Guest commentary by Susan Krummel
When I was first trained as an interim minister in the 1990s, there was a clear path for congregations and interim pastors. We were seen as the bridge between one stable time in the life of a congregation and the next stable time. Interim pastors were to provide all of the services of an installed pastor and to help a congregation think about its past and open itself up to new ways of doing things. A success as an interim pastor was being followed by an installed pastor who had a fruitful and long ministry at the church. Most churches were fairly steady in their membership (or growing a little) and the future would look much like the past with a few tweaks.
My, how times have changed!
Interim ministry training is now often called “the art of transitional ministry.” Pastors attend the educational week even if they are not thinking about being an interim because every congregation is going through transition of one kind or another. Some are saying goodbye to their last full-time pastor and trying to find their way into part-time pastoral leadership with more leadership by church members. Some are noticing that the people who live in their neighborhood speak a different language and eat different food and think about church differently than they do. Some are still experimenting with new ways of worship. And, if we are honest, some are trying desperately to hold change at bay so that the remaining members of the congregation can continue to have this one place in their lives where they know what to expect.
It takes a combination of very good pastoral skills, a healthy dose of self-differentiation so that the anxiety of the system does not become one’s own anxiety and flexibility as to one’s own future to be a successful interim pastor. Success in the role can still be measured by the stability of the pastorate that follows the interim time. It is also measured in the ability of the congregation to adapt to the realities of the world around it.
There are fewer and fewer people who are willing to serve as interim pastors. On a closed email group for presbytery leaders, there are often pleas among colleagues for the sharing of names of people who can handle conflict, or can work with a big church, or who are willing to move to a remote part of the country.
Why is it hard to find interim pastors willing to serve? It is hard work. It often means being separated from your family in order to do the work. It can be more thankless than an installed pastorate since a part of one’s job is to appropriately stir things up. I sometimes tell interim pastors either in the presbytery I serve or in the training that I help to lead that if they are not making anyone mad they are not doing their job.
The way we manage our church life as Presbyterians is designed to be led by ordained pastors and elders working together. For a few weeks after a pastor leaves, it is the session’s responsibility to provide for worship and administration. Then an interim pastor arrives and helps to guide that session in their leadership and manages the details of worship and challenges the church to really think about who they are before they call their next installed pastor.
The system works best with healthy, trained and energetic interim pastors willing to set aside some of their needs for stability and familiarity in order to help a congregation move into the future to which God is leading them.
SUSAN DAVIS KRUMMEL is the executive presbyter of Chicago Presbytery. She has previously served as a presbytery executive and stated Clerk, as pastor of congregations from 30-1300 members and with the national church. She and her spouse, who is a pastor, have two adult daughters who are educators and six grandchildren.