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To find new pastors, churches go through lengthy courtship, transition

Three congregations in Columbia have hired new clergy within the past six months.
Sunday, November 8, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 9:37 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Redeemer Presbyterian Church members celebrate Reformation Day on Oct. 31. Pastor Joe Rolison, front, leads a prayer.

COLUMBIA — When Pastor Joe Rolison arrived in Columbia in June, he had no idea the transition from a small Mississippi church to Columbia’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church would be so grueling.

“I would never have any idea how tiring and emotionally draining it (the transition) was,” Rolison said.

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Today, pastors are still finding jobs when Americans in other vocations are not having the same luck. Despite an economic downturn and a near-frozen job market, clergy are largely unaffected, and many are finding jobs in new locations.

Transitioning into a job can be just as difficult for clergy as for any other profession. Rolison and Tim Carson, the new pastor at Broadway Christian Church, continue to adjust to a new environment and a new congregation. Both say a commitment to routine and to God, as well as a strong dose of patience, helps them through the transition period.

The interim

The uneasy months after a pastor leaves and before a new one is hired can be trying for a congregation. Some churches hire an interim pastor to help fill the gaps while the search for a permanent leader is conducted.

That search process can often be long and in-depth. At Memorial Baptist Church, where Bob Webb recently retired after 16 years, the search for a new senior pastor could take as long as 12 to 18 months, Webb estimated.

Redeemer Presbyterian spent about 18 months, and Broadway Christian about a year, with an interim pastor, a person whose role it is to smooth the way for the new leader. Rolison said the interim minister at Redeemer was "absolutely what the church needed."

The gap between pastors is also a time for congregations to evaluate themselves and decide in what direction they want to move as a church. Often the congregation does a lot of self-assessment and sets goals as to the future vision of the church, the pastors said.

William Younker, who was recently appointed pastor at the International Community Church, said, "In many ways a church takes on a pastor's personality, strengths, weaknesses." He added that when a pastor leaves, church members have to consider what they want in a new pastor.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church

Rolison arrived in Columbia from Leakesville, Miss., in June and began work on June 21 before his official installment in August.

During the interim, a minister from St. Louis and two church elders helped keep the Redeemer congregation together and aided in transitioning between pastors.

Rolison's journey to Columbia began with a posting on the ministry opportunities page on the Presbyterian Church in America Web site. The posting led Rolison, who was already familiar with Columbia, to Redeemer Presbyterian.

“I had it in the back of my head that Columbia’s a great place,” Rolison said. When he was applying to college, a friend’s mother had recommended MU because of its location and the journalism school.

Rolison was selected to be pastor in mid-February, but he was able to wait to move to Columbia until his wife, a teacher, finished out the school year.

Broadway Christian Church

Across town at Broadway Christian, the search process took a year, with an interim pastor also filling in as needed.

Carson, who joined Broadway Christian a month ago, remembers completing numerous search papers, profiles and other types of applications after the church approached him to apply for the position. Several phone interviews and two trips to Columbia later, the search committee asked Carson to be the next pastor.

“This church (Broadway Christian) has done a lot of visioning, so part of it will be trying to figure out how my leadership will match the vision they have already prepared for themselves,” Carson said.

International Community Church

Younker, a pastor in Farmington, recently accepted a position as the pastor of the International Community Church in Columbia. He is just beginning a two-month period of working to help transition his current congregation before coming to Columbia on Jan. 1.

After nine years at his current church, Younker was ready to move on. A "compatibility test" put him in contact with the International Community Church, which has been without a pastor since August 2008.

Younker already recognizes the unique challenges associated with working with a church of international congregants. He lived in Mongolia for five years while doing missionary work, so he realizes a lot of mutual understanding and working together will be critical in guiding the congregation and keeping a community feel.

"I want to have good community in the church," Younker said. "I want to help as many people as possible to be a part of the ministry ... I'm going to be doing a lot of learning in the next six months to one year. I'm going to be listening to a lot of people."

