Poker Playing Interim Pastors

"You've got to know when to hold 'em, 
Know when to fold 'em.
Know when to walk away,
Know when to run." 
-Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”

As a young adult I would often hum or sing these words from Kenny Rogers’ hit song. Recently, as an intentional interim pastor the lyrics from that song have a haunting sense of reality for me.

Now I’m not a poker player, and asking me to watch poker on ESPN is tantamount to watching grass grow or paint dry!  But there is wisdom in those lyrics about handling the cards you’ve been dealt. Call it intuition, discernment or the shrewdness of a card-shark -there are times when you stay in…and times to drop out of a hand.

An intentional interim pastor needs the perceptive streak of poker player. Not a bent towards gambling, but a discerning awareness of the hand they’ve been dealt (the unique church situation they’re in) and the boldness of knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. What do I mean?

A church in the challenging stage of transition needs a trained interim pastor at the table. Their training has prepared them to assist the leadership team, and lead a church through the process of evaluation, self-awareness, healing, addressing systemic dysfunction and preparing the foundations for a future of renewed, exhilarating ministry. And all before a new pastor is called!

An intentional interim pastor is prepared for the variety of reactions they will encounter in a local body as it faces the prospect of change…the cleansing of sin…and the defining, or re-defining of vision and mission. If an intentional interim has served several churches, the reactions they see and the stages the church works through have a predictability.

Yet there is an element to the interim that is wild and unpredictable. You’re never quite sure of the hand you will be dealt. For no two churches are the same. And though there are tendencies for how a body of believers will respond, there is no exact formula.

This is where the perceptive streak of a poker player comes in. An intentional interim needs to be sensitive to when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Each church (each hand dealt) must be led with a desperate dependence upon the Lord and His Spirit. What worked in one church may not work in the current one. The Lord may have a completely different agenda for this church than He did for the former.

Case in point: I’ve just finishing an interim with a church and it didn’t go at all like I expected. My expectations? That I would experience the typical progression from connection...to evaluation...to correction...to direction and then the selection of a new pastor. The time frame would be around 18 months, plus or minus, before handing the baton to a permanent pastor.

Yet that was not the hand I was dealt. After the first 90 days I was almost in shock. Some of the real facts of the condition of the church had not been disclosed upfront. It wasn’t dying….it was dead. A sizeable savings account was its only life-support and they were burning through it quickly. Forecasted time of death: 15 months or less. Then, on top of it all, some of the very leaders who hired me tried to get me fired! 

Since day one, I had been praying that the Lord would show up for this body of believers and do something that could only be explained as being from Him, so that Christ and no man, would get the glory. Well, the Lord did show up and answered my prayer.

At my lowest point, when I was literally begging the Lord to release me from this mess, He stepped in. A pastor from a new church-plant just 6 blocks away came to see me about renting some of our facilities (most of which were empty) because they were busting at the seams. This church-plant was only 4 months old at that time and had over 100 people, 50% of whom had come to faith in Christ through that church’s ministry.

In our second meeting together, the Spirit led me to ask the question, “Could it be that the Lord has more in mind than a rental agreement? Could it be that He wants these two churches to merge? Could the synergy of that union better serve and further the kingdom purposes of God on this side of town in a powerful way?”

That started a series of discussions and times of prayer that has led to the church I’m serving and this recent church-plant merging as one. By the way, I would highly recommend a fantastic book on church mergers, “Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work” by Jim Tomberlin and Warren Byrd.

Jesus Christ loves His church, and His promise to build it (Matt.16:18) is still active. But I’ve learned our Lord is notoriously unpredictable, and I need to be flexible to follow His lead. An intentional interim can develop their perceptive streak of being a poker player. How?

1. Acknowledge my expectations and their tendency to box me in to assuming a predictable future.
2. Express daily my desperate dependence on the Lord’s strength, wisdom and grace to play the hand I’ve been dealt.
3. Commit to willingly lead this church in whatever changes and direction the Lord has in mind, no matter how radical they may appear.

For both the intentional interim and a church leadership team facing transition, Jeremiah 6:16 is worth remembering “This is what the Lord says: Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it. And you will find rest for your souls.”

What would you add to help a transitional pastor develop their ability to play the hand they’ve been dealt?

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