Among my clergy coaching clients, I’ve noticed a spike recently in ministers who realize they’re doing work that ideally would have been completed before their arrival: helping the congregation grieve the loss of the last pastor, addressing issues with under-functioning (and sometimes outright sabotaging) staff, creating or making long-overdue revisions to basic documents such as personnel manuals and by-laws, right-sizing lay leadership teams, and visioning for the next chapter of the church’s story. This work, which is time-intensive and emotionally draining, can leave clergy wrung out before they celebrate their first anniversary with a congregation. They find themselves asking, “Can I keep up this pace? Do I see myself here long-term?” More than occasionally, the answer is no, and the call these ministers envisioned lasting for many years ends up being an unintentional interim stint.
There are many good reasons to call an intentional interim minister in between settled pastors. Interims expect to enter systems in turmoil, and they are trained to handle the challenges. Interims can manage all the extra pastoral duties (with ample breaks, that is) that come with a highly-anxious congregation because they know their time there is limited. Interims, with one foot in the church and the other out, can offer insights that neither a consultant (outsider) nor a settled pastor (insider) is able to see and voice.
The costs to a congregation of an unintentional interim minister, on the other hand, are high. Full-blown pastoral searches are pricey, not just in terms of money but also time and energy. Severance packages can hamstring a church’s budget. Congregations are often hesitant to invest in the next settled minister, not wanting to get attached to a leader who could turn out to be another short-timer. Throughout all the uncertainty, trust among church members and between members and staff/lay leaders begins to suffer, and the congregation’s focus shifts from mission to survival.
With all the benefits of interim ministry and the downsides of not utilizing this transition resource, why doesn’t every church call one? There are a couple of reasons. First, congregations think the interim is a time to save money on personnel costs. They see stop-gap measures such as a revolving door of guest preachers as a way to protect the budget. Additionally, they want a settled minister in place as quickly as possible because they fear the loss of members and a decrease in giving during the transition.
But the second reason, I believe, is the real one. Churches think that calling an interim minister means that they’ve failed or that they’re unhealthy. There’s a myth that only “messed up” congregations need guided introspection during the time between settled ministers. In fact, it is a sign of health and maturity as well as an investment in the future to call an interim minister. It never hurts to breathe deeply, take stock, and move toward what’s next with purpose – in other words, intentionality.