Interim ministry: What it is, what it can accomplish
After 37 years of pastoral ministry, I chose to retire. But in ministry there is no such thing as permanent retirement. As one called by God who has spent an entire lifetime serving the gospel of Jesus, I know I can continue to be of service to God in whatever way He wants me to serve.
One day that way opened when I was invited to serve as an interim pastor. Since then I have served as an intentional interim pastor in five churches. All were different. All were challenging. All were gratifying. I will share three experiences.
The first church was a “healthy” congregation in a university town, and their previous pastor had made a remarkable contribution to the church. Every member seemed to have loved her—her sermons, visitation, involvement in church growth, and perception of the church’s future and its role in the community. But after ten years of being a parish pastor, Sue accepted an executive position in the general offices of her denomination. She felt she had to move on.
“What are we to do?” was the collective reflection of a congregation in mourning.
Against that background, I was invited to be the interim pastor until a permanent pastor could be found to replace Sue—not an easy task. I soon found that the spiritual mourning in the congregation ran deep and collectively. The message I got was simple and straightforward. “Our church was growing. We were doing so well. We just can’t see anyone replacing her.”
That kind of reaction is quite normal. Church families grieve over such a leadership loss just as we do over a loss in the family. But we should remember that grieving can be healthy or destructive, depending on how one handles the grieving process. I listened often to members of that congregation as they told me how much they loved Sue and what wonderful things they did together. My first task was to help them shift out of the “loss” mentality and focus on the future. In time the congregation was on the way to full recovery—and growth.
My second experience was at a rural church that reminded me of my first fulltime pastorate. Unlike that first parish, this was, literally, a dead-end congregation. Once, the church was positioned on a main state road. Traffic flowed past the church daily. The church sat in a high profile position along this thoroughfare. Then, the interstate came, terminating the road just beyond the church property. For more than a decade, the church struggled, now sitting on top of a hill at the end of a road that led to nowhere. Here, my goal was to assist the church members in rebuilding a sense of self-esteem by making their presence more prominent in the community while they waited for a full-time pastor. The third was a very suburban congregation. Once healthy, it was torn apart when the pastor recast the worship services with little communication or consultation with the members. In years past, before moving to the suburb, this had been a downtown congregation known for its musical program and large choir with paid soloists. In the abrupt change and ensuing arguments, more than half the congregation left. And then the pastor, too, had to leave. I was invited to be the interim pastor, and one morning, out-of-town friends came to worship. Their most telling comment at lunch that afternoon was: “We could feel the pain as soon as we walked in the front door. You could cut the tension with a knife.” This congregation viewed itself as irreparably damaged and unable to accomplish any goals with a membership half the size of what it was a year ago. Near the end of my first year of interim ministry, the church held a “Miracle Service,” received a special one-time offering of more than $100,000 in cash or in kind, and paid off the outstanding mortgage. The church members could not believe what this greatly-reduced-in-size congregation had accomplished. Interim ministry proved that given God’s leadership and believers’ faithfulness, a church could see new horizons.
Such was my experience in interim pastoring. But what insights did I gain that could help churches that are in transition find a new pastor? How can those called to serve a church on an interim basis fulfill their role so that the congregation moves from a feeling of loss and emptiness to a sense of new beginnings and opportunities?
I will share five major emphases: (1) interim ministry needs to be intentional; (2) interim ministry cannot be the same as regular ministry; (3) interim means “temporary” but not “partial”; (4) interim ministry is an opportunity for renewal; and (5) interim ministry is a time for congregational rediscovery.
Interim ministry needs to be intentional
Interim ministry, a temporary arrangement, involves calling a pastor to provide transitional leadership to a congregation during a period of pastoral vacancy. Such vacancy may arise because of a pastoral move, resignation, retirement, death, or some other reason. When the vacancy arises, the congregation and the administrative body of the denomination may need time to think through the appointment of a new pastor. Sometimes such replacement may take as much as a year. During this interim period, the congregation needs an experienced pastor who can fill the gap, help heal any wounds or sense of loss the congregation may be suffering, and provide a continuation in ministry— in preaching and pastoral caring. Such an interim ministry is not just filling a gap but providing a bridge and preparing the congregation for a meaningful future.
