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July 2, 2012 / Richard Bass

Resources and Comments in Response to “Whither Interim Ministry”

Whither Interim Ministry,” (the July 2, 2012 Alban Weekly) explores both the reasons why a period of interim ministry following the departure of a minister can be fruitful, and the reasons why such a period deserves to be challenged.

Among the reasons for a one-to-two-year interim period are that well-trained interim ministers offer the “support and counsel” to help a congregation transition successfully; that interims enable congregations to talk about their past experiences and articulate their hopes for the future; and that (particularly when the prior ministry was long or ended badly) interims can balance any urges congregations may have to prematurely attempt a “transition back to normal.”

But among the challenges to interim ministry are that such ministries tend to foster the notion of a congregation being more “ill” than it truly is; that no one has “mounted a serious, objective study” on the long-term benefits of interim ministry; and that qualified interims may not always be available.

Nevertheless, author Dan Hotchkiss supports the position that ultimately, an interim period and interim minister are worth the effort and process involved. As he notes, the day after a long-time clergy leader leaves, a congregation may ask “Who are we? What shall we do next? With whom?” And Hotchkiss points out that “when asking questions of this kind, a companion who has been this way before can be a comfort and a help no matter how much—or how little—health is in us.”

What resources can support you and your congregation as you consider interim ministry? In addition to the items listed at the end of the article, please consider the Interim Ministry Network; The Elephant in the Boardroom; and “The Interim Period.”

What are your stories and thoughts on this topic? And what resources do you suggest? We look forward to hearing from you.


Leave a Comment
  1. Pastor S / Jul 16 2012 3:30 pm

    As a former interim pastor, and a former judicatory staff member, I really appreciate the article. I believe that an empirical study could be very informative.

    The potential of interim ministry to positively impact a congregation is very high. I truly believe that pastoral transitions are a time of unique potential for learning and change in the systems of congregations, not because the congregations are ill, but because the chaos induced by significant change opens up new possibilities. The presence of a capable “non anxious” leader who is not interested in “making a mark” on the congregation, but is focused on the identity and creative potential of the congregation as it prepares to select and work with new leadership, is a tremendous asset.

    I also see interim ministry as having the potential to be especially destructive to congregations, for exactly the same reason. An open system is a vulnerable system.

    While I believe that the practice of ministry is more art than science (interim or not), my guess is that empirical study could reveal the attributes of effective interim pastors and the processes of interim ministry that truly helps congregations develop rapid and healthy attachments with the pastors that follow them.

    I also believe that it is probably better to have no interim pastor than an interim pastor who is more focused on their own ministry agenda or finding a pathology to repair, than the future of the congregation they are serving.

    While I think that it is a bit much to ascribe the decline of the mainline church to the deployment of interim ministry, I believe that too many pastors and judicatories have seen interim ministry as a option for harder to place clergy to be employed, and this has been a dis-service to both congregations and skilled interim ministers.

    I believe that the rise of the “guild” mentality was an attempt to raise the bar, but several factors have worked against this:
    1) a lack of highly qualified and intrinsically motivated clergy willing and able to accept the difficulties of frequent work transition,
    2) the pressure on judicatories to provide transitional leadership to all congregations without an adequate supply of capable leaders, and
    3) the pressure on judicatories to provide work to all clergy regardless of suitable skills for the particular position.
    The interaction of these factors has undermined the positive potential of interim ministry in many instances.

    I would love to see the church become more effective at deploying interim ministry well.

  2. Rev. John Corrado / Jul 7 2012 1:10 pm

    Hooray for Dan Hotchkiss! His article on interim ministry is both important and timely. However it may have been conceived, the practice of interim ministry is not an unmitigated good.

