The Interim: Is it a good idea?

John Vonhof for the Alban Institute:

The interim period, in simplest terms, is the time between pastors. This period is, however, far from simple. The church must continue to function. Worship needs to happen. The board must lead. The staff continues to work. Members must be taught and cared for. Visitors and new members must be introduced to the life of the church. It is here that an interim pastor fits into the plans of your congregation during the clergy leadership vacancy and the search process.

A congregation approaching an interval without a pastor has several options for pastoral support. Understanding these will help the board and the search committee determine their preference for ministry support.

•First, denominational or regional offices can help determine whether a trained interim pastor is available to serve your church.
•Second, retired pastors can be engaged to serve for a specific time period, perhaps until a new pastor is called.
•Third, the board can decide to use local pastors, or perhaps retired pastors, as weekly guest pastors.

Interim pastors, sometimes called transition specialists, will provide the best support. They have been trained to help congregations end their relationships with previous pastors, conduct self-study and discern new directions, identify and develop new lay leaders, rethink denominational relationships, and build commitment to a new future. An interim pastor might be willing to commit from twelve to eighteen months of service. He or she may come to your church in a part-time or full-time role.

A good a sensible article. But here is a question. Is the interim period a sensible invention? Everyone has seen parishes that shoot straight down hill when a rector leaves and don't recover, if they recover, until the next rector is named. Everyone is aware of large parishes that really want to name their associate rector as rector when the sitting rector departs. Does the interim period really make sense in practical terms, or is it another one of the customs our church has committed to which slowly drains our congregations of life?

Comments (12)

I have spent my whole ordained life as an Interim. I think when the church has had bad relationship with the former priest - like sexual misconduct, financial misconduct, etc - an Interim can help the church through to a new healed life. If there has been a long pastorate- an interim can help a church look at where it wants to go next. If a church has had a normal life with 3-10 or so years -- I don't think an interim is necessary. A church where the priest has encouraged everyone to part of a ministering congregation (vs a congregating congregation) -- the functions will continue and the new priest can be called as soon as possible.

The circumstances you mention do seem ripe for an interim, Ann. Can you say something about the special skills that are required?

I replaced a wonderful priest who had been at the parish for 26 years. An interim was essential for the transition to a new priest. Many at the parish I left to take my new call, wanted to know why I just didn't become their new rector. Fortunately the bishop and I knew that they needed the time to sort out their identity and were blessed to call the right priest. I doubt that calling me would have been best for them or for me.

[Mark. Please note our policy requiring last names and adhere to it in the future. We value your comment. - ed.]

Let's not forget that the Episcopal Church is not a congregational church. (To some degree that's where some of our current troubles come from -- people thinking the system is congregational.) So what we are debating is the parameters that bishops might want to consider in co-determining with the parish whether an interim is called for.

If a parish "shoots straight down hill when the rector leaves" I have to ask if the departing rector didn't play a role in creating a system that relied excessively on his personality or her overfunctioning.

And then there are cases where whoever follows the sainted rector is doomed. It doesn't really matter whether the next rector is rector is interim dejure or de facto. Such a parish has to get the former rector out of its system before it calls a rector.

That said, if we can have coadjutor bishops why can't there be coadjutor associate rectors? As long as the period of overlap is not too long -- and that applies to bishops, too!

So what should bishops do -- what should their policy of interims be? I'd say the default should be to require interims, but be willing to allow exceptions. And to be firm and not allow excessive lobbying for exceptions, or lobbying appealing a decision.

As Ann says, there are plenty of situations when an interim (trained in systems theory, conflict resolution, etc.) is helpful or even necessary for congregational health. However, an interim should not be the default, as it is now.

Average rector tenure is about 5 years or so these days, I think. It makes no sense for a congregation to spend a third of its time (18 months in an interim) in transition. While there are *potential* downsides to skipping an interim, there are *certain* downsides to having one.