An interim ministry can be successful only if it is intentional. That word intentional should apply to all parties involved—the interim pastor, congregation, and administrative bodies.
Interim ministries are times of great opportunity. In many cases, congregations that lose their pastors are susceptible to feelings of low self-esteem. Though some members may celebrate the minister’s retirement or moving, others will see it as a cause for mourning and wonder how they can carry on. Even in solid, healthy congregations, there are matters to work on and improve before a congregation is ready to welcome a new minister and begin a fresh phase of life and ministry. Whatever the challenge, the interim ministry can be effective only if the pastor comes with the full intention of making it efficient and successful.
The selection of a new pastor is not in the hands of the interim pastor. It is a task dependent on the congregation, usually through a search committee, working in close coordination with higher administrative bodies of the denomination.
Style of interim service varies from situation to situation, from church to church, and from one clergyperson to another. One characteristic that is increasingly common, however, is that this interim person comes to his or her job with a full understanding of what he or she is expected to do. Such an experience may come from past ministerial or interim-pastor experience, such as in my case. But today training in interim ministry and various courses in interim education are available for those interested in getting retooled for the specifics of this transitional ministry. For example, the nondenominational Interim Ministry Network, based in Baltimore, Maryland, United States, offers valuable courses in interim pastoral work. Their “Standards of Practice of Interim Ministry” serves as a basis for regular workshops and other training opportunities that prepare members for certification and accreditation. The rigorous training involves managing the effects of change, congregational grief management, conflict resolution, and preserving/restoring spiritual wellness and growth of the congregation.* The interim pastor’s ability to analyze quickly and follow a specific course of action could lead to a turnaround in a fading congregation.
Interim ministry cannot be the same as regular ministry
My experience taught me that there are decided differences between ministry as a full-time senior pastor and ministry as an interim pastor. Interim ministry is a transitional ministry—one that prepares the congregation for a sense of void, loss, or change left by the departure of one pastor and the uncertain factors involved in the arrival of a new pastor. Bridging the gap can be a profound opportunity to show that the church belongs to God and that He will do what is needed.
While being an interim pastor is not the same as being a regular one, it allows the pastor to minister to congregations in ways that regular full-time ministers might find difficult. The interim pastor knows that his or her time with a congregation is limited. This knowledge allows the interim pastor to deal forcefully and energetically with situations and circumstances that could derail the ministry of an incoming senior minister.
One of the gifts that interim minis-ters bring to congregations is emotional distance. Because they are not completely absorbed in the congregation, interim pastors are able to view and assess the needs of the congregation in an unbiased appraisal.
Interim means “temporary” but not “partial”
Interim ministry is much more than just leading worship services on the Sabbath. When a pastor leaves a church, the life of the church does not suddenly become limited to Sabbath mornings. It continues in all its complex and varied dimensions throughout the week, and the need for effective and sustained pastoral leadership continues as well. Though “interim” means temporary, it does not mean partial, incomplete, or part-time.
Because the interim minister has a limited amount of time to prepare for the coming of the next full-time pastor, he or she must hit the ground running. Contact with many families—all of the families in a smaller congregation—is highly valuable in establishing a working relationship between pastor and people. Ideally, the interim pastor is identified as one who has the expertise of an outside consultant and holds such credibility. This is a valuable asset when bringing a congregation to view itself with honesty in order to prepare for the future.
Interim pastors should establish, at the beginning of their ministry, that they are not available for permanent calls in these congregations. Making themselves available makes the work of the search committee too easy and bypasses work that every congregation in transition needs to do. By making themselves unavailable, they can lead the necessary evaluation and planning in an objective manner.
By having the time to look back, grieve, evaluate, and thoughtfully move forward, the congregation can do much more than merely endure the transition.
