by Dan Hotchkiss

A file-drawer label popped out at me as I moved into my new office. It said, “VACANT CHURCHES.” For a moment, I imagined empty buildings all across the continent. Then I opened up the drawer, flipped through folders, and realized the churches were not vacant, really. They were full of people—all they lacked was ministers.

That’s where I came in. It was August, 1990, and I was the new ministerial placement person for the Unitarian Universalist Association—ministerial settlement, we called it then. My job was to fill those “vacant churches” up with ministers.

But not right away—first we filled most of them up with interims.

Interim ministry was already well established in the UUA. We filled the great majority of full-time ministry positions with full-time, full-year interims, some of whom had special training and certificates. We saw the change of clergy leadership as a critical moment in a congregation’s life, an opportunity to rethink everything: program, leadership, strategy, and purpose. It is also an emotional transition, similar to grief. A well-trained interim minister, engaged for a year or more, provides the support and counsel congregations need in order to move through it successfully. One of our strictest rules was that when the interim year (or two) was over, the minister had to leave. As for many other national and regional church bodies, for us interim ministry was an almost unquestioned good.

Almost unquestioned, but not quite. Clergy are more likely to accept and understand the interim idea than lay people, many of whom find it odd to spend so much time in transition, wondering why they cannot choose to ask an interim to stay on.

Larger churches—which have become more numerous since the 1970s—generally resist cookie-cutter formulas promoted by denominational bureaucracies. The idea that a congregation has to “do grief work” after the loss of its beloved pastor fits a pastoral-sized congregation better than a larger one, where pastoral positions are defined more functionally and institutional momentum may be more important than collective grief work.

Over the last decade, the consensus in support of interim ministry has softened somewhat. Lay leaders question or reject the automatic application of the interim ministry prescription. Some of the objections make sense to me, both personally and as an Alban consultant, but I should acknowledge some accountability for the status quo.

Before founding the Alban Institute, Loren Mead tested “vacancy consultants” in 23 Episcopal churches under the name Project Test Pattern. The project’s findings, summarized by William A. Yon in Prime Time for Renewal, were rather modest: bishops and congregations found the vacancy consultants useful as an adjunct to the services of the clergy deployment office. While not a “panacea,” the consultants helped improve communication, calmed feelings of “panic and haste,” and helped congregations clarify their purpose, goals, and needs.

At Alban, Mead and others continued to experiment with ways of helping congregations in transition. One thing led to another, and in time the notion of a vacancy consultant merged with the idea of interim ministry. In 1981, Alban fostered the formation of the Interim Ministry Network, an interfaith association of clergy for whom interim ministry had become a special calling.

Transitional ministries were not new, of course. They had existed under many names, and other consultants like Lyle Schaller had encouraged churches to use interim ministers—but this was something different. Equipped with new ideas like the “stages of grief” made popular by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, interims helped congregations talk about what they were experiencing. The emerging discipline of group dynamics helped interims to dignify the transition time as an occasion for important work, rather than a mere time of “vacancy” to be endured.

No historian has yet mapped the spread of the interim ministry idea, but apparently it spread quickly. In some regions and denominations, the majority of solo and senior clergy openings are filled by interims. The Unitarian Universalist Association now routinely recommends a two-year interim.

But doubts about the interim idea have not gone away. Carolyn Weese and Russell Crabtree, in The Elephant in the Boardroom (Jossey-Bass 2004), complain that the “prevailing stream of thinking about leadership transitions tends to be illness- based. A pastoral transition is treated like a terminal diagnosis….” (p. 19) Ouch!

A morbid emphasis on “wounds and weaknesses,” say Weese and Crabtree, forces congregations into a supine, patientlike dependence on the expertise of denominational officials and interim ministers. Instead, Weese and Crabtree recommend that governing boards take a more active role and engage in advance succession planning modeled on corporate practices. Especially in larger congregations, the promise of a swift and seamless leadership transition has considerable appeal.

In congregations as in corporations, transition planning is much easier to advocate than to carry out successfully. The governing boards of some large, conspicuous congregations have put transition plans in place only to find that, when the time comes, their chosen leader lacks the broad support needed for successful ministry.

