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Providing a Lifeline to Hurting Churches

April 26, 2023
Specialized Transitional Ministers gathered in Grand Rapids in April 2023
Specialized Transitional Ministers gathered in Grand Rapids in April 2023

More than 20 specialized transitional ministers (STMs) recently gathered at the Christian Reformed Church headquarters building in Grand Rapids, Mich., for an annual conference in which they shared stories, received suggestions on how to enhance their work, and set aside time for prayer and devotions.

In some ways like emergency-rescue personnel, STMs are called in to temporarily serve churches that are without a pastor and/or are struggling with what the future holds for them in what may be a time of uncertainty, upheaval, and even crisis.

STMs generally respond to help churches facing one of two situations.

“In some cases, an STM goes to a church facing loss and grief when a long-term pastor leaves and the people need to get on their feet and regain their bearings,” said Dave Den Haan, who works with Pastor Church Resources. “In other instances, a pastor leaves for some reason, and there is conflict in the church that needs to be resolved before the next minister arrives.”

Norm Thomasma, an STM and a former director of Pastor Church Resources, said, “Ideally, as an STM, you step into a church system without becoming part of that system. You know you are only there for a year or so and that you aren’t going to stay.”

It is also not uncommon for an STM to walk with a church as it closes or to play a role in helping to form a new church plant, said Thomasma.

In interviews during lunch at the end of the two-day conference, a handful of STMs talked about why they decided to take on this work and the roles they need to play in specialized transitional ministry. Overall, they said, they see themselves as objective observers who bring special skills, years of experience pastoring various churches, and sensitivity to the difficulties a church may be facing.

“We are like grandparents to the church, trying to assure them that everything is going to be fine,” said Tom Pettinga, who served as a pastor in several churches before becoming an STM. “We come to hear people’s stories and try to sort through the best ways we can help them move on.”

Key to being a good STM, added Pettinga, is to have a solid sense of yourself, of your own strengths and weaknesses as a pastor. You will have learned from your mistakes and grown to recognize your strengths and capabilities.

Also key, he said, is to remain above the fray when you are helping a church. Don’t get enmeshed in power struggles or favor one side or group against another.

In his preaching as an STM, said Pettinga, he often relies on Old Testament stories such as that of Joseph and his brothers, who  sell him into slavery but then later receive forgiveness from Joseph, who can see that God has worked through adversity to save them all (Gen. 37-50).

“Now theirs was a dysfunctional family if you ever saw one,” Pettinga said.

He said he has also often preached of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness and sometimes shaking their fists at God, who, despite their antics and anger, never leaves them.

“Remember how the Israelites kept complaining and bellyaching and wanted to go back to Egypt? At times, they hated Moses,” he said. “I want to help the people in a church to realize that problems are not surprises to God. Not one of us is a lot different from another. I want to get across that God doesn’t quit on his children.”

Pettinga recalled one church he served that had had a radio program it had broadcast at a cost of $20,000 a year for decades in its community, teaching Scripture and inviting people to church. When he asked church leaders how many people had come to church because of the program, the answer was “No one.” As the church worked through this issue, they decided to drop the program.

That decision didn’t sit so well with two of the main donors who had supported the program for many years, however. But through patient listening and prayer, they were more or less mollified, said Pettinga, and eventually the matter came to a peaceable conclusion.

“Honest vulnerability in difficult times can make a difference in helping churches make the changes they need to make,” he said.

Pete VanderBeek, another longtime STM, reflected on an approach he has taken with churches to which he has been assigned. He selects and trains interviewers to speak with church members about valuable practices and elements that have been meaningful to them in the past and can be helpful in shaping ways for the congregation as they face their future.

“We ask members to tell us about the best of the past – what has worked and what has helped them to grow the most and bring them closer to God,” he said.

VanderBeek emphasized that this is not about seeking opinions on what has happened and what should happen in the future. For example, if someone says the stained-glass windows are important, they are asked how those windows have helped to build their faith.

“I want to help lay the groundwork for the next pastor,” said VanderBeek. “In my work, I don’t want to dwell on who may or may not be at fault for things. I want to take the wind out of accusations and get new wind in the church’s sails.”

Harold Veldman, another STM, said, “In everything we do, we want to create a healthier environment for the next pastor.” The goal is to work toward settings that have transitioned back to joy, vitality, and fruitfulness.

Cliff Hoekstra said he came to the meeting as someone working toward becoming an STM. In that role, he said, he would see himself as “coming alongside people in a time of brokenness and providing a lifeline and a sense of hope. I would want them to feel loved and not overlooked.”

Den Haan added that when people feel loved and heard, they are more able to be gracious with one another, to think creatively about what is next, and to prepare well for their next pastor.

For more information about specialized transitional ministry, anyone interested is  welcome to contact Dave Den Haan at [email protected]