    Last year I drafted some thoughts about problems with the interim ministry as currently practiced by the Unitarian Association, whose churches I served. They are based on forty years of experience in the parish ministry, including over a decade of service as a Good Offices Person dealing with conflict involving ministers. Conversations with clergy outside the UUA assure me that these comments have relevance for others. Here they are.
    Life is change. Transitions are inevitable. At best, they are awkward and at time, difficult. This can be particularly true when they involve people who have served us.
    Even when our hair stylist leaves, or the waiter at our favorite diner, our world feels a little askew. When someone whom we have known and has known us more intimately, like our psychotherapist or life-long family doctor, moves, retires, or dies, we are much more adrift. Most people accept such change, cope, move on.
    The church claims to be a place of healing, “a loving community” “standing on the side of love.” It can and should be a place that ushers and supports us through such transitions. Yet, in its most reverberating transitions, ministerial transitions, the church seems to support behavior contrary to such values.
    The purpose of interim ministries is to ease passages between settled ministries. Interim ministries can help congregations deal with the grief left by the loss of a beloved minister. They can also help heal wounds after a termination born of conflict. They can help a church define itself as what it is: something larger than any particular pastorate. Good ones do.
    In recent years, however, a model for interim ministry has evolved from a focus on sickness rather than health, fractured and fractious ministries, rather than sustained and successful ones. The imposition of litigious “rules,” coerced “covenants,” and imperious behavior by interims, often behind the curtain of secrecy, leave lay people confused and ministers who have served them feeling ostracized. The examples cited below are, sadly, not fictitious.

     On numerous occasions, interim ministers have been told former ministers not to enter the church grounds, not even for a tax form, non-church concert without their explicit permission. In some cases ministers are told not to enter the municipality in which the church is located. These actions go beyond the desirable and reasonable goal of helping a church separate from one minister and bond with the next. They are taken in spite of the fact that most ministers make it clear upon resignation or retirement that their work with the congregation is finished.

     Departing ministers are told not to initiate contact with church members. If this “rule” exists to prevent hovering ex-pastors from holding gripe sessions or rump meetings that undermine the current minister, who would argue with it? How can anyone, however, justify a minister who has moved to another state being threatened with a “sanction” for responding to a kind note from a church member? What’s the threat? As one laywoman has said, “ I don’t want a minister who is so insecure and easily threatened.”
    What of friendships? Are these to be abruptly cut off and relinquished at the behest of an interim? Though the “beloved community” is, by its nature, about relationship, there is a belief among some clergy that a minister should not have personal relationships with any church members. Even if this were possible, it seems unnatural. Dealing with “role” and “boundaries” is nothing new. In small town America doctors and sheriffs, not to mention clergy, have found ways to do it. What has changed that we now look upon these relationships as a problem? Is it because of those who have violated boundaries? If so, why look at all relationships exclusively through the prism of miscreants?
     Lay people are told to avoid initiating any contact with immediately departed clergy. A common spontaneous reaction is “Why?” Lacking a clear or rational answer, laity start to wonder if there is a hidden implication. “Was s/he a sex offender?” “Is s/he in trouble with denominational headquarters?” Sometimes anger and frustration provoke their comments; “This is so adolescent!” “Do I have to check the guest list to see if the former minister might be at a dinner I’m invited to?” “

     A church secretary is told to remove an object on her desk that was a gift from the former minister. Shall all tangible vestiges of former service be removed? How much do we want to serve the gospel of 1984?

     Retired ministers are encouraged to move out of town. Even those who prefer to do so may be unable because of the current economy. How is telling those who have served that they ought to leave “standing on the side of love?”

     Former ministers have been told they are not to attend memorial services for people they have known and served, sometimes for decades. Their grieving is not honored. Neither is their new role as congregant/mourner rather than pastor. What’s the message here?

     What of the spouses of clergy? Are they pro forma supposed to “find another church?” An interim, finding that the spouse of a recently retired minister had suffered a personal tragedy, refused to share that information with the congregation even though that spouse had been a decades-long member of the church. How does this model “beloved community?”