Whatever the merits of their particular suggestions, Weese and Crabtree call needed critical attention to some aspects of Alban’s early work on transitions. Some interim ministers do rely rather heavily on the Kübler-Ross grief model—which is a bit dramatic in most situations. The most effective interims, I find, balance openness to grief feelings with an appreciative approach to congregational strengths, and bring a broad and flexible portfolio of skills and concepts to the work.

Professional interim ministers, as a group, engage in more self-critical reflection and creative thinking than most other clergy. In “Rethinking Transition Ministry” (Congregations 2012, issue 1), Norman Bendroth, a network-certified professional interim, surveys the ferment and experiments afoot among members of the Interim Ministry Network.

To date, Bendroth observes—and so far as I have been able to determine, he is right—no one has mounted a serious, objective study to evaluate whether interim ministry reduces conflict, improves ministerial selection, lengthens subsequent ministries, or improves congregational self-knowledge or effectiveness. Given the impact of the widespread use of interim ministry in a denominational system, this is an odd omission that some social scientist should remedy.

The widespread acceptance of interim ministry has instead been based on observation and evaluation, mainly by interested parties. As a placement director, I generally thought lay leaders who accepted my advice to hire an interim were sensible and healthy, while those who insisted on barreling ahead in defiance of my wisdom seemed foolish, power-hungry, or afraid of painful feelings. How impartial is that?

Bureaucrats like standardized solutions, and it’s easy to see the appeal of making interim ministry a one-size-fits-all prescription. Though I couldn’t prove it, I believe it has done more good than harm. But any major change in institutional practice has both intended and unintended consequences.

A major side effect of interim ministry is that it produces a strong lobby for its own perpetuation. Interim ministers are a self-conscious professional group, a “guild.” The more interim ministry a denomination recommends, the more interim ministers it will end up with. A “guild” is a good thing when it promotes high standards; it can be a problem when it pumps up demand or shields incompetence. If one year of interim is good, why wouldn’t two be better? Over time, it can become hard to entertain alternatives that might reduce the number of positions for the interims who need them.

Another unintended consequence of urging congregations to hire interims is that congregations hear an implied promise that qualified interims will be available. Despite intensive efforts to maintain a strong cadre of effective interims, every year some interim ministers fall short of the advertised ideal. Placement officers are always walking a fine line between serving congregations and serving clergy. Nowhere is the walk more challenging than with interims.

I do think interim ministry is a good choice, especially for a congregation where the prior ministry was long or ended badly. It is not easy to evaluate a congregation’s situation on the fly—serious trauma or dysfunction often only comes to light in the transition time itself. It does not help that some leaders respond impulsively to all emergencies with a “take charge,” “ready, fire, aim!” approach. The promise of a quick transition back to normal can be only too seductive.

I still believe in interim ministry, though after forty years, I agree with Norman Bendroth that it’s overdue for some rethinking. What is best for pastoralsized congregations differs from what works in larger ones. Weese and Crabtree’s criticism of the “illness-based” approach has merit—though the fact that I prefer to see myself as healthy doesn’t mean I am.

Congregations in transition are not “vacant churches” and should not be treated as such. At the same time, the departure of a clergy leader does create a vacancy of some importance. I have noticed, even in large congregations that work hard to plan ahead for their transitions, the first day after the departure of a long-time clergy leader feels quite different from the days that went before. On that day, leaders, staff, and members look at one another and ask questions like, Who are we? What shall we do next? With whom?

When asking questions of this kind, a companion who has been this way before can be a comfort and a help no matter how much—or how little—health is in us.

Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant with the Alban Institute. His consulting focuses on planning, clergy coaching, financial assessment, and especially governance. Prior to consulting for the Alban Institute, the Reverend Hotchkiss served congregations for twelve years and the Unitarian Universalist Association for seven. His publications includeGovernance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership and Ministry and Money: A Guide for Clergy and Their Friends.

Congregations Magazine, 2012-06-15
2012 Issue 2, Number 2