Younker admitted that this early in the transition process he isn't sure of exactly what needs to be done, but the main focus when he begins his new job will be working to mitigate misunderstanding between all the members of different cultures and to listen to those around him. What might change is the type of pastoral counseling he does, as international students might need help with things like government documents, the English language and buying cars.

Despite the change in setting — Farmington has a population of about 15,000 with very little ethnic diversity — Younker said some parts of his routine will stay the same. "I pray. I read God’s word as my own personal enrichment. As I go on, that will not change."

The transition

In anticipation of their new leadership roles in Columbia, Rolison and Carson said they prepared spiritually and emotionally. The spiritual preparation was mostly about asking for guidance, while the emotional preparation dealt with what to expect from a new situation.

“You’re preparing yourself spiritually to enter this new ministry,” Carson said. “The most important thing is to figure out where the congregation is emotionally and spiritually. Sometimes you can’t know until you get there and get inside the congregation.”

Carson also pointed out that working as a pastor requires the same sorts of preparation as any other job does.

“(It’s) the kind of preparation that you would do if you go into any new situation — which is to prepare yourself to get to know people, meet with groups, to have a sense of where you want to lead.”

He said pastors must also prepare for unique job requirements such as fulfilling the ultimate goal of providing spiritual growth to a congregation and figuring out how to measure that growth.

Carson said he believes the hardest part of transitioning for churches is what he calls “the uncertainty of the unknown.”

“When people are in-between, and the foundations to pass are gone, and the future has not yet appeared, they (the congregation) are in-between, and they are anxious,” Carson said. “They are worried, and they feel insecure, and they don’t know who's going to come.”

Part of this uncertainty, Carson explained, is the concern about whether the congregation will change as a whole. “Without a doubt, the style of leadership and goals and objectives, all of that over time shaped the direction of a congregation in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways.”

It helps, Carson said, to come to know a congregation immediately after arriving. This means getting to know the staff and the history, as well as figuring out the needs of the church and where to focus leadership.

In these moments in between, Rolison uses routine to help get himself and the congregation through the uncertainty that surrounds the transition period. Rolison considers foundational ministry work important when starting at a church.

"That commitment to routine is going to help any minister through any time to transition," he said. "In terms of day-to-day stuff, it was that routine that I felt was founded on good principles that has helped us through this period, and I’ll stand behind it, come what may.”

Rolison cites pastoral visitation as one of the main routines he has focused on since arriving in Columbia. "You’ve got to understand on what different terms folks are open to visitation." This means doing more than visiting people in their homes. Rolison says openness to learning about the people in the congregation and how they want things done means talking to them, even on the golf course or in an office.

One of Carson's main routines is his weekly "Wednesday Wonder" column, where he tells stories and reflects on faith and daily events. Since his arrival, there have also been gatherings at the homes of church members for people to meet with Carson and his wife, Kathy.

Carson relies on his own patience and that of his congregation to survive the changes, which is something Rolison also works on achieving.

“Being patient ... requires a great act of faith because so much is out of your control, and you’re just waiting and hoping things will be fine,” Carson said.

Moving forward

The ultimate sign that the ministry has successfully transitioned is in the installment ceremony. The ceremony involves the pastor taking vows within the context of the worship service to affirm the relationship between the pastor and the church before God. It is a process of initiation.

Of his Aug. 23 installation service, Rolison said, “I, myself, and my wife knew that ‘Hey, this is official.’ That was a very energizing moment, I think, and sort of a clarifying moment as well for everybody."

Carson, who will be installed on Nov. 22, calls the ceremony "symbolic" and “a way to dramatize and symbolize this new ministry.” He added that the work begins once a new minister arrives and there is not a big difference between life before and after installation. 

Rolison said his goal is to “flesh out and enhance what’s here.” Carson hopes for the same.

Rolison, who is still getting used to life in a larger city, said he turns to his church for comfort and his God for focus. “For a minister, there’s a tremendous comfort in the regularity of Sunday.”


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