     A recently retired minister, suffering from a terminal illness was told to sign a “covenant” stating that he would not have contact with parishioners. Parishioners were discouraged from contacting him. How is a dying man a threat to his successor? On what basis should the blessings of the healing power of the “beloved community” be denied both the dying minister and the
    There are more examples, but I hope the point is made. If these examples are aberrations of the norm, they should be rooted out. An interim ministry that is reactive and defensive is a disservice. It is a disservice to the congregation, the departing minister, and the denomination. If such are either the norm, encouraged, or the result of some training system, the system needs to be changed.
    It disserves the congregation by infantilizing it, by implying that it cannot deal with transition without rigid and often arbitrary rules. It disserves the ministers. Litigiousness rather than dialogue between the former minister and the interim cast the interim in a role more akin to a parole officer than a colleague. It disserves the denomination by putting a system of interim ministry at odds with the highest values it professes.
    Most destructively, such practices model a way to deal with people who depart or retire in ways contrary to the gospel of “loving community.” I know of no school on any level where former coaches are prohibited from attending games at schools they have served – unless they have committed immoral or illegal acts. How many cuts below coaches shall we place clergy? Congregants? What if other institutions were to follow such practices? Is this what we want congregants treat their retiring peers? Is this how we want them to believe ministers believe congregants should be treated? How does this honor their “worth and dignity?”
    The message to retired clergy seems to be, “You’ve given your life to serving our church; now get out of sight, if not out of mind.” Is that really the message a denomination wants to give to those who serve its churches?
    We can do better. We must do better. There are positive models if we would but look at them.
    Within our own denomination some ministers have found positive and productive ways of dealing with their predecessors. Sometimes former ministers have become congregants – and without a two to five year wait. Granted, few may want to do this, but it has been done. Sometimes former ministers have attended significant church events without beseeching the permission of the current pastor. Sometimes current ministers have sought the help of former ministers to assist with rites, in time of crisis, or simply to share knowledge.
    One laywoman, after witnessing the arbitrary behavior of an interim and then checking her settlement record, noted all of the interim’s settlements were brief interims. The woman asked, “How can she talk about church relationships when she’s never had a significant relationship with a church?” The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has an answer to that. Before you can become an interim minister, you must have served a congregation as a settled minister for three successive years. In your fourth year at that same church you can begin interim training. That kind of protocol would give interims not only experience, but validation as well. The denomination should consider this practice.
    Clearly something needs to be done.
    –John Corrado

  3. Duane E. Miller / Jul 7 2012 11:36 am

    There is a lot to respond to here, not only in Dan’s article, but also in the eleven previous comments. I’ll make two observations here.

    First, there is nothing magic about one year. Most of my 11 interim assignments go longer than a year, not to serve my needs, but to allow the congregation the time it needs to do both a thorough self-study and then a responsible pastoral search. Things inevitably slow these processes down, such as holidays, the schedules of leaders in the congregation and the judicatory, availability of appropriate candidates, etc.

    Second, some congregations have issues to resolve before calling a new pastor, and some don’t. No one approach is going to benefit every congregation. The challenge for the intentional interim pastor is to be familiar with a wide array of resources and approaches in order to be of help to a given congregation.

    Duane E. Miller
    Interim Senior Pastor
    Trinity Lutheran Church
    Mason City, Iowa

  4. The Rev. Linda L. Grenz / Jul 2 2012 10:15 pm

    I would urge a systematic study of interim ministry….and of church transitions without interims. I’m a trained interim and have served as such, but believe we have jumped too quickly to make this the “norm” instead of the “exception” it was originally designed to be: ie, primarily for long term pastorates and conflicted parishes. My work with church and business organizations leads me to think that the adoption of the interim ministry is a significant contributor to the decline of church.

    Why? Think of a ten year process. New pastor arrives: Year 1 is about “forming” (who belongs), Year 2 is about “storming” (who has the power), Year 3 is about “norming” (how do we work together) and then generally around Year 4 you get to “performing” — being an effective system, working together well, etc. In our denomination (Episcopal) the average clergy stay is now about five years, so 12-18 months of high level performing and the priest is looking for his/her next post. The leave in Year 6 or maybe 7 (with performance slipping as they have one foot out of the door). The parish takes a couple of months and then an interim arrives. Some of the same forming, storming, norming process occurs…but generally faster as everyone knows this person will only be there 12-24 months. The interim leaves, new priest arrives and the cycle starts over. But what that means is that in every 10 year cycle, you get 1-2 years of high performance!

    No business would ever survive with that kind of leadership cycle. Why do we think churches will? There are plenty of churches and most other organizations in the world that make leadership transitions quickly and smoothly. We tend to pathogize transistions — treat congregations as patients and transitions as a death–which leaves wounded and grieving people who need care. This assumes that churches are families (a la family systems theory) — but they aren’t. Families are groups affiliated by blood, adoption and marriage. Churches are affiliations of choice. That changes the dynamics dramatically (and is why I think organizational systems theory is a much better tool for use with churches). A leader leaving an organization is a transition, not a death or traumatic experience….it is just a transition. We manage many leadership transitions at work, school, and in other organizations in our lives without making a huge deal of them — we can manage church leadership transitions too!

