By David C. Tysinger
A church loses its minister in a split. With each passing week the pressure on the pulpit committee to find a replacement intensifies. After a few months, the harried committee finds a man who buys a house and moves his family to the community. Unfortunately, the problems that led to the split have not been resolved and the new man becomes an “unintentional interim minister.” When he is pressured to resign after only 18 months, the congregation is wounded again and the minister’s family is devastated.
How can such a situation be avoided? One possible solution for churches is to hire an “intentional interim minister” (IIM). This “in-between” guy bridges the gap between full-time ministers. An IIM is a John the Baptist whose primary goal is preparing the way for another minister’s successful ministry. An IIM does all the duties of an interim minister plus much more. He has special skills that allow him to intervene in the affairs of the congregation. The book Beginning Ministry Together recommends, “When there are difficult issues that would seriously hinder a new pastor’s ability to gain the trust and confidence of the congregation, it is better to have an Interim Pastor deal with them.”1 IIMs have special training, certification, and experience handling difficult situations. Many who serve denominations have made this a career. (We may not agree with all that the denominations say and do, but we can still learn from them.)
An IIM needs a working knowledge of grief therapy to help the congregation cope with the loss of a minister. Whether a ministry ends on good terms or bad, “there are stages of grief which include sadness, anger, disorganization, depression, and reorganization.”2 The IIM is conscious of these stages and guides the congregation through each.
Another frequently needed skill is conflict resolution. Almost every church has a conflict to resolve. Some conflicts are so deeply embedded in the personality of the congregation that the church cannot go forward without resolution. Many conflict resolution efforts end poorly. The goal of the IIM is a win/win resolution, or at least a compromise where each party gets part of what it needs.
The IIM must also have skill in managing change. Sometimes he will consult with leadership on which problems to confront first. Still, one must be cautious about change. First and foremost, the IIM must love the people and respect the existing culture. He should also consider the personality of the congregation and the reason for the previous minister’s departure. The greater the anger or conflict accompanying the transition, the less the change that should happen. But if, as one writer puts it, the life of a particular congregation has long been so stable as to appear static, some “experimental” changes during the interim can prepare the congregation to welcome new leadership.3
The IIM must also be adept at handling power issues. One of the first questions to be answered, even before the IIM arrives, is, “Who is in charge?” Where does the power lie? It may not be located in an office, but in financial contributors, in relationships, in longevity, or even in the spouse of a deceased minister! The IIM must have an agreement with the elders, which is communicated by them to the congregation, about the limits of his power. The issue may be as petty as who has the right to change the order of worship or it may be as serious as who the staff answers to.
The IIM is not just for conflicted churches. Even healthy churches can benefit. If it accomplishes nothing else, the interim minister gives the search team time to make a thorough search without being under pressure. Furthermore, the IIM can lead the congregation through a self-study, creating an up-to-date profile of who they are as a church. This profile should affect the type of personality and gift set they seek in a new minister.
The IIM also provides a break from the leadership and preaching style of the previous minister. The congregation is less likely to make direct comparisons between the old and the new because the IIM provides a buffer zone of “different-ness” before the new man comes on board. The IIM creates an atmosphere of change that makes the new ministry more acceptable.
The interim period should have a specific length of time, i.e. six, nine, or 12 months, depending on the needs of the congregation. The church must never forget that the interim minister is temporary. A specific length of time gives urgency to the tasks that need to be accomplished before the new man arrives. It also gives the search team a time frame in which to do their job. Of course, the length of the interim period is always negotiable.
The bottom line question is this: Is an IIM really necessary or would an experienced, retired minister do just as well? Studies have shown that in some cases, the retired minister instinctively does as good a job as an IIM. But in most cases, the retired minister doesn’t have training in conflict resolution at the congregational level, training in taking a congregation through the stages of grief, nor the strategies for guiding the church through a self-study or the five developmental tasks.
More and more denominations are training IIMs, and the Interim Ministry Network, a nondenominational, nonprofit religious organization, has been training and certifying IIMs for decades The network is an ecumenical and international association of almost 1,500 interim ministry specialists, consultants, and church leaders from more than 25 denominations, all dedicated to “serving the church during times of transition.”5 The network can be reached at P.O. Box 21251, Baltimore, MD 21228-0751.
Another possibility is for our schools to offer training for interim ministers and to certify skills they may already partially possess. Reading resources on interim ministry are amply provided by the Alban Institute in Washington, D.C.
As more and more ministers see the necessity of working half-time or three-quarter time past the age of 65, the IIM would be a valuable and responsible way to tap the experience of retired ministers and keep them on the cutting edge of ministry at the same time. Furthermore, our congregations might keep their ministers longer if there was a more constructive transition.
1Roy M. Oswald, James M. Heath, and Ann W. Heath, Beginning Ministry Together (Bethesda: 2003), 20, 21.
2Earl Howard Bergmann, “Grieving by Choice: Bereavement in the Interim Parish” (D.Min, project: Andover Newton Theological School, 2001), 96.
3Carolyn Jane Jones, “The Interim Journey: A Training Program for Part-Time Interim Clergy in the Synod of the Trinity Presbyterian Church (USA)” (D.Min. project: Pittsburg Theological Seminary, 1989), 17.
4Alan G. Gripe, The Interim Pastor’s Manual (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1997). 38.
5Nicholson, Appendix: Tool 5.
David C. Tysinger wrote this article while serving as interim minister with the Watauga (Tennessee) Christian Church.