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Not long ago I was asked to become interim pastor for a pastorless church. A gifted but somewhat erratic pastor had gravely divided the congregation and been asked to resign. Thus began my fourth experience in an interim role.
I have learned that as an interim pastor, I serve as comforter, preparer, facilitator, intercessor, encourager, and, if need be, admonisher and exhorter. I'm not there just to fill a space or hold the line. I'm supposed to see that the interim becomes a time of growth.
The difficulty is that each congregation is unique and has particular needs during the transition between pastors. What works in one church during this period cannot necessarily be transplanted to another church in a similar situation. And as interim pastor, I have limited time to observe the church, determine its needs, and provide appropriate care.
I learned this the hard way after I served a church where things ran smoothly. Every Tuesday at lunch, a steering committee met with me to review the past week and plan the week ahead. An efficient lay leadership program kept us in touch with every home connected with our church.
When I was called to a similar church and tried the same methods, they didn't work. It took time for me to realize those fine procedures could not simply be imposed on a new situation.
The first thing I do as an interim pastor, then, is observe carefully what the church's needs are and what my role should be. In my new charge, where the former pastor had been asked to resign, I knew my work would be quite different from my other interim assignments, which followed the retirement of effective ministers. Churches, like individuals, can have sad memories, and these call for tender care.
Gradually I discerned several groups within this congregation: a loyal core, who would stay no matter what; a group who enjoyed the power they held and wanted the former pastor to return so they could retain that power; and a third group who had moved out because they disliked the former pastor, but who would return once they felt the church was properly led. There were also those who followed the former pastor to a new church but still held emotional ties to the old congregation.
Some people in the church said they saw my role in this situation as a trouble-shooter. I, too, wanted to lead this church through the troubled time. Knowing I would have but a minor place in that church's history, however, I made it clear I did not see myself primarily as a mender or fixer. My task was to establish, if possible, a working base for a new pastoral leader.
In spite of the unique challenges of each interim pastorate, I have found some common principles to guide me.
1. The church's stabilizing activity is its weekly worship. I've been tempted to try spectacular and innovative approaches to worship that people will miss after I have gone. But for interims, usually a low-key pulpit ministry serves best. I've tried to take a middle path in worship and preaching, neither flashy nor dull.
In the troubled parish, I followed my usual custom of preaching from the lectionary. I wanted the congregation to know I was brooding on the set biblical text, not fishing for special themes I assumed they "needed to hear" or airing the best of my old sermons. The lectionary text is likely to contain encouragement, but if it holds admonition some particular week, so be it. I choose to follow the Word.
2. People need to know I am prepared to listen to them. Little is gained by sitting with some select committee to discuss what went wrong in the previous ministry. Rather, I try to draw people out in ordinary conversation.
A parishioner might say, "I used to go home after every church meeting fuming at the arrogance of that man and the way he rode over us!"
"I've felt that kind of anger," I'd respond. "Did you ever try to tell him how you felt?"
"No, I doubt if it would have done any good."
"But perhaps in general you would agree that discussing differences can at times help resolve conflict-you know, going to the source of trouble rather than just talking about it with friends?"
"And did you ever think of giving your pastor a word of encouragement?"
"I suppose I never did. I don't think anyone did!"
"Might that have helped break down barriers?"
"Perhaps that's where we failed. Maybe we need to look at what went wrong."
Such conversations have worked for me much better than protracted investigations by some committee.
3. My primary job is to foster hope and vision. When I serve as an interim, people work to make me feel welcome. I receive a lot of appreciation for my sermons. Instead of being beguiled by flattery, I seek to turn such conversation into discussions of what the church is meant to be and what discipleship means. In other words, I want their positive emotions devoted to church ends.
When someone tells me, "That was a great sermon, Pastor," I have two options. I can bask in the glory or I can dialogue like this:
"Thank you. What was significant in it to you?"
"Well, it was something I felt more than anything. But now that you ask, I guess your vision of the church as the family of God grabbed me."
"And like a family, we, too, have our ups and downs-and our preferences-don't we?" It becomes an opportunity for growth.
4. I should not leave too much of my own mark on the congregation, a mark the new pastor might have to live with. I find it better to expose the people to new options rather than to start something the incoming pastor may not want to finish.
One church I served was in the center of a flourishing tourist area where overseas visitors sometimes outnumbered regular worshipers. But apparently no one had thought of developing a tourist ministry. So I frequently discussed the idea, pointing out the possibilities. But I didn't launch a new program. When they called a pastor, he found not a fledgling program to operate but a church receptive to the idea.
5. My most satisfying task lies in building anticipation for and commitment to the coming pastor. The diverse elements in the leadership of one church made me wonder how they might pull together as a team. So in our final meeting together, I asked the elders to express in turn how they felt about the incoming pastor and what steps they intended to take to express their loyalty. They seemed inspired as they heard themselves and others speak of prayer, encouragement, assistance, and so on. From what I heard, there was no wavering when the new pastor arrived among a prepared people.
Much healing and renewal can occur without endlessly rehashing a rocky past. While being frank and, if need be, ready to confront, I have to remember that as interim pastor I may mend fences and help integrate a congregation, but my most significant achievement is to enable an incoming pastor to lead the church to a new and better phase of its history.
Dunedin, New Zealand
Copyright © 1987 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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