    We need to shorten the time between the departure of one priest and the arrival of the next….and we need to help move through the form, storm, norm stages a bit more quickly so we can maximize the high performing stage. Ideally we want to find ways to make the average tenure longer — preferably 8-10 years (understanding that it takes about 10 years to institutionalize change–so if we want to make real, sustainable change, we need longer clergy tenures. And we need to manage leadership transitions in ways that treats the members of congregations as healthy people, capable of processing a transition in church, just as they do in other parts of the lives. Reserve interim ministry for specific appropriate times. Do all of the work of interims (history, connecting to judicatory, etc.) and of Search Committees on an ongoing basis. Make your website your parish profile and keep it up to date. Do “self-study” as a means of doing ongoing reflection and discernment. Make those spiritual practices instead of a leadership transition activity.

  5. Sean Hale / Jul 2 2012 12:37 pm

    Excellent, thought provoking article.

    FWIW, 2 years of interim ministry served First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin very well.

    Our first interim helped the congregation, among other things, to grieve and process the dismissal of its senior minister. Our second interim helped us to prepare for the successful call of a top notch, new senior minister.

    During the 32 months between senior ministers, we made significant advances in clarifying our identity and goals (mission and ends), moving into an appropriate structure for authority and responsibility (policy-based governance), made significant advances in our operations and administration, brought courage to bear against behavior problems (covenant of right relations), and dealt compassionately but firmly with many of the sacred cows that no longer served the congregation as well as they once had.

    We see the results in the spirit of the congregation, the renewed sense of community and purpose, and an overall optimistic outlook (a significant difference from the church four years before).

    I doubt we could have attracted strong candidates for senior minister if we hadn’t achieved these things. Even though our interim ministers can’t take credit for all of it (the congregation, board, and staff share in that), I’m confident that we couldn’t have done it without them.

  6. Andy MacBeth / Jul 2 2012 11:48 am

    I think of interim ministry as a wonderful tool that ought to be among the options available to congregations in transition. Problems arise when we take a cookie-cutter approach that insists all transitions need to be handled this way. One thing the article did not explore are the reasons denominational executives may like the interim route. My hunch is that some denominational leaders enjoy extending the period of dependence that normally strong and independent congregations have on them during a time of transition.

  7. The Rev. W. Bruce McPherson / Jul 2 2012 11:48 am

    As a vocational Interim for 15 years, I have spent lots of time wondering about this vocation and its effectiveness. One conclusion I have reached is that vocational interims are a scarce resource and need to be deployed where they make the most sense. Many (most) congregations do mot need the overly-organized and sometimes self-serving processes that interims frequently employ. But interim ministry has become a way of life in many denominations and the appointment of an interim is often the knee-jerk reaction of many judicatories, faced with a vacancy.

    In talking about this with Loren Mead over many years, I have learned that the original idea was to deploy specially trained clergy in specific circumstances: (1) after a long term pastorate, and (2) after a breach of trust, whether sexual or financial and (3) large congregations in need of real management in the interim. I would add to this list that interims can be helpful in congregations that are “sub-optimal;” that is, in congregations what are do living up to their potential given their demographics, strength of program, or demonstrated capacity to grow. All others should, in my view, be fast-tracked. There is nothing to be gained by asking Congregations that are essentially healthy to jump through a year or more of hoops. This, of course, suggests a sound relationship between the judicatory and the congregation.

    All of this is merely conjecture and, for the future of the churches in uncertain times, a thoughtful and well conceived study is in order as Dan suggests in the present article.

    • Robert Shaw / Jul 8 2012 11:18 pm

      The four specific cases listed by Rev. McPherson (1. Following a long pastorate, 2. Following a breach of trust, 3. Management of a large congregation, and 4. under performing congregations) each need a pastor trained in transitional ministry. But with the exception of managing a larger congregation, which Rev. Hotchkiss notes have alternate resources, the care that the congregation needs is likely to last much longer than a year or two. Congregations needing to re-establish trust (case 2) or improve their relationship with their community (case 4) would benefit from a transitional pastor able to commit to staying long enough to demonstrate trust and implement a new missional focus.

