No More “Interim Pastors”

My denomination has no bishops who assign/suggest the new pastor for a congregation. (True confession: sometimes I’d like to be the bishop.)

In Presbyterian Churches, pastors are elected by the elders (for temporary positions) or by the whole congregation (for installed positions) and in between churches hire “interim pastors” – a certain kind of temporary minister who serves between the “permanent ones.”

We have something like a dating app to match churches and congregations.  Or sometimes churches and pastors are introduced by mutual friends.

It used to be true that “Interim Pastors” took a week’s worth of training to equip them to help prepare a church for the next pastor.

  • Some interim pastors are disasters – causing more trouble than they found when they arrived.
  • Some interim pastors see themselves as fixers.  They come in, diagnose the problems, fix them, and move on.  Or so they think.
  • Some interim pastors are place-holders doing not much of anything except the usual preaching, teaching, pastoral care, and administration.
  • Some interim pastors do an excellent job “preparing for the new pastor.”

I believe every church needs a Transitional Pastor – not an Interim Pastor.  And the difference is not merely semantic.

All our churches are in transition.  In every demographic.  In every geographic region.  In every denomination and non-denomination.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know that . . .

  • Rural congregations are transitioning from vibrant farm communities into ghost towns with the children and grandchildren of farmers choosing another path.
  • Small town congregations are transitioning from “factory towns” to communities with closed factories and rampant unemployment.
  • Suburban congregations are transitioning from full pews and well-attended programs to not-so-full pews and fewer programs/fewer participants.
  • Urban congregations are transitioning from large city structures –  once the center of public power  – to aging buildings renting space to everybody from other congregations to community non-profits just to pay the heating/air conditioning bills.

Fewer people are attending weekly worship.  More people are interested in less traditional worship.  You know all this.

All our churches are in transition and therefore we need Transitional Pastors and not Interim Pastors.

Here’s the big shift (and once again, thank you Scott Lumsden.)

Healthy “Transitional Pastors” for the 21st Century Church who serve in between “Permanent Pastors” do not prepare the congregation for the new pastor.  They prepare the congregation for a new chapter of ministry. 

And when “Permanent Pastors” are called, they continue to help the church transition into that new chapter of ministry.

Healthy 21st Century ministry is about the congregation more than the pastor.

Yes – we need faithful, fearless, creative, loving, well-trained pastoral leaders in every congregation.  But so much of what determines whether a congregation will thrive or die is based on the congregation not the pastor.

Sometimes church people do not want a new chapter of ministry.  And this is sad, because stuck churches die.

And here’s the kicker (again, thank you SL):  transitional change is not a tweak.  Oh my gosh, I hear church people tell me all the time that things are changing because:

  • They got a new sign.
  • They changed their church stationery.
  • They project their hymns on the wall now.
  • They decreased the number of elders on their governing board.
  • They agreed to let their pastor preach without a robe.

These are tweaks, not cultural changes.  Cultural changes are way harder because our culture is so entrenched, we don’t even know what it is.  (And that’s the job of the temporary Transitional Pastor: to help us figure out who we are as a congregation right now.)

  • Are we a congregation run by one or two families?
  • Are we a congregation afraid of ___ because they might leave if we don’t let them do what they’ve always done?
  • Are we a congregation addicted to being a social club rather than an example of God’s reign on earth?
  • Are we a congregation who looks down on people without our income or education?
  • Are we a congregation that honestly does not want strangers to join us?

Transitional ministry is where all of us are right now.  To ignore this is a decision to stop following Jesus. (And it’s also really difficult.)

Image of transitioning leaves.  They’re pretty, but they actually die before turning green again. 

16 responses to “No More “Interim Pastors”

  1. Jan, you write so often what is on my mind, only with much greater clarity. Thanks.

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  2. Jan, I agree. As we all discussed at the interim meeting you convened, too often a change of pastor is not the greatest transition the congregation faces. Community and cultural changes frequently overshadow pastoral transitions. So, interim ministry should focus more on a strengthening a congregations capacity to identify resources, address change, and reposition organizationally subsequently. Thanks for your leadership and ideas!

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  3. This is an interesting post, Jan. I think that there definitely is a need for a sort of switch from “interim” to “transitional” pastors. My question however is how do we accomplish this? It would seem that the best way to make the most out of that transitional period, a church would need a passionate and well-trained minister. What processes can the denomination set up in order to help assist individual churches in finding such people?

    Interesting thoughts, nonetheless.

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  4. A most provocative and practical comment on the realities of congregational life today. The ‘cut-to-the-chase’ issue is the faith health and resolve in the life of the church member, whether it means enough to the individual to commit one’s presence to the worship of God and to consistent fellowship

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  5. Thought provoking as always, Jan. The challenge: time. Congregations change when they trust the vision cast by leadership. But the trust required for sustained adaptive change is bought with time in relationship. From all of the pastoral leadership literature that informed my doctoral studies, that was the consistent theme. Meaning: everything in the leadership literature says you can’t change culture in 18-24 months. There’s a disconnect here somewhere.