I was sent to my current parish as priest-in-charge for two years. At the end, I could leave, be called as rector, or stay a year as interim. To stay, the wardens, the bishop, and I all had to agree that this was a good idea. The model has worked well for me (I stayed).

Thanks for raising the question, Jim. This is most certainly one of those assumptions that *must* be challenged if we're going to reverse the decline of the Episcopal Church.

Pax,
Scott+

Scott,

I like the model you outline, and believe it should be one of the alternatives in the quiver.

When you write "_sent_ as priest-in-charge" I'm assuming the congregation had a say. Yes or no? And what sort of say? I'm asking generally, and not necessarily in your particular case.

John et. al.,

I would recommend speaking with the Transition Ministry Officer in the Diocese of Chicago for a conversation about the effectiveness of the "Priest-in-Charge" model described by Scott. It had been successfully used there for a number of years. I cannot say for certain if it is still utilized as I've been away from that diocese for a few years now. No doubt there are other dioceses that have been utilizing a similar model?

Debra

As a frequent supply priest for most of my career, I have seen situations where interims worked well and situations where they didn't. The best situations were when a congregation was seriously troubled in transition (whether from a troubled previous rector or a very long previous tenure), and a prepared change agent of an Interim was met by a congregation that recognized a need and had a desire for change. Where either of those partners was missing, the interim period was followed by a brief honeymoon and then a rapid return to dysfunction.

I think the interim period is a good idea, but takes preparation. It takes especially leadership from the diocese to make clear that no one the congregation will call will be either a replica of the last rector, of the last rector's opposite. As simple as it might seem, making that point clearly is not that easy.

Marshall Scott

main skill -non-anxious presence. Ability to encourage the people to claim and work for their vision of what God is calling them to be as a church in their community, not doing everything for people. It is very hard for a church to recover from betrayal of trust by the priest -- doing everything with transparency - advocating for those who have been victims - not just the immediate victims. Most churches are split with those loyal to the former priest thinking the victims are the problem and others out for revenge.

I have always felt that one of the Interim's task's (especially if the former Rector was there for a long time) is to make the parish aware of the differences between the Traditions of the Church, and the Traditions of the former Rector. It can be a valuable lesson.

As to the "Priest-in-Charge" concept, in Long Island I have heard it referred to as "rent to buy." Our new Bishop has indicated he is not a big fan of the idea, except in special circumstances.

Deacon Charlie Perrin

I served in an interim role four times, each time replacing a priest who had been fired. My titles were: interim, rector, priest-in-charge and then interim/priest-in-charge/rector. I now serve as a vicar that followed a 25 year vicar without a real interim – the associate vicar minded shop. I once attended an interim training conference that gave me the impression that rectors were what happened in between interims.

IMHO we rely way too much on interims and on family systems theory. We use a therapeutic approach to what is essentially a human resources issue. How do we help congregations find good leaders? How can we help clergy develop the leadership skills they need to have successful vocational journeys?

- Steve Ayres

I have been a priest and pastor for 38 years, serving as a professional interim for the last five years, now in my fourth congregation in that role. In three cases there were significant issues to address in terms of the history with the previous pastor. In the fourth, I provided not only that "non-anxious presence" but also a dependable pastoral center while the congregation went about its usual business and the search process. The leadership there has said repeatedly that having me there allowed them to concentrate on the important stuff.

I believe that interim ministry is contextual. It not only varies from congregation to congregation but diocese to diocese and even region to region. History and tradition (the good parts) are important qualities of Episcopal church life, and need to be respected.

I would plead only for clarity of purpose and title. That is, if a trained interim is needed, then the title ought to reflect that. If it is a pastoral presence while everything else goes merrily along, title it such. Each of the models mentioned in this conversation has its place and purpose. My experience is that problems arise (in these cases) where we are not clear about relationship, purpose, and goals. (Consider the many cases I have seen where the "interim" signs a contract/letter of agreement that states that they will not be a candidate for the job, and then somehow allows themselves to be considered -- almost always a failure in the end.)

Peter J. Van Hook

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