  8. Margot Garcia / Jul 2 2012 11:45 am

    Thank you Dan for this essay. I agree it is time to do a broad-based scientifically valid review of the interim minister. As a congregant for over 40 years in one church, I have seen good interims and really bad interims. The good interim had us to think about what the past minister did and what he, the interim, was willing to do. The congregation had to decide what it was willing to do. The good interim can open the congregations eyes to new ways of looking at their service, their program, and their plant. The bad interims either did nothing, showed poor professionalism, like being late on Sunday morning services, showing little or no preparation for their work, or were dynamic blusterers who marched in and decided to change everything – service, governance, and the culture in general. Then he left the next minister to pick up the pieces and try to figure out what had been started.
    I guess, in the overall assessment, interim ministers are good at setting a pause, helping the congregation to assess what they like and dislike about ministers, themselves, and what needs to be worked on. It is a time for reflection and anticipation of the next settled minister. And the survey instrument that is used to assess the congregation, helps many, for the first time, really see the diversity of ideas and beliefs within the church.
    Yes, there can be grieving, but there can also be relief that the minister is gone. But everyone has to prepare to be open to the new arrival. He/She starts with good will.

  9. Marc / Jul 2 2012 10:33 am

    I just completed training in interim ministry and I think we have moved past the “grief model” as being the primary mode of thinking. We are in a rapidly changing religious culture and mission work is often difficult to accomplish as a full time settled pastor. The parish politics, the modes of governance, the comfort of patterns all combine to make a status quo that often is locked into a ministry paradigm that isn’t working. No fault of anyone involved, it simply is what it is.

    Interim periods are a great opportunity for a congregation to become unlocked and free to pivot to a new reality of mission. Without the social contract that a settled pastor has to deal with, I believe interim pastorates are going to evolve from the 1980’s psychological and counseling mode into a something I would term as a “healthy mission coach.” There is some grief work to be done, but the more important question is how we are able to move congregational norms into a outward focus, rather than an inward focus. And can our rapidly aging congregations pivot to a new mode of thinking before the costs of keeping a building and lack of emotional energy make for a gloomy future. The world is changing and the religious organizations that keep in the old patterns have a uphill battle against the culture of the next generation.

    The concept of pivoting a congregation toward the new future in this culture is one that is pretty exciting. They own the mission, they have the power to live out the faith in the future world. As a coach, you help the team. We can work with the greater church to be a staff person on their behalf in mission.. As church offices and resources get smaller, moving back to the 1920s level of governance, interims are a very cost effective way to do mission updates in the congregation. Rather than synod or regional officials coming in for a couple of hours in a workshop and then leaving, having a full time interim pastor living in the parish to do the work is more effective and the building of these relationships, even on a interim basis, is valuable for parish life. Helping the congregation to process the future and get the fire in the belly for the work of Christ in the world moves us past the grief modes and into a congregation that is ready for a settled pastor to come in and have the freedom to work with the congregation on its future.

  10. Vern Farnum / Jul 2 2012 10:26 am

    I agree, the “cookie cutter approach” to interim ministry is a fallacy. What is needed is an intentional, effective evaluation of the congregation before a transition plan is put in place. Interim ministry is important, but it is not needed in all situations. We have to learn to be more intentional and more flexible if churches are to survive. All too often the interim approach, best suited for pastoral size churches, does not work in all situations. Again, an intentional, effective plan needs to be worked through by the congregation and the denomination working hand-in-hand to discover what is the best approach in each and every situation. It is time for us to stop the cookie-cutter approach, unless we want to find ourselve with no cookie dough to cut.

  11. Michael Moran / Jul 2 2012 10:22 am

    In the church I have served the past 22 years I was fortunate to follow a very competent and beloved pastor who was here for 32 years (after 300 years I am the church’s 15th Senior Pastor), The interim minister was very important to this transition, even though at the time the congregation found his ministry less than adequate – they thought he overstepped his role for someone who was hired for the transition and there were personality conflicts as well. I thought he absorbed a lot of flak that might have been directed at me if I had walked in a week after the former pastor left, so I think his thick skin and tendency to stubborness were useful traits for both of us. The church had a seasoned HR professional as chair of the search committee and hired a independent consultant to guide them throug the process, so the questions Who are we? What shall we do next? With whom?” were raised in a process that did not involve the interim.

