The Tasks of a Church During the Interim Period

Kenneth D. Blazier

In his Resource Notebook for Interim Ministry, Leigh Earley suggests three basic ways a church may view the interim period between pastors. Each of these reflects a concept of the church's ministry.

First, the interim time may be viewed as a time to be moved through as quickly as possible so that the church can get on to its real future. In its extreme this view tends to think of the church as being the pastor. It views the church's ministry as being the pastor or what the pastor does. It views the laity as being served by the pastor or following the direction of the pastor. In this view, power rests in the hands of the pastor or in the hands of the pastor and a few key leaders. Yes, some people see the interim time as a period to move through quickly so that we can move on to the real future.

Second, others view the interim period as a time to be tolerated, but not to be prolonged any longer than necessary. In its extreme this view tends to see the church as the fellowship and the pastor as a key part of that fellowship. It views the church's ministry as the pastor, but there is some room for the laity. This view tends to see the laity as doing the work of the church when no pastor is here to lead. The pastor shares power with the laity. When there is no pastor, power is unevenly distributed to lay leaders who pick up these responsibilities temporarily. A number of people view the interim period as a time to be tolerated, but hopefully not for a very long period.

Third, others see the interim time as offering opportunities for growth and change that will strengthen the congregation in the long run.  They see  the interim time as providing opportunities which will greatly benefit a church as it moves into the future.  In its extreme this view tends to see the church as the people of God. The church's ministry is seen as what the church does, with the pastor being only part of that total ministry. The laity is partners in ministry with one another and with the pastor, with each being a source of creativity and energy for the church's life and outreach. Power is shared by the pastor and the laity, both leaders and non-leaders.

These basic ways of viewing the interim period and their differences in relation to approaching the ministry of the church are significant.

THE FIVE TASKS

There are five tasks that a church needs to work on during the interim period between pastors. They are described in the current literature on interim ministry from the Alban Institute and other sources as five developmental tasks.

Interim Task #1: Coming to Terms with History

The leaving of one pastor and the arrival of another are major events in a church's history. During the period between pastors one essential task is to retell and celebrate the congregation's history, to recognize that a chapter is "coming to a close," and to deal with the feelings that are being generated by the changes.

How well the congregation deals with its history will determine how well it will move into and deal with its future. It is a mistake to call a new pastor until we have learned from our past. Coming to terms with our history means reviewing it, learning from it, and deciding on those elements of it that we want to retain as part of our present and future.

Without working to try to make it happen during the interim period, individuals in a congregation are naturally going to reflect on the history of their relationship to the church. Some are going to grieve over the pastor's leaving because of their love and appreciation for the pastor. This will stem from special experiences they have had with the pastor in times of death, weddings, family problems, counseling situations, working together, and social activities. At the same time some people will feel a sense of relief at the leaving of the pastor. Their experiences have not been as positive and they may have secretly been wanting a change of pastors. With their feelings of relief may come feelings of guilt--for what they may have done, for hindsight thoughts of what they wish they had done. Perhaps they are angry with the pastor or someone else or themselves, and they feel guilty about that.

Edwin Friedman, a family therapist and a rabbi, suggested at an interim ministry conference that transitions or rites of passage were the original form of therapy. He said that a well-thought-out, deliberate approach to the interim time can help a congregation deal with the healing of hurts, with unfinished business, and with missed opportunities from previous days. He maintains that the interim period may well fit alongside of birth and death as major times for individuals and groups to make changes and to work out the residue of old relationships which have been disabling.

A number of things can help a congregation come to terms with history. The interim pastor can reflect back to the congregation what he or she is learning about the church's history from pastoral visits and other contacts. Elements of history can be highlighted in the church's newsletter, sermons, or a slide presentation. The anniversary of the founding of the church can be celebrated. An oral history can be prepared.

The central focus of the interim time is not merely on what happened in the past. The purpose of coming to terms with history is to deal with history so as not be to be bogged down by it, but rather to be freed by it to move on into the future.

Interim Task #2: Discovering a New Identity

From time to time the self-image or identity of a congregation becomes outdated. At other times the identity of a congregation is lodged significantly in the personality or leadership of the pastor. The interim period is a time when the congregation needs to discover a new identity: Who are we now that our pastor has gone? The congregation needs to gain a conscious understanding of how it now views itself.

The interim period is a time of looking inward. Seldom during other times does the same type of introspection occur. The interim period is an important time to do a self-study that will provide a realistic appraisal of the congregation's life and outreach, including its strengths and weaknesses. The study can reveal a great deal about the attitudes that the congregation has about its mission and witness. This study and other efforts can result in the re-shaping of the congregation's self-image.

One of the problems in this regard is that there is generally no one conscious self-image in a church. There are in effect a lot of self-images, with each person's image shaped by his or her personal experience and relationships in the church and the community.  There is need for a structured time and approach that will involve individuals in some dialogical way in the formulating of a statement on "here is how we see ourselves as a church."

