The Interim: Is it a good idea?

by

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?

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Scott Gunn
Guest

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+

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John B. Chilton
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John B. Chilton

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.

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Mark
Guest
Mark

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.]

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Jim Naughton
Guest

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

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Ann Fontaine
Guest

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.

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