Transitional ministers make change a little easier

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

NEW ALBANY – The Rev. Kermit McGregor’s office at Hillcrest Baptist Church is comfortable, but you get the feeling he could box everything up and be gone in 15 minutes.
McGregor says he doesn’t need his office much. Like most of the other 50 or so Southern Baptist men in the state who do what he does, the 72-year-old retiree does most of his ministry in hospitals and in the pulpit.
McGregor considers his office just a place to keep his coat and a few books. Besides, he says, the office won’t be his for long.
For two and a half years McGregor has been the transitional pastor at Hillcrest, a role to which he was called after the previous pastor left under duress.
During more than 55 years in ministry, McGregor has, in his own words, “learned a thing or two about how a healthy church should work.” That lifetime of experience is the reason Hillcrest called him.
McGregor doesn’t attend every event in the church’s life, but he makes sure things run smoothly and he takes care of the community’s pastoral needs. He also offers his advice to the pastoral search committee which, as of mid-February, was very close to calling a new man to fill the church’s pulpit.
McGregor’s arrival at Hillcrest wasn’t an assignment. No governing ecclesiastical body sent him to the church of 1,100 resident members on Hwy 15 in New Albany. He was asked to come by a community he says was in need of healing, and that’s what he’s tried to do.
Ministers have been coming and going since the birth of Christianity, but perhaps only in the last 20 years have churches begun to better understand the need for highly-skilled men and women who bridge the gap, who make it easier to deal with change and the emotions that come with it.
The rise of transitional ministry corresponds with an age in which churches, besides being houses of worship, have become wiser about group dynamics and the complex, delicate and sometimes volatile nature of human interactions.

Looking within
Perhaps nowhere is the human affinity for ritual and habit more evident than in the church. Religious folks are notorious for liking things done a certain way, and when it’s time to say good-bye to one pastor and hello to another that attachment to routine can make things difficult.
“Most of us don’t deal well with change in general, either in society or in the church,” said the Rev. LaRae Rutenbar, who served a year as transitional specialist at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo. Rutenbar arrived after the departure of long-time rector, the Rev. Shannon Johnston, and before the arrival of the current rector, the Rev. Paul Stephens.
In the Episcopal Church Rutenbar is known as a transitional specialist. Transitional is the preferred term among most denominations today. An interim more often refers to a pastor who stays for a shorter time and is less involved in the community.
Over the past 17 years Rutenbar has served as a transitional specialist at 11 parishes in five dioceses, and she’s now interim dean at Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, Kentucky.
“As Christian people we believe the Holy Spirit is always moving in the community, creating and making things new, but often we don’t translate that belief well into our everyday theology,” she said.
That experience holds true across denominations.
“It’s both theological and psychological, and, as with every family, there’s sometimes dysfunction in the church when it comes to change,” said the Rev. Carl Grubbs, who coordinates some 20 transitional, intentional ministers in the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church. Grubbs currently serves as the transitional minister at Pearl United Methodist Church.
“As worshiping communities we sometimes have our sacred cows and things hidden in the closet,” said Grubbs. “The process of transitional ministry involves bringing some of those things into the light and creating a healthy, welcoming environment for a new minister.”
Before being called to Hillcrest, McGregor served as the transitional pastor at four other churches in Northeast Mississippi, including Calvary Baptist in Tupelo. One of those churches, a rather large congregation, was embroiled in controversy when McGregor arrived.
“We almost lost that church as a lighthouse in this area,” said McGregor.
McGregor and church leaders agreed that during the first year of his ministry they wouldn’t form a pastor search committee. Instead, McGregor urged them to follow his lead in trying to get all the wheels turning at the same speed.
There were some hurt feelings but McGregor knew his role wasn’t necessarily to make friends, nor was it, for harmony’s sake, to ignore elephants sitting in the room. Having been called by a community in trouble, McGregor was in a unique position to address problems and, if necessary, to step on some toes in the process of revitalizing the church.
“People need time to make transitions, to change, to adapt, and the great thing about the transitional pastor is that, in most cases, in two years he’s going to be somewhere else, so he can make the hard decisions and say the hard things and not have to worry that it’s going to compromise his effectiveness down the road,” said McGregor.
Change in the ecclesial context isn’t always painful. According to Rutenbar, more often it’s an opportunity for a worshiping community to look inward, to gain a deeper understanding of itself so that it can welcome a new pastor with realistic expectations and without prejudice.
Perhaps the most important thing a transitional specialist does, Rutenbar said, is facilitate that process of introspection.
“I call it putting a community through its paces,” she said.
In United Methodist life the staff-parish relations committee maintains a dialogue between the congregation, the minister and the district superintendent. That dialogue creates a context in which to reflect upon the current minister’s performance as well as to consider whether it might be time for a change.
“I’ve always considered the committee’s role one of nurturing, and perhaps of helping clarify expectations and establishing priorities,” said Bettye Coggin, who’s served numerous times on the committee at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Tupelo.
The staff-parish relations committee helps a congregation recognize its own strengths and weaknesses, and it fosters an environment of accountability in which a minister operates.
“We have a tendency to act up to the expectations, high or low, that people set for us, so the clearer we can make things like job descriptions, the better it will be when a new pastor arrives,” said Grubbs. “The committee has a big part to play in this.”
McGregor has found that creating clear expectations is equally important in Baptist life. At almost every church in which he’s served as transitional pastor he’s either had to create or drastically update job descriptions and mission statements.
“It’s just part of the process of learning who we are and what we’re looking for,” he said.

