by Anthony B. Robinson
Sometimes heated discussion is underway in various quarters—judicatories, congregations and among clergy—about interim ministry, a model that came into wide use three decades ago. Congregations has recently published two helpful pieces which have advanced the conversation.
What’s prompting the conversation? Sometimes it is a bad experience—an interim minister who hasn’t worked out or who has done more harm than good. Other times it is interims that go on a long time, up to three years, a period that seems just too long. While important work may be going on in such extended periods, there’s also the sense of the church having gone “off-line” and losing momentum at a time when few churches can afford it. Perhaps the most common complaint is that interim ministry, once an innovation, has now become the standard operating procedure, the “one-size-fits-all” recourse for every church in pastoral transition when in fact one size doesn’t fit all.
While all of these things are true and important, I’m not sure they get to the heart of the current discontent. What is at the heart of the rumblings about interim ministry? What is the real challenge? It is this: when the interim ministry model was created, the job at hand was to change pastors. That meant letting go of the former pastor and preparing for a new one. Today the real work is not just changing pastors—it is changing the culture of congregations. Instead of replacing one key part, the real work facing many congregations, and with which an interim minister can help, is to change the culture of the congregation. That won’t all be done—nor should it be—by an interim. But an interim minister can help the congregation understand the larger picture and challenge. A good interim can help a congregation prepare for and engage in shifts in its own culture because the world in which the large majority of mainline churches came into existence and learned to be and do church no longer exists. Despite that, many mainline churches are doing church in ways that worked reasonably well in the period of say 1945 to 1975, but aren’t working nearly so well these days.
The idea of specifically trained and intentional interim ministry developed out of research done in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Loren Mead, Celia Hahn, and Bill Yon, all of whom were associated with the Alban Institute. Their earlier work with Project Test Patten led Mead and his colleagues to the conclusion that a prime time for renewal in any congregation was when there was a pastoral change. Celia Hahn wrote up their findings in her 1974 book, The Minister Is Leaving. Up to this point the prevailing model for the interim period was to bring in an older, retired pastor as a “placeholder,” even to “babysit.” But the Alban research suggested more was needed and that there were crucial developmental tasks to be addressed during this period. This led to the now common notion of the five developmental tasks of interim ministry: coming to terms with history, discovering a new identity, negotiating shifts of power and leadership changes, rethinking denominational linkages, and commitment to new leadership and a new future.
By the early 1980s the training and deployment of interim ministry specialists had become the new normal for many denominations. A national Interim Ministry Network was established to offer training and certification for would-be interim ministers. A valuable insight from Mead is that there is a cadre of pastors, “a whole constituency among the clergy who found this style of ministry really fit them and was more challenging to them than ‘ordinary’ pastorates.” Such people tended to be problem-solvers with gifts for congregational and community analysis. My experience of interims is that the most able do fit this profile. They are people who think systemically and pose the right questions.
Today Mead describes interim ministry as a “very powerful but delicate tool that is too often used by the church as a sledgehammer. Unfortunately, most judicatories treat the interim pastorate as an indiscriminate tool, to be used anywhere. I don’t think it works that way. I don’t think interims are needed in lots of places, and they can be wasted.” Worse, according to Mead, judicatory leaders have sometimes deployed clergy with known problems in the interim role. It is thought that “People who screw up in one place can at least hold down an interim spot.” Mead terms this, “Stupid.” Also problematic is the way that some clergy think of the interim position as a way to “hi-jack a long term job.” Acknowledging these pitfalls, Mead still sees “the interim pastorate as a really important, valuable resource to the churches.”
But if the interim minister model is to continue to have value it will need more than tweaking. This is the case because the entire mainline Protestant church is caught in a huge cultural shift, an awkward intermediate stage or interim time between Christianity’s cultural establishment and its disestablishment, or between mainline Protestantism’s status as the default religious option in North American culture to a time of far greater religious choice and competition. Arguably, the interim model was conceived in a time of greater stability for historic or mainline Protestant denominations and congregations. Such congregations were an established feature of their cities, town and communities. Denominations themselves remained a significant and plausible brand. But in the thirty years since interim ministry was birthed, much has changed. Growing numbers of Americans switch denominations, even faiths. More Americans are electing for “none of the above” and opting out of religious affiliation altogether, while others are inhabiting the new world of “the spiritual but not religious.” Fewer congregations experience themselves as moving from one stable-longer-term pastorate to another. More are struggling to discover their role and identity in a rapidly changing culture. I can imagine that interim ministry can continue to be helpful in such times and situations. But the work needs to be rethought or reformulated.
I would suggest that the five developmental tasks crafted more than thirty years ago be updated to six critical tasks for today’s interim.
One, of course, is tending to the pastoral basics and doing them well. These include planning worship and preaching, pastoral work, and church administration.
But a second task for interims today is a new one. It is to help congregations understand the seismic shifts in American culture that I and others describe as “the ending of North American Christendom,” and “the waning of modernity.” On the ground, the way most congregations experience these shifts is suggested by comments like, “How come when we do what we’ve always done, it doesn’t seem to work anymore?” Or, to invoke the title of a book on cultural change, “Who Moved My Cheese?” Most congregations learned to be and do church in a period when the culture at large was more, even highly, supportive of Christian churches. And most formed their patterns when the ethos and values of modernity, including commitments to reason, tolerance and objectivity, were firmly entrenched. All of this has changed now. While much of this is familiar to the clergy from reading, conferences, and seminary study, often laity with little experience outside their own congregation lack names for these shifts and for the challenges and opportunities they bring. An interim minister is in a good position to raise awareness and create conversation about the shifting context.
