Do We Have to Have an Interim Minister?

Do We Have to Have an Interim Minister?

Dear Theo,

I am writing to you more for enlightenment than advice. Can you describe for me the purpose of an "Interim Minister"? I am a Deacon at a struggling New England UCC church, which has had two such ministers in the last ten years. Our area minister insisted that we must have one each time we had to call a new pastor.
 
Are interims supposed to heal? To fix problems? To help with  the search for a permanent pastor? In my experience, particularly with our current interim, the challenges have outweighed the benefits. I have witnessed interim ministers be extremely brusque with members they don't know, insist on policy changes that are inconsistent with the spirit of our community, which they could not possibly understand given the time that that they served,  refused to listen to the lay leadership, and, IMHO left the church worse off, in terms of resources, self-esteem, energy and faith than when they got here."
 
I had hoped in both cases that these interim ministers would give sage advice, fix some problems, provide healing and lay a solid path for the settled pastors. In one case, the pastor who followed our first interim claimed that he had to spend his first two years doing interim work before he could actually pastor the church. He left after three.
 
Theo, can you tell me why churches wouldn't be better off just calling a settled pastor without having to deal with this interim business?
 
Waiting for the next shoe to drop

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Dear Waiting,

I think you have it just right—interim ministers are called to work with a congregation's leaders to provide steady leadership in an interim period; offer wisdom about moving forward into the next phase of the church's life; resolve conflicts that may be affecting the church's health; provide help in grieving the previous pastor's departure, especially if he or she has been well-loved, and healing for the hard feelings if he or she has not; and just generally: help a church to look forward and lay a firm foundation for the next settled pastor.

Of course it is not humanly possible for any interim minister to do all those things (and more I could have listed as classic "interim tasks"), or even to do some of them, perfectly. But a skilled and sensitive interim minister will do the most important thing well, and his or her ministry can be an inestimable gift to a congregation, greatly increasing the odds of the new settled pastor's success down the road.

Sometimes interim ministry is also conceived as a time to rock the boat a little. This rocking can be required by something really wrong in the church that needs serious attention, or it can be simply strategic. Even the best and healthiest church can use a little shake-up from time to time, particularly when contemplating calling someone new who will, of course, bring new ideas and new ways of being and doing into the church. Some interim ministers believe that to come in and move around the mental (and sometimes even the physical) furniture is really good practice for an interim period. And so they help the congregation test themselves. They loosen them up, so to speak, maybe even provoke a little discomfort here and there so that the congregation can develop skills for an inevitable time of change.

The trouble comes, as you seem to have experienced, when the interim rocks the boat just to see it rock; or when his or her style of interacting with people is just plain bad (this would be an issue with a settled pastor too, of course); or when they don't take the time to get a clear and compassionate read on the congregation and blunder about with a preconceived package of "interim duties I must accomplish" without regard for the personality, needs, or hopes of the people themselves. There are, alas, some interim ministers who think they know what's best for you without really knowing you, and treat a healthy church like a sick one.

And this is why it's really important to work closely with the area minister to find a well-regarded, skilled person who is a good fit for your congregation.  There are many interims out there looking for work, but not all are good at what they do (just like in any other profession). Skilled interims get reputations, they are in demand. You can find out who they are by asking around. Interviews are critical, but testimony should always corroborate what an interview tells you.

All this begs your real question, however: Do you have to have an interim minister at all? It's very highly recommended, as you know from the pressure you seem to feel from your area minister. It's simply become standard operating procedure. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that although it may be looked upon unfavorably not to have one, not every church needs an interim.

These days there"s a movement afoot to reevaluate the need for an interim, case by case, instead of simply assuming that it's the only thing to do between settled pastorates. Much depends on the way you, other leaders in the church, and people from outside your congregation evaluate the condition of your community. And yes, you do need people from outside to help you do this, including your area minister, because you may think all is well when it may not be; or you may think you're a mess when you're actually just needing help with a few nagging things that could be fixed fairly easily with some skilled attention.  Outside eyes can help you see what's what more clearly.

Bottom line: our polity does not require you to call an interim, although I would say it does expect you to confer and receive counsel from the association about whether you will. In the end, however, it's a decision your leadership alone can make.

Bless you, and may you be a blessing,

Theo

Who is Theo?

"Dear Theo" is written anonymously by three UCC ministers of different ages and backgrounds - one main writer and two respite writers. We're hoping the questions will span all kinds of topics: from sexuality and relationships to church culture and conflict to mental health, family drama, ethical and moral dilemmas, and everything in between.

Every week will feature a new letter and a new answer. Please write Dear Theo with your questions and problems by sending to deartheo@ucc.org. Letter writers identities will also ALWAYS remain anonymous.

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