Experience helpful
During the second week in February a group of more than
40 pastors, most of retirement age, gathered in the Lee-Itawamba Baptist Association building in south Tupelo. The Rev. Bruce Cappleman of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, along with the Rev. Alan Woodward walked the men through a training module for transitional ministry developed by the Nashville-based, Southern Baptist publishing house, LifeWay.
“We don’t do contracts in Baptist life, but you can form a covenant with your church,” Cappleman told the men, explaining that a covenant goes beyond legal requirements and implies a deep, abiding pledge to act in the other party’s best interest.
In addition to LifeWay, the Presbyterian Church (USA) offers numerous transitional ministry resources both for pastors and congregations. The United Methodist Church holds training seminars on transitional ministry at the Intentional Growth Center in Lake Junaluska, N.C.
“You have to hold the church’s feet to the fire as to its purpose for existing,” said Woodward. “The church is not the Rotary Club – not that there’s anything wrong with the Rotary Club – but you understand what I mean.”
One man drove all the way from Kentucky for the training. Cappleman said Mississippi Baptists are excited about making the training available to more men in the coming months.
“Control issues, you’re going to deal with those quite a bit,” said Cappleman. “Most of you have been around for a while, so you know how to deal with conflict, and that’s good.” As a rule of thumb, transitional pastors in Southern Baptist churches stay one month for each year of the previous pastor’s tenure.
Grubbs said it’s becoming expected in the Mississippi United Methodist Conference that when a person retires they’ll help a troubled church. The conference tries to limit the transitional pastor’s stay to two years or fewer.
“Something magical happens in that third year,” said Grubbs. “You become a pastor. Then, if you leave, it’s another loss for the congregation.”
On Feb. 5, McGregor focused Hillcrest’s morning worship on praying for guidance in the pastor search. After preaching briefly from Acts 12, he injected a little humor into what was otherwise a very emotional hour for the congregation.
“The Lord said pray without ceasing,” McGregor said. “He didn’t say hold committee meetings without ceasing. Baptists haven’t learned that one yet.”
In a gesture that seemed to summarize his work at Hillcrest, McGregor then stepped aside. Two and three at a time, the members came down from their seats. They knelt on the steps leading up to the pulpit and bowed their heads, praying for God’s guidance as the search for a new pastor neared its end.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or

Click video to hear audio