us that morale is linked to confidence. Paul used this word “confidence” frequently in his letters to the churches. As they faced the difficulties and challenges of being the early church, Paul reminded them of a great promise. “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:4-6, NRSV) In this letter, Paul was writing to a troubled church for the purpose of developing confidence within the congregation. He used the word several times in his epistle.

The interim season between pastors in a church is rarely an easy one. Sometimes a pastor has retired or moved to another church, and the congregation is grieving the loss of a beloved minister. At other times, conflict surrounded the leaving of the former pastor and there is anger, broken trust, and hurt feelings within the church. In either case – and in countless examples that fall somewhere in between – a pastoral transition is a time of high anxiety and great disruption in the life of a church. In this season of uncertainty, I believe that the Transition Pastor, or Interim Pastor, is called to help develop confidence and morale in the life of the hurting church. Later a settled pastor can lead the church to clarify mission and vision together as they discern God’s direction. In the critical time that is a pastoral interim, the greatest gift the Transition Pastor can give is the gift of confidence. Remember, before “Money follows mission” we need to realize that “Mission follows morale.” How can an Interim Pastor help a hurting church to improve morale and grow in confidence? Let me suggest three important ways:

  • Strategic Preaching – Proclamation will be the most visible role that the Transition Pastor will have. She or he will best be known to the congregation through sermons. Think carefully about what is going to be preached. Be strategic about it. While all the Bible is God’s Word for us, not all the Bible is the best way to develop confidence in the life of the congregation during a difficult season. Not every theme needs to be addressed during an interim. Not every Lectionary passage needs to be explored. What will give hope to the congregation in a way that they can be reminded of “the confidence that we have through Christ toward God” so that they will feel “competent to be ministers of a new covenant” with the arrival of a new pastor? Proclaim these texts and themes in a thoughtful and strategic way that helps to restore confidence in a hurting congregation.
  • Meaningful Relationships – The short transition season of perhaps twelve to twenty-four months will limit the level of relationships that a Transition Pastor can enjoy with the congregation. However, remember that in some cases the congregation has a broken heart related to their pastor. A beloved pastor who is no longer with them leaves a void in their hearts and grief for them to experience. The Transition Pastor cannot take the place of this beloved former pastor, but a willingness to quickly invest and engage in meaningful relationships will allow the people to see that they can receive a new pastor into their hearts. This is an important step in preparing the way for the church to welcome a new pastor. Other interim seasons may not have the memories of a beloved pastor but may have come about through conflict hurt and pain. Instead of a broken heart, there may exist broken trust between people and pastor. Once again, the willingness of the Transition Pastor to engage and invest in meaningful relationships with people in the church will show a congregation that they can trust a pastor again. The new pastor will be grateful for this level of confidence that he or she finds in the relational life of the congregation.
  • Empowering Conversations – Over time, the season of transition will provide opportunities for the Transition Pastor to have conversations with church leaders who are working hard to find the right path to the future. These people may be working to search for a new pastor or to give leadership during the interim. The Transition Pastor cannot do their job for them but can have empowering conversations that offer a listening ear and wise counsel. These conversations can lead to greater confidence on the part of the lay leaders in the church. This is also true of conversations with church staff. These people have lost a colleague and leader and they are often needing something to help them navigate the difficult days of a pastoral interim. Empowering the staff to be their best can increase confidence and lift morale.

“Money follows mission.” That is correct. But before that, “Mission follows morale.” Perhaps the most important role for the Transition/Interim Pastor is to help the congregation to develop and strengthen confidence during an important season in the life of the church. If you are called into this important bridge ministry, blessings on your journey towards morale and confidence in the life of the church.

David Hull
David Hull joined the CHC team in 2014. A native of Louisville, KY, David has been an active leader in community and denominational life for 35 years. Most recently, he served as pastor of First Baptist, Huntsville AL for twelve years. Previously he pastored First Baptist, Knoxville TN and churches in South Carolina, North Carolina and Kentucky. His wife, Jane, is pastor at Union Christian Church in Watkinsville GA. He is a consultant for CHC and the coordinator for CHC-Southeast.