A number of things can be helpful to a church during the interim time as it attempts to discover a new identity. In addition to a formal self-study, the congregation can do some dreaming and formulate their hopes for the future. Bible study and opportunities to explore faith issues are essential in discovering a new identity.

Interim Task #3: Shifts of Power

Some leaders who have achieved significant influence in the congregation may have done so because of the desire, encouragement, and support of the previous pastor; or because of their connectedness with the pastor. Persons in leadership tend to be those who can work best with the pastor, particularly in long pastorates. During the interim period some of these leaders may prefer to move into less conspicuous or less time-consuming roles: the pastor's leaving provides the opportunity which these folks may have really been wanting because of over-involvement or other reasons. Sometimes such leaders are fearful that they may not be as comfortable working with the next pastor, and they want to avoid that risk.

During the interim period others may decide to increase their involvement and influence in the congregation. Perhaps they have been uncomfortable with the previous pastor and feel that now is the time to be more involved.

This is all normal and usually healthy. The task for the interim time is to facilitate this shift of power or leadership without losing momentum in the life of the congregation and without alienating or disenfranchising persons who have been involved in leadership in the past.

Leaders have power. Often leaders are unaware of the power they possess. "Power" is not a dirty word. Most people use their power to enhance the life, program, and ministries of the church. Occasionally individuals use their power to slow down, frustrate, aggravate, or derail aspects of the program, life, or ministry of the church. This may appropriately be called "abuse of power."

When shifts of power occur, there may be a variety of conflicts. In fact, some conflicts are actually attempts to balance power or to change the balance of power. In addition to conflicts, shifts in power may show up as attempts by individuals to gain specific leadership roles. Consequently, the congregation needs to deal with the overall issues of leadership. There may be few leaders available. Leaders may need specific training, and priorities may need to be set regarding where and how leaders should be used. These issues are ever-present in a church, but during the interim period they take on special dimensions because of the shifts in power taking place.

During the interim time shifts of power can be facilitated in various ways. It is helpful if there is a public acknowledgment that shifts of power and leadership are normal and to be expected. Previously less active people can be encouraged to accept new responsibilities. The church can celebrate the dedicated leadership of persons moving out of leadership roles. New leaders can be installed with a sense of dignity and worship. We can attempt to build mutual support between former and new leaders. An emphasis on spiritual gifts--how they vary with individuals and how each is important--is helpful in facilitating shifts of power.

Interim Task #4: Re-Thinking Denominational Linkage

During the interim period a congregation is probably more receptive to outside help and ideas than at any other time. Many congregations have been drawn closer to their denomination after a pastor resigns because of their openness to utilize the resources and services of the denomination. The time of pastoral vacancy is an important time for the congregation to become reacquainted with the heritage, mission, and services of our American Baptist Churches. It is a time for the congregation to re-think and re-affirm its connectedness with the denomination. This will usually result in increased appreciation for our American Baptist heritage, a better understanding of the workings of the denomination, more appreciation for your region and regional staff, and increased understanding of the world mission of American Baptists.

If the task of rethinking denominational linkage is to be worked on adequately, it is important for the congregation to be in close contact with the regional staff during the selection process for a new pastor. It is also important to select an interim pastor and supply preachers carefully with regional staff so there is leadership that understands the denomination and is concerned about this task. When retired pastors apply to become Ministers-at-Large and to serve in the M.A.L. Program as interim pastors, only those who have an understanding of and a commitment to our American Baptist family are accepted. We make no secret of the fact that a number of congregations across the country have maintained their relationship to the American Baptist Churches largely because of the interim ministry work of Ministers-at-Large. Other churches have strengthened their ties with the denomination because of M.A.L.s.

No matter who the interim leadership in a church may be, there are a number of things that can be done to work on the tasks of rethinking denominational linkage. Video and written resources about the heritage and history of our denomination can be used. A series of sermons or special classes on American Baptist history and distinctives are important. Leaders can point out the values now being gained by denominational affiliation. Encouraging participation in regional or area meetings is important. American Baptist offerings and special emphases can be highlighted throughout the year.

Interim Task #5: Commitments to a New Leadership and a New Future

During the interim period the congregation needs to be ready to make a commitment to the new pastoral leader it will soon call. If a congregation is not ready to welcome and work with the new pastor, it will in effect undermine its ministry in the future. The task that needs to be accomplished before the coming of the new pastor is the building of a sense of anticipation and hope for the future. The calling of a new leader should be seen as the extension of the congregation's developing new hope and new vision of the future.

There are many ways during the interim period to prepare a congregation for a commitment to new leadership and a new future. From the beginning the interim pastor and supply preachers need to emphasize the non-permanent status of their tenure in the church. Any future plans or dreams that the congregation has formulated should be kept highly visible before everyone. Preaching should set forth the biblical basis of the future as both hope and grace. After the new pastor is called, there should be regular prayer for the pastor and the pastor's family as they prepare to come to the church. Information on the new pastor should appear in church newsletters and the local newspaper. A reception and service of installation will be planned. Celebrations and fellowship events during the first year of a new pastorate, and periodically thereafter, will help to keep the commitment to the future alive.

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