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Interim Ministry: An Overview


Ministerial transitions and preacher changes are a given in our churches. Historically, the time between the departure of one minister and the arrival of the next has been viewed as a necessary evil and a time in which the church stands still at best, and more often regresses. As a result, churches often rush to hire replacement ministers, sometimes with disastrous results. In the last quarter of the 20th century, many denominational groups came to recognize effective interim ministry as a significant factor in improving the health of a congregation and establishing the foundation for sharing an effective ministry with the next minister. The interim period can provide an important opportunity for congregations. The concept of interim ministry did not catch on as quickly among churches of Christ, perhaps due in part to the typical view of the role of the preacher or minister. I refer to the fact that ministers generally have fewer identified pastoral roles in churches of Christ, and that in various respects the work of the congregation is less dependent upon the presence of a minister. Nonetheless, various forms of interim ministry (as opposed to fill-in preaching) have grown in popularity over the last two decades years. Interim ministry has increasingly been seen as an opportune time for congregational intervention.

The transitional period between ministers is often a difficult time in the local congregation. Various attitudes and emotions are generated by the departure of the previous minister; equally there are varying ideas and emotions concerning the next minister even before the person is identified. The church faces an important time in its history because it may be forced to face its identity without a mediating presence in the pulpit. "Who are we when we don't have a preacher?" [See my article contrasting two different congregations in the midst of a "preacher search": So You're Looking For a Preacher.] This author's interest in interim ministry has developed because of opportunities to serve several churches in an interim ministry role, and because in at least two ministry roles, the accomplishments of relatively brief ministries (three years and two years) were more characteristic of interim ministries than of the normal ministerial tasks and relationships. Because of the visible role of the pulpit minister, most studies of interim ministry have focused on the transition time between senior or pulpit ministers. However, many of the dynamics explored in this article are also significant in other ministerial transitions.

Effective interim ministry intervention has the advantage of involving an objective outsider to help the church determine the direction of its future ministry. Effective interim ministry also encourages the church to discuss the most important things up front and in a non-threatening way. Thus an incoming minister may have less "congregational baggage" to deal with, and may be able to enter a congregation that has a clear, refreshed identity and commitment to renewed ministry. Interim ministry, generally involving a minister who will not be part of the long-term life of the church, also assists the church in knowing who it follows (Jesus Christ rather than any specific individuals), and clarifies ministry expectations and possible ministry models. In interim ministry, congregations should be encouraged to ask about the dynamics of and reasons for the departure of the previous minister, and develop healthy dynamics to repair any internal deficiencies.

Studies of interim ministry have identified eight stages that a congregation may encounter in the transition between one minister and the next. Some of these may not occur naturally without intentional efforts to thoughtfully engage in the process. An excellent treatment is in W. Bud Phillips little book, Pastoral Transitions. The eight stages are ending (the termination), refocusing (direction setting), rethinking (a self-study is recommended in most of the literature), searching, selecting, calling and confirming the call, installing, and beginning again. (The self-study is often summarized in five tasks which are expanded below.) These eight stages may be thought of as 1-5-2: one early stage to finalize the past, five transition stages, and two stages which mark the end of the transition and the beginning of a new time in the life and history of the congregation.

The Ending
The interim journey begins with an ending. The reasons for the minister's leaving may be many. Ultimately, someone decides the minister should leave. The minister may make that decision and communicate it to the church. The minister may make such a decision quickly or over an extended period of time. Whether the minister makes the decision in order to move to another ministry or to retire will alter the church's perceptions of the ending. Ministers who leave for another ministry may be seen as unfaithful to the church, as simply moving up a ministry success ladder, or as forsaking the community and church. Churches of Christ do not have a hierarchy above the local congregation which can force the minister's departure, and in that dimension face some different circumstances than groups in other fellowships.

Sometimes, the leadership will decide the minister should leave. Such a decisions brings into play a new set of circumstances and dynamics. Was the congregation adequately involved in the decision-making process? Calahan says that all decisions that are long-term and affect the congregation should involve a significant majority of the membership in the decision. Elders who make such a decision without input from the congregation face a potentially divisive time in the congregation's life.

At other times, someone or a group other than the minister or leaders decides the minister should leave. A person or group with power may be able to bring about the desired effect fairly easily, but often such decisions by persons or groups in a church result in turmoil, controversy, and conflict.

The attitudes at this time in the transition are basically three. Some are pleased, some are sad, and some are confused. Unusual indeed is the departure of a minister without at least some small segment of the church rejoicing in the decision. Perhaps such feel that it is time for the minister to move on, perhaps such never quite "clicked" with the minister. Some will have conflicts and complaints. This is one source of energy in the interim period, because some of these people who have had little involvement in the church during the minister's tenure will now desire to participate in the decisions, serve the church and help it move forward. Another source of conflict arises within the church if such attitudes are not understood and if such desires to help are rejected based on the lack of past involvement from these members.

