The interim period, in simplest terms, is the time between pastors. This period is, however, far from simple. The church must continue to function. Worship needs to happen. The board must lead. The staff continues to work. Members must be taught and cared for. Visitors and new members must be introduced to the life of the church. It is here that an interim pastor fits into the plans of your congregation during the clergy leadership vacancy and the search process.
A congregation approaching an interval without a pastor has several options for pastoral support. Understanding these will help the board and the search committee determine their preference for ministry support.
- First, denominational or regional offices can help determine whether a trained interim pastor is available to serve your church.
- Second, retired pastors can be engaged to serve for a specific time period, perhaps until a new pastor is called.
- Third, the board can decide to use local pastors, or perhaps retired pastors, as weekly guest pastors.
Interim pastors, sometimes called transition specialists, will provide the best support. They have been trained to help congregations end their relationships with previous pastors, conduct self-study and discern new directions, identify and develop new lay leaders, rethink denominational relationships, and build commitment to a new future. An interim pastor might be willing to commit from twelve to eighteen months of service. He or she may come to your church in a part-time or full-time role.
Long-term supply pastors are usually retired pastors who are able to work in the church for a specific length of time, perhaps from three to six months. These pastors usually provide only maintenance ministry—preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. They are typically not trained to do the work of an interim pastor.
Both interim and long-term supply pastors can provide the congregation with a sense of continuity that is not provided by weekly guest pastors, and both can support the search committee if there are procedural questions. They are often eager to visit with members and friends of the congregation. Both may be willing to attend board meetings to provide advice and support. Whether you use one or several interim pastors or long-term supply pastors, you will want to develop a contract that specifies the pastor’s level of involvement with the board, committees, and member visitation, as well as whether he or she will serve part time or full time and for how long.
The Value of an Interim Pastor
The period your church is without a “settled” pastor (that is, permanent—or as permanent as any pastor can be) is crucial in the life of the church. An interim pastor can be invaluable to a congregation, performing whatever tasks are mutually agreed upon with the board. Leading worship and providing pastoral care will probably be high priorities. Even though members may not voice their concerns, they will wonder who will fill the pulpit and whether the preaching will be good, who will preside at funerals and weddings, who will baptize, who will call on the sick, who will provide counseling—all critical components of pastoral care. Members of the pastoral staff and other church employees may feel confused or anxious. Some individuals may have been wounded by the previous pastor or may be hurting over the loss of the pastor.
In addition to leading Sunday worship services and helping with pastoral care, the interim pastor can be a tremendous help to the board and search committee. The board may need help bringing closure to the former pastor’s ministry; dealing with change; resolving issues of leadership, ministries, or structure; or addressing other issues left from the previous pastor’s tenure. An evaluation of the church’s ministries might be in order during this transition period. During the interim, the church’s leaders and members may be under more stress than usual and can lose focus on their mission. An interim pastor can help with refocusing the church. The search committee might use an interim’s assistance when determining how best to conduct a congregational self-study and develop a church profile. Other than that, interim pastors usually do not become involved with the search committee or process. With the help of an interim pastor, however, the church can emerge from the time between settled pastors stronger and with a renewed vision for its purpose and mission. This strength in turn helps the new pastor as he or she assumes leadership.
It is easy to think that your church does not need an interim pastor. However, the value an interim brings to the church board and the congregation cannot be underestimated. In some specific instances, an interim is highly recommended because healing is needed. Transitions will be harder:
- When the previous pastor served the congregation for ten years or more
- When the pastor left because of conflict in the church body or leadership
- When the pastor left in a storm of controversy surrounding some incident of pastoral misconduct
- When specific unresolved issues are creating discord within the congregation
- When the church is large
- When the church has a large pastoral staff
Most denominations have policies governing the use of interim pastors. One of these is that an interim cannot be a candidate to become a congregation’s “permanent” pastor.
The Expense of an Interim Pastor
An interim pastor serving full time should be paid a salary and benefits comparable to the former pastor’s. If the interim is serving part time, adjust the compensation accordingly. If you approach a retired pastor to serve your congregation as a long-term interim pastor, expect to pay a base salary, travel expenses to and from the church, and expenses for local mileage and hospitality, as well as to provide housing. In general, congregations find that the benefits of having an interim pastor easily justify the additional costs.
Regional or denominational offices may have guidelines for payment to pastors providing various levels of leadership, and the board should make use of their expertise in developing a contract. Items that should be considered include:
- Typical weekly duties
- Expected hours per week
- Length of service
- Responsibilities, such as:
- Assisting with closure of the former pastor’s ministry
- Planning and leading worship and preaching
- Attending board meetings
- Assisting the board with resolving any difficult issues affecting the congregation as a whole
- Assisting in a congregational self-study
- Working with the search committee to develop the church profile
- Reviewing the church’s ministries and structure
- Advising the board on how to manage the “start-up” period when the new pastor arrives
- Salary figure and payment schedule
- Expense reimbursement policies and procedures
- Benefits (health coverage, vacation time, days off)
- Policy that the interim cannot be considered as a candidate for the post of pastor
The interim period is a challenge for the church. Ministries continue. Members and visitors come and go. Care is needed. The church board and staff have their hands full. Using an interim pastor can benefit the church during this period of uncertainty.
Task Cluster: The Interim Period
Adapted from The Pastoral Search Journey: A Guide to Finding Your Next Pastor by John Vonhof, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
It’s not a common occurrence to seek out a new pastor, so pastoral search committees can sometimes feel as though they are inventing the process from scratch. In The Pastoral Search Journey, John Vonhof provides detailed guidance for search committees to ensure a good match between pastor and congregation.
A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry
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Effective interim ministry depends on strong partnership between the interim minster and congregation. Lay leaders of congregations preparing for such a transition will value the expert guidance provided by over a dozen experienced interim pastors. What is interim ministry all about? What needs to happen during the interim? What should leaders and members expect from the interim pastor and themselves during this transition? What other resources are available for congregations?
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A polarity is a pair of truths that need each other over time. When an argument is about two poles of a polarity, both sides are right and need each other to experience the whole truth. This phenomenon has been recognized and written about for centuries in philosophy and religion, and the research is clear: leaders and organizations that manage polarities well outperform those who don’t.
Mark Lau Branson demonstrates how concentrating on needs and problems can mire a congregation in discouragement—and how, by focusing on memories of the congregation at its best—members are able to build on those positive experiences as they shape the church’s future. Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to the lives of congregations.
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