Ten Theses about Interim Ministry

1. The chief purpose of long interim ministries is to provide a regular supply of jobs for ministers who are unwilling or unable to take a settled pastorate.  This is not a good thing.  Although a good interim minister can be a gift to a congregation, he or she is no substitute for a settled pastor.  Interims work to contract, they often don’t live in the communities they serve, and they are not going to stay.  It is a different kind of ministry, and the longer a church has an interim minister the longer it is deprived of the covenantal relationship that comes with having a called and settled minister.

2. During my 40 years in the ministry the length of interim ministries has expanded from a few months to two or three years (or more.) Meanwhile settled ministries are getting shorter, so the only difference seems to be less accountability on the part of the interim minister. Many seem to prefer it that way.

3. Interim ministers were once typically retired experienced pastors who preached, did pastoral care, and kept a light hand on the organization while the congregation sought a new settled pastor.

4. Today, interim ministers lead elaborate congregational self-studies, change the structures, rewrite the by-laws, and generally move the furniture around in ways that were once considered to be the job of a settled leader.

5. The reason that the extended length and the frenetic re-shuffling of interim ministry is justified as necessary is because the leave-taking of a pastor is considered to be such a trauma that only expert interim leadership can help the congregation heal from it and prepare for new leadership. It is true that there are such traumatic situations, such as the death of a pastor, cases of clergy abuse or misconduct, or where there has been profound conflict. These situations may well call for extended interims. But the new model for interim ministry assumes that every transition needs such a long and intense interim. They do not. Why then are all interims expected to be so long? See #1.

6. The model for much interim ministry is a family system model where congregations are seen as dysfunctional systems and the former pastor (actually called the BFP “beloved former pastor” in some interim training) is seen as the problem. Sometimes this is true. Usually it is not, but the one-size-fits all template is demeaning to former pastors who have served faithfully. One must wonder if it can be possible that every pastor’s predecessor was incompetent, lazy, controlling or evil.

7. Long interims frequently dissipate the momentum of many church programs, make the congregation feel adrift, lose the allegiance of many long-term members, and often leave the new settled pastor with a much-diminished congregation. This scorched-earth policy allows for little continuity between pastorates, and means the new pastor often must “re-invent the wheel” in a new setting.

8. Interim ministers have their own networks, and often work outside the existing judicatory processes. They can and often do function as a free-floating class of paladins for hire that raises fundamental questions about the meaning of ordination and the accountability of the ordained.  Ordaining someone to interim ministry is a (new) practice that needs serious scrutiny.

9. Because the models of interim ministry are derived largely from psycho-social systems theory and/or corporate management models they have little regard for the church’s own grammar of how to be church. These interim models are very thin on the ground when it comes to theology. This mirrors a general trend in ministry toward professional identity over the ancient churchly arts of soul-craft and ministry of the Word of God.

10. Lay persons in leadership during a time of pastoral transition are well-advised to carefully query potential interim ministers about their model of interim ministry. Question the assumption that every church needs a two or three year interim. Maybe you do, but ask why? Ask if the interim is planning on doing a lot of restructuring, and if so, why? The congregation should decide what it needs from an interim, and not hire an interim to tell it what it needs from him or her. An interim is just that, an interim who gets you through a period to allow the “search and call” process to take place. The rule of an interim should be like a doctor: “Do no harm.” A good interim will leave a small footprint.

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6 thoughts on “Ten Theses about Interim Ministry

  1. >No comments yet? You've floored them, Rick. This is absolutely right on. As a historian at your former church I came across a mention in the archives that during the first 150 years of the church's existence (from 1764 to 1914), there had been 12 transitions from one pastor to the next which took a total of 17 months. These days, the search for an interim can take longer than the search for a settled pastor used to take, even as recently as 30 years ago, as you say.

  2. >I missed this when it was first posted. But it is on the mark. Please Rick – mail perceptive articles such as this to the Alban Institute and to similar bodies.Such bodies need to hear what you say, even though they may reject them for publication.

  3. >I agree that this is on the mark.I did three interim stints – without much training – two of which were with congregations where there had been painful dissolutions of the pastoral relationship. The first was a two-year stint which I ended because I thought the congregation need a little prodding to get to the calling of a new rector. The second ended after 14 months when the Vestry decided to call me as rector and the Bishop confirmed that decision. I retired from there in June having served the parish for 8 1/2 years. The third interim was 18 months long, made that long by a proposal that I made after I had been there six months. The congregation looked like it might not be able to afford someone full-time and I suggested that they consider keeping me on the same part-time basis and inviting a deacon to join us in return for housing in the vicarage next to the church. That proposal was considered very carefully, but the decision was to search for a full-time vicar. I worked with leaders on a stewardship campaign that focused on both personal witness to God's blessings and the financial challenges of calling a vicar.The diocese where I now live uses appreciative inquiry interim training. Having used AI in the past, I think it would provide a good framework for interims that are shorter and healthier.

  4. >Hi! I have picked this up as an English priest, working in the Church of England. I've been working as an Interim Minister for three months now and have alicence from our Biship to do so for a total of six months.Obviously the system is different here – the Bishop has much more authority to decide who is appointed and where – and the Diocesam central authority pays the salary! Would this system help with some of your objections – or would it make it worse? Really intrested to hear your comments. Elizabeth Jordan.

  5. Interesting perspective, however it seems very one-sided. Borrowing some of your language about how interims view their predecessors, it sounds like your ‘one-size fits-all’ critique of all interims ‘is demeaning to (interims) who serve faithfully.’ I do wonder if you know that all interims are incompetent and lazy?
    Interims are willing to take risks that settled pastors don’t usually have (e.g., time between ministries, moving families frequently). Interims often walk into conflicted situations and prepare the way for a settled pastor.
    Yes, it does seem to take longer for some churches to find a new pastor; however, I don’t know anyone who wants to go back to the days when bishops ‘sent’ a pastor to a congregation. There are also an increasing number of churches in conflict today. We value diversity but church members (as well as clergy) usually don’t have enough skills to negotiate differences.

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