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Interim pastors are called to take out the garbage

The work of interim pastors is not often appreciated, but it is necessary.

Photo by Thobias Löfqvist on Unsplash

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, But only God who gives the growth. — 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

As I prepared a sermon on this passage this spring, these words took on new meaning for me. I am called to be an itinerant pastor. At the time of this sermon, I was working at West End Presbyterian Church in West End, North Carolina, and I knew I would not experience all the fruits of my work during the 18-month contract. It was my job to till the ground for the next minister. God would bring the growth, but I would plant the seeds and water. Reflecting on Paul’s metaphor, I would add that it is the interim pastor’s job to take out the garbage threatening the fragile ecosystem.

In fact, taking out the garbage may be more fundamental to a church’s health than tilling, planting, and watering. Interim ministers set the garden up for success. If there’s garbage everywhere, it will be harder for healthy plant life to thrive. So it is with congregations.

All pastors must watch for trash in the garden, but the need to take out the trash as an interim minister is even more incumbent to me. The goal of transitional pastors is longevity for the congregation and the incoming pastor. I need to be the bad guy so the next pastor can enjoy a long honeymoon with the new parish and focus on relationship building.

The garbage in the garden can look like old policies that need updating because the congregation is not the same size it was. The garbage can be certain traditions that must die to make room for new growth. The garbage can be toxic behavior that poisons the mini-ecosystem.

Though it may feel like it at times, tossing out the garbage is not a one-person job — the church is a community, after all. Over the years, I’ve worked with brave folks to update policies, bury certain traditions, and stand up to those who are acting in unhealthy ways. In the Presbyterian church, ruling elders and deacons, current participants in the congregation, and members of the various presbytery committees are all called to partner together to clean up the trash. It is all our responsibility.

Cleaning up garbage is not easy work. It is not glamorous. And it often isn’t appreciated — there is a low probability of a congregation to name a building after someone known in the church world as “the garbage man.”

Yet, in all things, God gives the growth. No matter our roles and official titles, we are instruments in God’s hands for such a time as this. We may not see the full fruits of our labors, if we see any product at all, but I think that’s what Paul is getting at in I Corinthians 3:7. We are a speck. But, through the power of the Holy Spirit, our labors will be used for God’s glory. It is God and God alone who provides the growth, not the current occupant of the pulpit.