Q: Our minister has taken a new call, and we have been advised to enter an interim ministry period. Wouldn’t it be better to move immediately to the next “permanent” minister?
A: For congregations the interim between settled pastors can be a wonderful time of listening, understanding, focusing, and strengthening. Many interim ministers are trained to help congregations look at who they are and where they are going, as well as look at a congregation’s ministry under the previous pastor’s leadership.
I have seen congregations benefit greatly—and I have seen congregations duck the work. In my view, it takes a commitment of the lay leadership to succeed at the interim tasks. Interim ministers need a reflective, actively participating, and encouraging lay leadership and membership.
During this time of having an interim minister and of being an interim congregation, lay leaders and members need to be open to the soul-searching of the interim work—and we are often afraid.
Benefits of Interim Work
Fear is not surprising. We live in a culture that tells us to shake it off and get on to the next chapter. Before you do that, consider the learning possibilities and benefits of interim work:
Claiming strengths. An interim time may allow congregants and leaders to see what they do well apart from their minister. Any ministry will have its preferred styles and projects; an interim time can allow many other areas to blossom.
Lived experience of different styles. “Difference” is the theme for an interim congregation—different preaching, leadership, and pastoral style. The experience of living with these differences helps create the emotional space for a new minister. Different leadership and pastoral styles may also be experienced among the lay leaders as members not previously in leadership roles sense a call to serve the congregation.
Working through grief. Sadness and regret are common to interim-time congregations. The potential for conflict, for the re-experiencing of other losses, and for displaced anger is real. In naming and working with grief, the interim time can be practice for the rest of our lives.
Identifying patterns and potholes. Reflection time is a key gift of the interim period. The congregation can take time to look at what has served it well and what has gotten in its way, what has moved it toward health and wholeness and what has not.
Discerning God’s will. Interim congregations, like so many examples of holy people before us, are people faced with change. An interim time can be a chance to imagine that journey as exodus people—or the people of the early church, or the prophets, or those who needed healing or justice or love. It can be a time to listen for God’s call to the congregation as a community of faith.
Are these potential benefits guaranteed? By no means. But if the lay leaders, the congregation, and the interim minister jointly own these tasks, they will be more likely to have the difficult conversations, to listen, and to build up their community of faith.
How can you contribute to a valuable interim time? Be aware of the interim tasks. Don’t rush through them. People in transition need two things—to be heard and to be understood. The leader’s role is to create the time and space for deeper conversations.
Here are some ways you can help the process:
- Ask the interim minister about your progress. He or she will likely have some insights from prior experiences that may be of help to you.
- Engage your own heart and prayer life in what it means to you to experience change in your community of faith and the commitments you are willing to make.
- Help your interim minister face resistance to the work.
Patricia Hayes served as a field consultant with the Alban Institute. She works with congregations, clergy, and middle judicatory/regional bodies on issues of discernment, transition, planning, and working with differences. Prior to working with Alban, Ms. Hayes had more than two decades of experience as a parish minister and middle judicatory executive.