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  6. You captured life in the church today. Sadly, too many of our churches are in those towns and cities where life is changing and it’s causing great changes for the church. When I was a pastor in Hastings Michigan, we watched as almost all new professionals to the area chose to live outside of town, generally between us and Grand Rapids, because the other spouse was working there. The population that had given the church vitality for years was decreasing and causing concern as the church struggled to find ways to reach new populations.

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  7. As we look toward a transitional pastor this is really helpful for our search committee to be thinking about. I love the idea of preparing for a new chapter of ministry, NOT a new pastor.

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  8. As I enter a transitional pastorate — and a transition in my vocation — I like the metaphor of chapter, as well. In many a long book there are key, brief, intentionally transitional chapters. I hope to get to be part of writing a few of them in various communities in the next few years.

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  9. Hi, Jan. I appreciate your clarity and determination. Fundamental (not to be confused with Fundamentalism:-)) change/transition is necessary to restore (create?) vitality and avoid a headlong slide into oblivion. Re-visioning is so much more than revising. Thanks!

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  10. Thanks for this. My title where I am is Transitional Minister. I am not totally happy with the title for the very reason you suggest. Maybe it is better to call us “call shepherd” because I feel like these are the beneficial conversations after a “settled pastor” departs (another term I prefer). And all of us should be understanding the transitions around us.

    One thing I don’t agree with is the idea that everyone is seeking less traditional worship. I fear that is understood as less liturgical and less “high church”. I think younger generations still appreciate a well done and spiritually authentic liturgy. Many appreciate it way more than a praise team and amplification. Again, it requires thick listening.

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  11. “Community and cultural changes frequently overshadow pastoral transitions. So, interim ministry should focus more on a strengthening a congregation’s capacity to identify resources, address change, and reposition organizationally subsequently.”
    After three years of trying to address cultural change in my tiny, tradition-bound congregation in a changing community, I’m pretty sure the interim wasn’t able to accomplish this. Our conversations imply she tried, but the congregation doesn’t budge. (Confirmed by presbytery, by the way.) I got an earful from two women today opposing my openness to change. It’s sucking the life out of me. We need someone vastly more skilled than I.

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  12. Jan, we were together in week 2 of transitional training at Menucha in March. I am using every bit of what I learned there (and more!). One of the elders here said at one meeting, “You are not talking about transition, you are talking about transformation.” After 1 year of very intense work, they are beginning to get it and embrace it. I think I will share your blog post with them.

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  13. You give an excellent assessment. After I had a disaster in my first congregation, due to two families who insisted on making all the decisions and who got me black-balled in that presbytery, I did a string of interim pastorates. These were very positive experiences for me. The were healing and developed my powers of discernment and kept my failure from destroying me. I did the interims during the second half of the 1980’s Through 1992. There was no required training for most of that time. Though I knew it couldn’t hurt. I saw abuses. Toward the end, before I found a “permanent” call. Some presbyteries insisted that I was minister intentionally and solely called to serve as an Interim pastor. I know why they required that because I served as an interim after the first interim left his position about about a month and a half after he began it because he had been called to another church. He went in cheating and self-serving. But the policy was unfair. It was like forbidding any potential pastor from pursuing a call on a staff position, when they would really like to be a head pastor. My time with interim positions was one more lesson that there must be standards, but the best standards don’t prevent the perversion of policies. We can’t legislate the devil out of everything. I love your blog, even when I neglect reading it.

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  14. Your concepts for understanding transitional/interim tasks are helpful, and I would largely endorse them. The title “No More Interim Pastors” is misleading and unhelpful to the church because it focuses on the person overseeing the process rather than the content and focus of the process. Many object to the time devoted to a transitional/interim process (which is not to find the next called pastor but to discern the congregation’s present and future mission in order to call a person consistent with, and equipped to, move into that future). They see the interim/transitional pastor as an impediment to calling a new pastor in 3 months so that the life of the congregation can continue uninterrupted in the same direction and its budget unfazed by a change in pastors. Your title contributes to this misunderstanding. Excellent and poorly performing pastors will always populate the field no matter what designation you give them: “interim” or “transitional.” Changing the title of the position will not resolve the issues you raise.

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  15. I share many of your concerns regarding interims – but I also worry a bit about creating a whole new cadre of folks who see themselves coming in and forcing people to make changes (which often clearly someone needs to do). My problem with this is that a transitional minister between installed pastors ends up either effectively making the transitional pastor the next pastor (even if never installed) or you risk having changes instituted which will be set aside by the next called pastor.

    I rarely found much value in mission studies during an interim period. It seems to me that all ministers need to see themselves as transitional pastors and that the best thing, in most cases, is to make this period between installed pastors as short as possible. This is why in Baltimore we would encourage sessions to set a goal for the posting of a MIF (normally five months after the installed pastor leaves). During this period the church is expected to take a fresh look at their church but not decide what the future is like. To do the latter is a recipe for a waste of time because you will have envisioned a future without the “leader” being present. The pastor’s buy-in is essential.

    I would also quibble with the concept that the pastor is not as important as the congregation. I know this brings comfort to pastors. In my research (which is now 20 years old) I discovered that churches that grew did not do so because of superior the financial resources, worship style, theology, or staffing – it all depended upon the pastor. I know that pastor don’t want to hear that. The reality is a great pastor can take a church and help it do amazing things and a poor pastor can take a great church and destroy it in a matter of a couple of years.

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