Interim ministry is an opportunity for renewal
Because the interim pastor’s stay is temporary, he or she can feel less threat-ened by possible future repercussions of his or her leadership advice. That does not mean the interim pastor should act alone or arbitrarily; he or she should work toward a cooperative endeavor for a sustainable future while the congregation awaits the new pastor. In this process of building a bridge between past and future, an interim pastor not only can offer encouragement but also can act as a catalyst for action because of their outsider’s perspective regarding how the congregation functions.
Interim periods are times between the times. Interim periods celebrate the temporary. Interims are times for reflection and growth. The concept of “interim” is Scriptural. Without “interim” we cannot understand the grandeur of the hosanna and the cry for crucifixion, the grief of the burial and the glory of the resurrection—all in one week; we never would know the nature of servanthood at the Lord’s Supper, the cost of redemption at the Cross, or the practice of patience learned on the most painful Sabbath of the crucifixion week, or the triumph of the resurrection early on the first day.
During the interim, while the disciples were “constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14, NIV), God prepared the people for the gift and reception of the Holy Spirit. Interims are important times in our faith and congregational life. Those who provide leadership at these particular passages have a special ministry of renewal.
Interim ministry—a time for congregational rediscovery
Interim ministry provides the congregation an opportunity to move through the “in between” time, freed from a sense of uncertainty and crisis. Some tasks your congregation can undertake during the interim ministry period are as follows:
- Come to terms with the congre-gation’s history. A congregation may experience a sense of loss during pastoral transition. There may be widespread grief that needs to be addressed. If the pastoral relationship was severed under trying circumstances, anger may be expressed, and healing needs to take place. The congregation may need release from the restricting power of the past in order to openly and fully prepare for and accept a new pastor.
- Maintain the viability of the congregation. One of the interim leader’s primary roles includes helping the congregation continue its programming and, if possible, offering suggestions that will make these programs more meaningful.
- Accept shifts in lay leadership. When a pastor leaves, new patterns of lay involvement may develop. Often feelings of anxiety and uncertainty about change may manifest themselves. The interim ministry can help provide the environment in which change can occur positively, creatively, and helpfully.
- Resolve feelings and reclaim values. Through pastoral visitation and group meetings, the interim pastor can provide opportunities for feelings about the past and ongoing concerns to be reviewed and resolved. At the same time, the interim pastor can assist the congregation in reclaiming its core values and discover a new identity. The interim ministry provides the congregation with both time and process to take a look at themselves, find out who they are (core values), and project realistically who they want to become (new identity).
- Correct, if necessary, the congrega-tion’s course and make needed changes.
- Assist the search committee in its search process. The interim pastor, however, should not become involved in making decisions about particular candidates.
- Increase the potential for the successful ministry of the incoming senior pastor. The interim minister acts as one who is future-oriented. His or her role is to help a congregation prepare for the arrival of the new pastor and to offer observations that help the congregation.
- Strengthen regional and denominational ties. During an interim period, congregations often find themselves in close contact with regional administrative offices, particularly through the search and call process. The interim period is a prime time for the local church to remember its covenant relationship with the wider church.
The role of the interim pastor is primarily to facilitate an easy and enduring transition from the departure time of a pastor to the search and arrival of a new pastor. The congregation may go through a process that involves a climate of exploring, healing, dreaming, building, and, most of all, continuing to be the body of Christ.
If the pastor and the people view this interim ministry as more than marking time, the interim ministry becomes an opportunity for the congregation to capitalize on its strengths “between the times.”
Most interim ministries may last up to a year, some shorter. It usually takes several months to work through the search and call process. When the end of the interim time approaches and the congregation has called a new pastor, the focus begins to shift. At that point, the interim pastor and congregation gear up to welcome the new pastor. This transitional time need not be a period of anxiety or simply marking time but can be valuable and creative, preparing the ground so that under the leadership of the new pastor, the church can flourish and bear greater fruits.
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