By Dr. Terry V. Swicegood
A pastor stands in the pulpit on a Sunday morning and tells the congregation, “Today I am announcing my resignation from First Church.” Depending on how this pastor’s ministry has been received, the congregation either breaks out in Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or country music diva Lee Ann Rimes’ “How Do I Live Without You?”
Whether the ministry of a pastor has been good, bad, or somewhere in between, his or her leaving creates a critical vacuum in the life of the congregation. Immediate questions swarm in upon the lay leadership, “Who’s going to preach next Sunday?” “Who is going to call on our sick?” “Who is going to moderate our administrative board?”
In many mainline denominations these days those questions are answered by the calling of an interim pastor. The interim pastor is the glue which holds the congregation together before the next permanently installed pastor comes on board.
Research has indicated that the interim time in a congregation is a time of peril and promise. Many congregations experience a decline in worship attendance and financial giving during an interim. People withdraw, sit on the sidelines, waiting for the “real” minister to arrive.
Research has also indicated that the single most significant factor in combating this decline is good preaching by the interim pastor and inspiring worship each Sunday. Some churches have discovered that the interim pastor’s preaching and leadership skills are so remarkable that they want to call him or her as permanent pastor. For many reasons, I believe this is unwise both for the congregation and the interim. There is a specific clause in my contract with First Church, Peoria, declaring that I will not be a candidate for the permanent position.
For the past 35 years there has been a significant body of research and practice about interim ministry. Interim ministry “specialists” exist in many denominations. The PCUSA sponsors two tracks of interim training, beginning and advanced. Some Presbyteries require that before an interim minister can be called to a church, he or she should have at least one year of training. A few presbyteries require an interim minister to have taken both tracks.
My former Presbytery executive in Arizona, Ken Moe, has said, “All ministry is interim ministry.” In reflecting on his words, I think he’s on the mark I have experienced this truth in all my churches. Some of my interims have been longer than others. But in every case, my ministry has been an interim between what went on before I came and what would occur after I left. I was the middle-man, called during my own interim ministry to perform the tasks needed to build up the church. I have come to the conclusion that the real difference in pastoral ministry is the time element. When you are called as permanent pastor, you have more time to complete the “interim tasks.” When you are called as an interim pastor, that time is compressed.
There is a consensus these days that interim ministers have five process tasks. Although these tasks have been developed specifically for interim ministry, I believe, that for the most part, they apply as well to a permanently called pastor.
- An interim minister joins the “system”. The church is the body of Christ. It is like a human body, with interconnected parts and complex structures. Effective interim ministers have the ability to quickly join the “body of Christ” and to hit the ground running.
- An interim minister has the knack to analyze the church and its strengths and weaknesses. A church is very much like a family. We all know about the various interactions in our own family-how beautiful, painful and convoluted they can be. Gifted family therapists can analyze individual families, and when those families are malleable, help with their growth. In the same way, a good interim can come into a church, then listen, observe, and learn. He then can pass on to the leadership his insights and observations. The best interims can do so in such a winsome way that the church leadership uses those observations for making needed adjustments to strengthen the church.
- An interim helps the congregation connect with the denomination.
The local congregation is not an island to itself, but part of a connectional system. The wise interim keeps in touch with the Committee on Ministry of the Presbytery, and participates in the functions of the Presbytery where the church is located. The wise interim tries to create and strengthen linkages which exist between the local church and the wider church.
- An interim must determine, with the Session, where to focus his time and gifts. There’s always more to do in the ministry than any pastor can competently do. That is certainly the case for interim ministry. I am convinced that the interim and the church should enter into a covenant of expectations, That covenant of expectations should include the major tasks expected of the interim. Ordinarily, those tasks include preaching, worship leadership, staff leadership, pastoral care, and administrative responsibilities (which should be broadly defined). Other tasks have to do with issues existing in the congregation when the interim comes on board. For example, issues might include: Works with Session in implementing the Long Range Plan; Works with the Nominating Committee to Identify New Leaders; Works with the Personnel Committee in evaluating current staff structure and the effectiveness of current staff. These, of course, are just examples. The point is to have the church leadership decide early on how the interim pastor might best help the congregation. In this covenant of expectations, there should be an evaluative tool to measure the effectiveness of the interim minister and a similar tool to evaluate the effectiveness of the Session. It doesn’t have to be an extensive, time-consuming tool, but it’s good for everyone to know what is expected and whether they are on track.
- The interim minister leaves in a helpful and graceful way. Interim ministers, if they have done their job well, have given the congregation two significant gifts. They have led in such a vibrant and competent way that the momentum of the congregation has been sustained. And second, they have helped the congregation to be ready to commit to a new pastor and new leadership. Good interim ministers know how to· say goodbye in a loving and professional way. They know exit strategies, and are able to articulate those strategies to the church leadership when it becomes apparent that the Pastor Nominating Committee completed its work and is ready to call a new pastor.
Furthermore, most interim pastors seek an honest evaluation of their ministry. That evaluation normally comes from the session in consultation with the Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry. For myself, I want to know, “Did the church leadership and I accomplish what we set out to do in our covenant of expectations at the beginning of my call?” Being accountable to one another is at the heart of good ministry of any duration.