Guest commentary by Robert Lowry (in response to “A time for permanent leadership”)
John Wimberly is correct. Long-term, stable leadership does indeed matter. It is for that very reason that the Presbyterian Mission Agency board’s decision to hire an interim executive director is right for PMA and right for the church. To be sure, not every organization needs interim leadership. We do.
In his recent commentary, Wimberly asks, “Why does the PMA think the PC(USA) will benefit from a three-year period of non-permanent leadership?” The simple answer is because interims work. Far from the minimalist job description regularly and flippantly ascribed by Wimberly in his writing, interims do much more than “dirty work” and “tak[ing] the heat.” Interims help organizations heal from the past. Interims dig deep into the internal systems and seek out those uncomfortable and unpopular places that are draining rather than giving life to the organization. Interims deal not only with “ineffective” personnel but toxic personalities. The role of the interim leader is to do far more than stay the course through the typical bumps and bruises of institutional life. The role of the interim is often to help the organization get back on course.
The chief aim of all of this work is to prepare the organization to find the right leader to help them achieve their vision. This is one of the ingenious parts of our interim ministry model in the church. The interim leader helps the organization articulate a vision and devise a strategic plan that is not focused on the personality of the interim because s/he will not be there to lead them through it. By removing the personality of the executive from the process, the strategic plan becomes the product of the community’s discernment rather than the product of the executive’s imagination. It is sadly true that, from time to time, leaders come in and try to reshape or revision the organization with destructive results and some interims leave far too many fingerprints on an organization’s vision. It is equally true that leaders bully and manipulate organizations to bend their vision to the leader’s will while interims, lacking a vested interest in the outcome, are able to serve as honest conversation partners. Neither system is perfect, however only the interim model has proven its worth over and over in the church.
Wimberly is absolutely correct on one score. Longevity is absolutely one of the characteristics of “high quality, effective leadership.” Few things demonstrate the effective work or bring as much vocational satisfaction to an interim leader as being followed by a beloved long-term leader. The two stand not in opposition but symbiosis.
The PMA and the PC(USA) are at a turning point organizationally, theologically, ecclesiastically and, I would wager to say, spiritually. A model of being the church that has nurtured and educated and cared for generations of Presbyterians is collapsing under the weight of the changing times and shifting realities of the church. We are entering a season of radical change and potential upheaval in our assumptions and expectations from our model of “being the church.”
Interim leadership is designed for just such a time as this.
An interim, unconcerned with longevity, can honestly ask, “Does this organization need to exist at all?”
An interim, unburdened by expectations to build long-term internal working relationships, can challenge the assumptions and rationale for how and why we spend money and time and human resources.
An interim, unbound from past models of leadership, can help the church learn new ways to empower ministry and live into the promise of our new Form of Government and its attention to becoming a leaner more adaptable church. There is no person more invested in the future over the past than the interim preparing the way for a new leader.
In my opinion, the question is not how will we survive an interim time – it is: How can we possibly survive without one?
ROBERT WILLIAM LOWRY is transitional pastor at First Presbyterian Church and Harmony Presbyterian Church, both in Clarksville, Arkansas. He is also the stated clerk for the Presbytery of Arkansas.