A third task for an interim is to actually do a congregational assessment. Before change can or should be undertaken it is important to know, as accurately as possible, what’s going on—what a congregation’s current reality is. One tried and true method for doing such an assessment is to interview a broad sample of a congregation’s members. Get their confidential perspective on what’s working and what isn’t. Study the trend lines regarding membership, attendance, and member giving. Talk, as well, to people in the wider community about their perception of the congregation and the role it plays. Review the history of the congregation, including its beginnings and key decision points. And take a close look at the demographics of the area and region. An interim who puts all this together in a 15 to 20 page portrait of a congregation’s current reality will have provided an important service.
Fourth, and related to the previous assessment, an interim will serve a congregation well by revisiting key texts and themes of scripture that most address the nature and calling of the church. If renewal and new life are to happen, churches need to get in touch in a fresh way with the basics, with what the apostle Paul termed the “extraordinary power that belongs to God,” which we hold in “earthen vessels.” When churches lose touch with that “extraordinary power,” their tendency is to turn the earthen vessel—the form or organization of church we have known—into a idol. Part of the challenge of the aforementioned cultural shifts is for congregations to re-think and re-discover their mission or purpose. A good sermon or study series on some of the key texts will help to till the soil and broaden the horizon. Texts which might be considered include, for example, Genesis 12: 1–4, Exodus 19: 1–6, Micah 6: 1–8, Matthew 5: 13–16, Matthew 28: 16–20, and Acts 1: 1–8. Each of these passages can help a congregation ask and explore the questions of what the church is and what the church’s vocation is. Mead and his colleagues were right: such questions are ripe for asking at times of leadership change and transition. But the point of doing so, at least during an interim, is less to determine an answer than to stir the pot.
Fifth, interim ministers can and should, when necessary and with suitable deliberation, make some tough calls. It’s difficult for a new pastor to get rid of a longtime youth worker or administrative assistant who may have been around forever, but who has “retired in place,” or never was effective in the first place. An interim can help his or her successor, the new pastor, by making such transitions in staffing or similar tough calls with respect to moribund programs or building issues.
Sixth, lots of congregations today need the gift that some associate with Barnabas in the New Testament, the gift of encouragement. Barnabas means “son of encouragement.” These days a fair number of congregations are discouraged. They have lost confidence in their role and message. Some are demoralized and feel powerless. Simply pointing out what’s wrong won’t help to energize or empower. Many congregations need steady, if realistic, encouragement with regard to their strengths, their capacity to make a difference, and God’s power to use and surprise them.
A key difference between interim ministers and settled or installed pastors (different denominations have different terms) is that the former tend to be in a contractual relationship with a congregation while the latter tend to be in a covenantal one. What’s the difference? A contract is more definite, with clear specifications about tasks and timing. A contract spells out the work to be done, the services to be rendered and frames it within a definite time period. A covenant is more open-ended. A long-term pastor with whom I recently visited spoke of the four congregations he had served. “I thought you’d been here 28 years,” I said, surprised by his comment. “Yes,” he smiled, “but I have served at least four different congregations in that time. The church is always changing.” In that more covenantal relationship the expectations are not—and cannot—be wholly prescribed or defined. Both pastor and congregation will adapt and change, engaging opportunities and challenges that were unforeseen earlier.
But there is tremendous value in the more contractual relationship with an interim. The contract may specify things like “skills in conflict resolution” and focused work to address and resolve a festering conflict. Or it may call for doing a congregational assessment or developing a system for evaluation of personnel. Mead was certainly right that there are pastors for whom the more focused, short-term work of an interim is a good fit for their gifts and temperament. The church really does need such leaders, who sometimes will be called on to function as troubleshooters. There are some congregations where simply calling or sending in a new pastor is an exercise in futility. Someone needs to address some hard issues first. A good, skilled and thick-skinned interim (with a contract) can do that.
There are such conflicted or traumatized congregations that need a special kind of interim. For most, however, the work as I’ve suggested is not just to change the pastor but to change, or at least help congregations, prepare for faithful change in the culture of the congregation itself.
If interim ministry isn’t the only option or the best one for every situation, what are some other models? Some congregations, typically larger and/or ethnic congregations have had success with the pastoral succession model of transition. In a pastoral succession, the new pastor is called before the incumbent leaves. There may be a time of overlap or not. But the incumbent blesses his or her successor, gives them his or her support and gets out of the way. This is often a good fit for larger congregations where the outgoing minister is retiring and if that person is responsible about minding his or her boundaries. A variation on this theme is the church that calls someone as an Associate Pastor, preparing that person over the next several years to succeed the outgoing lead minister. Again, these models tend to be limited to larger congregations.
The interim minister role and model remains, as Loren Mead, puts it “a really important, valuable resource to the churches. Smart judicatories and smart church systems will develop a cadre of really first-class interim pastors.” But the larger context has changed. The task is not just to successfully change ministers—although that is important. It is, at least often, to help congregations make shifts in the culture of the congregation itself in order to be vital in a post-Christendom time and society.
- The original research that led to the creation of interim ministry as a distinct profession suggested that the period between settled pastors is—at least potentially—a particularly fruitful time in the life of a congregation. Does that seem right to you? Why or why not?
- Interim ministry, as we know it, was developed on the basis of research done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Compare and contrast that period of time with the present. What are some of the big changes in society in these forty years? What are some big changes for congregations?
- What situations do you think really need or can benefit from a skilled interim? Are there other situations that do not require the skills of an interim, but some other method or way forward? What might that be?
- How do you imagine the work of an interim needs to be different in different sized congregations?
- The author suggests six tasks for interim ministers in this new time. Which one strikes you as the most interesting or surprising? What one task might you add to this list?
Congregations Magazine, 2013-01-09
2012 Issue 4