Across the UCC: Interim ministers are key to churches in transition

Across the UCC: Interim ministers are key to churches in transition

Carol L. Pavlik

There comes a time in every church's life when it needs a trained interim pastor. The transitional minister slows down the pace and facilitates healing and regrouping before a new phase of church life begins with a new pastor.

The first time the Rev. Susan De Simone served as an interim pastor for a church, in the early 1980s, she was fresh out of seminary, searching out an associate minister position. Instead, interim ministry beckoned by way of a small Connecticut congregation in transition after losing its pastor.

"I read everything there was to read on interim ministry—two tiny books," says De Simone with a laugh. The term lasted five months, but De Simone was hungry for more. She knew she had found her life's work.

Searching for more resources, De Simone attended courses on conflict resolution and other interim-related topics through the Alban Institute in Bethesda, Md. Now she serves on the faculty of the Interim Ministry Network (IMN), an ecumenical association based in Baltimore. The network consists of more than 1,600 interim ministry specialists, consultants, and church leaders representing 25 denominations, including the United Church of Christ.

The Interim Ministry Network serves as a group of peers who support each other in the setting of interim ministry. IMN faculty teach all over the country, usually in retreat centers.

"We try to keep the costs down for people who come," says De Simone, noting that course participants range in age and experience and come from all walks of life. The courses prepare interims for the developmental tasks a transitional congregation experiences during a healthy interim period: letting go of the past, determining the new identity of the church, shifting lay leadership, strengthening the relationship between the church and its denomination, and dealing with any troubling issues—and hopefully resolving them—before the new pastor arrives. The process transcends any theological differences between denominations.

"I think this is something that's very much what God wants us to do: work together," says De Simone. "The kind of leadership you need, the need for building the strength and interconnection, the need for honesty, transparency and integrity—all the dynamics are the same. We have members [ranging] from Unitarian to Missouri Synod Lutheran. I don't know of any other ecumenical organization where the clergy maintain their own identity, but work together seamlessly."

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To learn more about the Interim Ministry Network, go to File www.interimministry.org.
 

Interims help churches heal

The Rev. Char Burch, Interim Association Minister of the Northwest Ohio Association, has spent the past 20 years working as an intentional interim in the local, Association and Conference settings of the UCC, and says a time of transition is crucial in any church setting or situation.

"In a business setting, someone leaves his job so you advertise and then hire someone immediately," Burch explains. "Transition in pastorship is different. There are emotional and spiritual connections going on."

When a church faces losing its pastoral leadership, it first turns to its Conference office.

The Conference works closely with the congregation to help them think through what kind of interim leadership would work well for them. It can help prevent the local church from being overwhelmed by the responsibility of searching for an interim. Conference staff will meet with the moderator or consistory and talk through the emotions that may come up during a transitional time. There is often sorrow, anger or shock, says Burch.

Whether the transition is in the local, Association or Conference setting, time is needed to work through these emotions before adjusting to a new style of leadership. The interim's job may be to start asking such questions as "Why do you do that this way?" and "Where do you see yourself going in the future?" Inevitably, those left behind will miss some of the strengths of the former pastor, Burch says.

An interim period "provides the time to realize the person is gone," says Burch, "and in that space, new relationships can be established."

"We want the best for the local churches," says Burch. "We want them to be stronger."

Pastor hears call to be an interim

The Rev. Roger Nicholson will tell you he was dragged kicking and screaming out of retirement to his current interim posting at First Church of Christ UCC in Simsbury, Conn., but the smile behind his voice gives him away.

More than 20 years ago, Nichol-son made the switch from "regular garden variety" pastor to intentional interim. Nicholson says that without doubt, interim ministry is harder because of the two-track commitment. "First," he says, "you have the regular minister duties: preach, teach, baptize, marry, bury. But you also have the transitional agenda, which is important."

Over the past two decades, Nicholson has seen a change in the world of interim ministry. Interim periods are getting longer, mostly due to the diminishing pool of pastoral candidates. But churches also are recognizing the value of interim periods, and are receptive to the idea of regrouping before a new minister is called.

Still, when an interim arrives, says Nicholson, the church is so happy to have someone there that, often, they'll try to convince the interim to stay on.

Nothing doing, says Nicholson.

"Interims have to get [the congregation] to ease off, commit themselves to a process, not try to rush things," he says. "It gives the congregation time to settle and adjust to the change, give the search committee plenty of time to do a good job of preparation."

Being a non-anxious presence is paramount to being an effective transitional minister. "In the midst of all these dynamics," he says, "the challenge is to be relaxed, help the congregation not feel panicked."

"We're not just doing maintenance, holding the fort, so to speak," Nicholson says. "We're trying to get the church toned up for the next person."

Roger Nicholson is editor of "Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry" (Alban Institute, 1998).

Fund assists intentional interims in transition

As a trained interim minister, one never knows where the next job will lead, or what type of problem solving will be required to get the job done. But what happens when transitional ministers themselves are in transition?

The Illinois Conference has established an Interim Ministry Support Fund to help interim ministers continue health and pension benefits even while they're between jobs. The fund is in partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Wisconsin Region. For a maximum of three months, any qualifying interim minister may apply for funds to be used towards pension, health benefits, and sometimes salary.

To qualify for the fund, the recipient must have received training in either the UCC's Illinois Conference or the Disciples' Wisconsin Region. Churches are required to contribute 4 percent of the interim minister's salary (over and above the interim salary package), plus housing, to the fund.

The Rev. Connie Stewart, a trained interim ministry specialist currently serving Prospect Heights (Ill.) Community UCC, says the idea of the fund is to care for the core of interims who have chosen this ministry as their vocation. "It is difficult to work [as an interim] if there's no financial support in between," says Stewart, adding that sometimes the thought of discontinued health or retirement benefits deter some from accepting the call to this specialized ministry.

While the Support Fund is meant for pastors already committed to transitional ministry, another part of the fund helps those who are wanting to find out more. Each calendar year, five loans of up to $1,000 are awarded to Illinois Conference (UCC) or Wisconsin Region (DOC) pastors who wish to take interim ministry training. Once training is complete, the recipient repays the loan to replenish the fund. Even if the pastor chooses not to pursue transitional ministry any further, Stewart claims that the interim training enhances any type of ministry.

But more trained interims are always needed, says Stewart. "We can never get enough. Never!" she says with a laugh. The long-term hope is that the support funds will act as an incentive to nudge great pastors into a ministry that consistently promotes health and renewal in churches.

"We like to give this money away because we want to support the core of people who commit themselves to this ministry," says Stewart.

"At least interim ministers will know that in between times, they can get basic support," she adds. So far, the fund "has served to keep very qualified people in interim positions."

The national setting of the United Church of Christ is drafting guidelines for interim ministry, sparking dialogue and input across the UCC, and putting folks on the same page about the responsibilities and accountabilities of the interim minister.

The Rev. Richard Sparrow, Search and Call Coordinator for the UCC's Parish Life and Leadership Ministry Team, says the guidelines will define three categories of interims, discuss the certification process of becoming an interim, and standardize the profile process. The guidelines are meant as a resource and enhancement for the work already done in the local church settings of the UCC.

"We depend on these skilled consultants, who do a specialized ministry during an important time in the life of the congregation," says Sparrow. "Their ministry is vital to the ministry of the UCC, to local congregations, and to the wider church. They're gifted, trained people, and we honor the important ministry they do in our midst."
 

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