When I started in the ministry way, way back in 1974, I don’t think I ever heard of an interim pastor. Over the decades, interim ministry has developed in ways that have been helpful to many congregations. Congregations that have experienced a lot of conflict, major unresolved issues or been the victims of sexual misconduct by a prior pastor are just three of the types of that have benefited immensely from the development of a trained group of interim pastors.
However, at some point, interim ministry has gone from being the exception to the rule. Instead of being an option for congregations, in many presbyteries interim ministry has become the rule with congregations required to hire an interim and go through an extended interim period. Is making interim ministry a mandatory step in every pastoral transition process a good thing? To me, the answer is “no.” We need interim ministry in some situations and should give thanks to the ministers who engage in it. But we don’t need interim ministry every time a congregation changes pastors.
As a consultant, I have been surprised to discover that many denominations are moving away from the extended interim periods we Presbyterians have nurtured. Why? Their congregations were telling judicatory leaders how frustrated they were with the lengthy time between installed pastors. Lay leadership felt a need to get on with life and resented the extended interim periods being forced upon them.
Indeed, in numerous presbyteries it is not unusual for an interim period to last two years or more. What other organization thinks it can live without “installed” leadership for two or more years? Do small colleges or non-profits go without permanent leadership for extended periods of time? Not if they want to survive.
Is the PC(USA) so unique that we have to use an interim model in every situation? I don’t think so. Is the response to every successful long-term pastorate a time to grieve? Not really. Grieve and unpack clergy misconduct. Celebrate and build upon successful clergy leadership.
A friend of mine was a rabbi at his congregation for almost 30 years. It was a positive time of growth for the congregation. In the PC(USA), many presbyteries would say the congregation needed an extended interim period to grieve the departure of their rabbi. However, the congregation spent the rabbi’s last year 1) celebrating the rabbi’s successful work with them and 2) looking for a new rabbi. When the retiring rabbi walked out the door, the new rabbi walked in. Staff and members tell me the congregation hasn’t missed a step because of the way they handled the transition. There are many, many stories of congregations in other Christian denominations who have had the same experience. Why do Presbyterians think we are incapable of making a similar transition when healthy, successful pastorates end?
Jesus warned against rules, in part, because they replace discernment and analysis with mechanistic responses to complicated issues. When it comes to pastoral transitions from/to congregations, we need less rules and more wisdom. Committees on Ministry are perfectly capable of sitting down with congregations
to determine what the congregations need and don’t need. These conversations may get heated. That is OK. Figuring what to do next in terms of calling another pastor should generate some sparks. However, passionate conversations about next steps for a congregation are far more likely to help a congregation than mindlessly imposing rules about interim periods.
In some instances, a congregation may be totally unaware of its problems. In such situations, the presbytery can refuse to authorize the creation of a PNC until they are satisfied the congregation has dealt with their issues. But that would be the exception. We have made it the rule.
In the end, I think it should be the congregation’s, not the presbytery’s, decision about whether or not to engage in a long-term interim period. Telling people what they need is, in most instances, a highly flawed way of relating to others. It usually works best to ask people what they need from us. We need to display more trust in our congregations to make the right decisions about their own pastoral transitions.
Yours in Christ,