Another group of members will undoubtedly be saddened by the decision and departure of the minister. Every congregation has those wonderful people who love and appreciate every minister who comes. Those who have developed special relationships with the minister will be devastated. My wife and I remember one family who bluntly told us when we arrived in a new ministry, "We won't get very close to you, because we got close to the last minister, and then he left." Those who develop close relationships to ministers will undoubtedly feel that there will never be another minister as good as the one who is leaving. Such attitudes are usually increased in the case of ministers who have longer tenures in a congregation. Ministry transitions after a three or four year ministry are much different than ministry transitions following a tenure of 10 or 12 years. For those who love and appreciate the past minister, this time of change is often very threatening.

Before discussing the third attitude, one should perhaps observe that there will be in the attitudes and emotions of many members a combination of the sadness and rejoicing. The third group are those who for whatever reason do not really understand what is occurring. Why is the minister leaving? Depending upon the circumstances and haste of the departure, these may find out that the minister is leaving or has left almost after the fact. Such are usually on the fringe, uninvolved, and not part of the communication networks, but this is not always the case. How persons in this group respond will be a significant factor in how well the interim goes.

A sensitive leadership will carefully evaluate the various dynamics of the ending phase. How many people are in each of the three groups described? Are people in any group or groups talking to one another, meeting informally, or trying to persuade others to their position? Are the people in the different groups able to communicate with one another, or are there sufficient hard feelings to clog lines of communication?

One of the goals of the interim period should be to involve and integrate as many church members as possible in a rethinking of the church's identity. Sometimes, this is an easy process. At other times, it can barely occur if at all without outside intervention. This is one situation in which a consultant or interim minister is essential.

Transitional Phases--Refocusing, Rethinking, Searching, Selecting, Calling

At least five things should occur after one minister leaves before the next minister arrives to accept the ministry and join the congregation on its journey. Studies of transition (e.g. William Bridges, Transitions) recognize one of the first positions in the transitional journey as "the neutral zone." Religiously, we might identify this as a wilderness experience. If previously some were sad, some were rejoicing, and some were confused, now almost everyone becomes confused. Church leaders often find out how much the minister was really doing. This is a time when things, activities, and people are often forgotten. Visits do not get made, "balls get dropped," many things fail to function smoothly. Church leaders, in finding out what the minister was really doing, may identify wounds to be healed and miscommunications to be corrected. Leaders may feel lonely in recognizing their serious responsibility for the health of the church. Without a minister, there is no one else serving as a helper in evaluating needs and serving to heal hurts. Many elders do not have the luxury of being able to give full-time attention to the task of leadership. Where other commitments hinder the involvement of the leadership in the life of the church, a church should definitely consider the possibility of an interim minister--not just a person or persons who can fill the pulpit on Sundays. The church members may desperately need a minister to whom they can turn. The first task at hand is to reassure the congregation that the church will continue to move forward. This must involve more than reassuring words--this is an excellent time for the leaders to set forth a timetable, interim activities and areas of focus, the needs that will be met, and the general direction of the church during this time. Often, the hiring of an interim minister makes this an easier time for church members, especially if a longer period of time is anticipated before the hiring the new minister. It is important that the church have time to heal and refocus before the new minister arrives. Although each situation is different, a general recommendation is that a church hire an interim minister for four to six months with the possibility of extending the agreement in 1 month to 3 month intervals.

Rethinking--The Importance of a Self-Study
The purpose of the time of self-study is to reaffirm the identity of the church and to investigate the kind of minister desired. Whether a self-study is completed in the transition and interim process is the major distinguishing characteristic between churches that merely "fill the gap" during the transitional period and those that intentionally seek to use the interim as a time of increasing health and planning the future.

The five tasks of the self-study were first identified by Loren Mead (originally titled Critical Moment of History: Change of Pastors, revised edition titled A Change of Pastors...And How It Affects Change in the Congregation) and have been various described. Mead called the tasks (1) coming to terms with the past, (2) discovering a new identity, (3) allowing needed leadership changes, (4) rediscovering the denomination, and (5) commitment to new directions in ministry.

The descriptions used in this essay are used to reflect the dynamics of leadership and ministry characteristic of many churches of Christ. For our purposes, let us call these tasks reviewing, re-involving, reconnecting, re-identifying, and recommitting.

These are five important transitional tasks which, if not completed by a church with the involvement of a significant number of its members, can jeopardize the succcess of the next minister. If the next ministry is not totally compromised, it is at least the case in many instances that it takes much longer for the new minister to reach maximum effectiveness because the foundations of the new ministry were not effectively established prior to his coming.

Searching, Selecting, and Calling
The primary focus on this paper is on the value of interim ministry and the relationship between the interim minister and the church. As a general rule, the interim minister does not get involved in the search and selection process beyond providing counsel and consultation. Therefore, these areas will receive minimal attention here. A word should perhaps be said about what happens if the interim minister is later considered a candidate for the ministry position.