    In the previous church I served for 8 years in Vermont, I followed a pastor who was asked to leave after only two years and there was no interim – and I’m not sure one would have been helpful to me (maybe to the church, but that’s hard for me to judge.) I’ve spoken to a few retired ministers who have served as interims, a prospect I might consider down the road – and they all had training but I could not discern a pattern in their experiences and don’t know how the clergy who followed their interim would evaluate the importance of the interim’s ministry – and, again, that might be a different evaluation than the congregation would offer.

  12. Cathy Adler / Jul 2 2012 9:42 am

    This is a wonderful, thoughtful, article. As a member of a small UU church that has seen many transitions over the past 20 years, I have always found it interesting that there appeared to be a “one size fits all” methodology to finding called and interim ministers for our churches, regardless of size and make-up and history. It also seemed like the majority of ministers we interviewed approached their potential congregations as people and organizations that needed to be fixed, even before really knew who we were. It takes sigficant forebearance by the congregation to wait out this “storming” phase that a minister goes through before settling in and truly becoming a pastor. If the minister’s orientation was initially more of a non-judgemental analyst who works together with a congregation, regardless of whether this is a called, interim, or consulting minister, then the necessary healthy relationship-building might initially go more smoothly, and a real partnership can be formed. It is great to see a carefully considered shift toward this cultural change.

  13. micheletgrove / Jul 2 2012 9:37 am

    I appreciate your concise look at interim ministry and the overview of its help for churches. I agree that many interim ministers and religious educators now look at churches through the lens of health and wholeness. As an interim religious educator with Unitarian Universalist congregations, I find amazing gifts within the congregations I serve and believe that the conflicts and challenges are helpful in taking what is already strong and making the congregation stronger.

    Also, I am intrigued about the idea of tracing the history of interim ministry. It has been such a helpful tool in many denominations and faiths. It would be interesting to see how it has evolved and where it might be going in the future.

    Thank you.
    Michele Grove, Interim Director of Religious Education
    Unitarian Universalist Association

  14. Jill Kirsten Warner / Jul 2 2012 9:28 am

    I’m a former Interim Minister and agree that it is not a one size fits all proposition. But I wanted to comment specifically on the availability of qualified Interim Ministers. I don’t know what the answer is, but I couldn’t afford to stay in Interim work. The choices for the practical elements were prohibitive; either constantly pay for two homes, or move my entire household on average every 1 1/2 years, either go several months between interims without income or try to begin and end each ministry while dealing with finding apartments, setting up utilities, packing & unpacking and cleaning apartments. Loved the ministry, couldn’t keep up with the side issues.

  15. Judith Gotwald / Jul 2 2012 8:20 am

    It is refreshing to read that interim ministry is being rethought. From the lay point of view this is overdue.

    Interim Ministry is a great idea that may be going awry. The goal of interim ministry—to help congregations—is being lost. Interim ministry has become a management tool that satisfies clergy needs for short-term commitments and gives regional leaders flexibility in managing the pool of available pastors.

    Congregations bear the cost with questionable benefits.

    Pastors want commitments of a year or more, but congregations may need their special skills for no more than a few months. Interims begin to drain morale and resources. Congregations sense that interims are working for the regional body, which leaves them walking on eggshells — for as long a two years! How much honest evaluation can take place when a congregation knows the pastor is reporting privately to church hierarchy?

    The world is changing so fast that the prospect of ministers serving one congregation for decades is mighty slim. The interim may last longer than the next pastor! Long-term pastorates may not be a worthy goal in changing neighborhoods. We may be investing in a process that aims to prepare people for something that will never happen and wouldn’t be to their benefit if it did happen.

    The answer may be to train all pastors in transition sensitivity. When they follow an interim, they may have a sense that the transition is over. For the congregation, the process is starting all over again.

    2×2 Foundation published a “parable” based on lay experience that points to some of the negatives of interim ministries. Undercover Bishop is a congregational study guide, designed to prompt dialog. It is a free download:

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