The interim season between preaching ministers can be a confusing and disorienting time for a congregation and its leaders. Familiar routines have been disrupted and the way forward may be unclear. Anxious questions fill the air.
- How and where will we find a new minister?
- How long will it take?
- Will we lose members while we're in-between?
- What if we make a mistake and hire someone who damages the church?
- How will we cover the bases — not just the preaching responsibilities, but the multiplicity of tasks that were handled routinely by our departing minister?
- How will we adjust to a new preacher whose personality, style and philosophy may be very different from our current preacher, not to mention a constellation of differing strengths, weaknesses and quirks?
In short, a church may in such a time feel like it's wandering in the wilderness. Fortunately, the Bible has much to say about traversing the wilderness! The greatest figures in Scripture — Moses, David, Jesus — all spent significant time in the wilderness. And God's people, the Israelites, had to go through the wilderness on their way from Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land. Their experiences in the wilderness provide a template for churches who are "in-between" as well. Consider the words of Moses as he reflected on Israel's wilderness wanderings:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).
The Wilderness is Necessary
Recently, I spoke at a church that I will soon serve as an interim minister following the departure of a beloved long-term preacher. A guest attending the church for the first time that day handed in a response card that said, "Loved the worship. Loved the sermon. Loved the people. Don't want to be part of a church in transition. We won't be back." I was a bit irritated by that note, but I do understand; given the choice, no one would choose the wilderness.
Sooner or later, though, whether or not we choose it, we will all have a wilderness experience. It is a necessary stage of the spiritual journey. For the Israelites, the desert was the only way to get to the Promised Land; choosing not to go there would have meant turning their backs on God's promise. In Jesus' case, we are told that the Holy Spirit sent him into the wilderness (Mark 1:12). The Greek verb for "sent" (ekballo) literally means "to drive out, to banish." Even for the Son of God, the wilderness was a necessity — one imposed on him by the Holy Spirit himself! Evidently God has work to do within us that can only be accomplished in the wilderness.
Still, we recoil at the thought of going through the desert. The wilderness is not fun! In fact, Moses recalled it as "a thirsty and waterless land, with venomous snakes and scorpions" (Deuteronomy 8:15), and spoke plainly of the hunger and humiliation God's people experienced there. And so we recoil from it. We may even conclude that difficulty and discomfort are sure signs of God's displeasure... or even his absence. Many of us live with the assumption that if we love and obey God, good things will always happen to us. Although that notion is not supported by Scripture, it persists so tenaciously in our hearts that when we find ourselves in the wilderness, we panic. We conclude that God has failed us
Frequently, we hear a brother or sister speak of having received a blessing so wonderful, so unexpected and so improbable that it could only have come from above. They say, "It was a 'God thing.'" There is no doubt that God often pours out abundant blessings on his people. Yet I also believe that a faithful reading of Scripture leads one to conclude that the wilderness is also very much a "God thing."
Because God has specific purposes for his people in transition, it's important for us not to avoid the wilderness experience. In particular, congregations facing the interim between ministers should not recoil from the challenge. There can be a strong temptation to rush into a frenzied search for a new minister. Members become restless and begin hinting that they might need to find a congregation with more "stability." Rumblings begin to be heard over the sick who are not being visited and about outreach opportunities missed. Leaders can feel pressured to make a quick hire to let the congregation know that they're "on the ball" in addressing an obvious need.
Such haste is almost always wrong. Rather, church leaders would be well-served to slow down and embrace the transition time as a special opportunity for God to move and work among them to strengthen faith, purge impurity, and produce transformative spiritual growth. Congregations that enter into the interim season thoughtfully, humbly, prayerfully, expectantly, and patiently will find themselves fitted for a far greater ministry than they could have imagined, and very likely will be a good match for a far better minister than they would have thought possible.
There Is a Way
Avoiding the wilderness means missing out on some of God's greatest promises. Rushing through the wilderness may skip important steps in God's shaping of his people into fitness to receive his blessings. There is no way to speed up God's timetable for the necessary work of the wilderness journey. There is, however, a way to lengthen one's time in the wilderness! After a full year in the wilderness, God brought the Israelites to the brink of the land of promise. Had they responded to the challenge before them with trust in God's power and provision, their time in the wilderness would have ended then. But because they gave in to doubt and fear, God declared that they would need another forty years in the desert to learn what could have been learned in one. Elders who lead the church in courageously seeking God's call and who are responsive to the movement of God among them will find the transition time shorter and less painful than it otherwise might have been.
Next week, we'll begin looking at specific tasks God seeks to accomplish in and through our wilderness experiences.
For other help on the "Interim Season" we encourage you to check out Interim Ministry Partners who work with churches as they go through this important time of transition.