My advice is that such situations be treated much as those situations where someone already on the ministry staff is considered for a vacant ministry position. Consider the case where a minister already on staff at a church is interested in a vacant ministry position. Further, the interest is mutual in that the church thinks it may have an interest in calling the minister to a different ministry role in the congregation. In my judgment, before searching or considering any other candidates, the church should decide whether the minister already employed is a viable candidate and whether the members are willing to call him to the changed ministry position. If so, the search is ended. If the described minister is rejected for the position, then the church should proceed with the search and selection process. In a parallel situation, if the interim minister is to be considered for the position, the church should settle that question either "yea" or "nay" before proceeding.

The specifics of the search, selection, and call will vary from congregation to congregation. General guidelines are to involve as many of the congregation as practical in the process and to avoid the potential division of a "preacher parade." The church may want to consider a process used with more and more frequency in congregations--that of interviewing and accepting or rejecting candidates one at a time.

This is, of course, a complicated process involving financial negotiations as well as agreements concerning a host of peripheral issues--general expectations, time off, vacations, involvement in brotherhood activities, housing, retirement, social security, working funds or reimbursed expenses, termination procedures, etc. This author recommends that all of these items, or as many as practical or applicable in the specific situation, be addressed in a "working agreement" between the parties.

Installing the Minister and Initiating the New Ministry
The installation of a new minister has wonderful possibilities for celebration and new beginnings, both in the life of the church and in the life of the larger community. The confirmation of the call to ministry, special activities and charges shared, honor and celebration all contribute to providing a solid foundation for the new ministry.

The Interim Team
Having surveyed the eight phases of the transition period, it will be helpful to describe briefly the various participants in the interim team. While no section below specifically treats the congregation, let me repeat that failure to involve as many as possible of the congregation in the transition process is a grave mistake.

The Leadership or Eldership
Given our model of leadership in churches of Christ, it is not likely that the elders will be able to completely remove themselves from the transition process, nor should they. The way in which the elders are to be involved may vary from situation to situation. Some elders maintain a very tight control on the ministry transition, in part because of the way elders and ministers work together. Some elders may seek to control the process because they view the search as identifying a new member of the leadership team. Such a view does not mean that the minister is an elder, but that ministers and elders must work together in the accomplishment of God's purpose, and that good working relationships should be sought and established.
Some elders maintain such tight control on the process that there is little or no input sought from the membership. Such may be a source of division or dissension.

The Transition Team or Search Committee
I believe it is wise to charge the group we often call the "search committee" with a larger task, or to empower a transition team to work through the phases outlined above before the search committee is identified. I see no particular negative aspects to having the same group function as a transition team and later as a search committee unless it would be that newly surfaced involvement and leadership may not be effectively used.

The Interim Minister
It is the task of an interim minister, if such is used in the transition process, to minister in very much the same way a regular minister would function. Ideally, the interim minister can move to the community temporarily and be present daily. If such is not possible, it is desirable that the interim minister have enough flexibility of schedule and proximity in distance to be present in times of crisis, and to assist with funerals, hospital visits, etc. as desired. While some interim ministers are able to function by being present on weekends to make visits and participate in the life of the church, it is much better if the interim minister can at least be present on Wednesday and the weekend.

The Interim Consultant
The interim consultant may be hired whether or not an interim minister is hired. If the interim minister has the skills to guide the church through the transition process, there will be little need for an interim consultant. If the church hired an interim minister who cannot assist with the tasks outlined, it might choose to hire both an interim minister and an interim consultant.

Twelve Other Tasks
In summary a list and explanation of the various tasks of interim ministry or transitional ministry will be helpful. Every church in transition may not need help with all of these tasks, and some of the tasks may not apply in certain situations. Generally, however, a church and its leaders should expect that these needs will arise to some degree. The interim minister or consultant should be prepared to assist with as many of these as possible.

Summarizing Characteristics of Intentional Interim Interventions
In summary, four characteristics distinguish intention interim or transitional ministry from the practice of simply filling the pulpit with "fill in preachers."

These will be expanded in a subsequent essay.

The Honeymoon--Good Beginnings
An interesting phrase caught my attention as I read the article, "They were getting ready for the divorce while they were still on the honeymoon." Much of what can go wrong in ministry actually begins to go wrong during the honeymoon period when no one wants to or is willing to talk about it. Because we are "in the honeymoon phase," no one takes appropriate steps to rectify even obvious problems--failure to communication, misunderstandings, or personal differences.

Consider a brief list of some of the things that can go wrong on the "honeymoon" betweeen the congregation and a new minister: second thoughts, comparisons, focusing on minute details, failing to see big picture, falling back to pre-conceived ideas, failure to communicate or to establish good lines and methods of communication, differences surface--especially theological or doctrinal differences, disagreement concerning direction, failure to get to know the church and members individually, failure to pick up where the church is, failure to know the church history, incompatibility, failure to meet expectations. The length of this partial list suggests something of how important the honeymoon period is as the capstone of the interim process.


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Last updated June 1, 2010.