Interim (or not?)

4158547805_1207cf6201_mChange in the senior leadership of a congregation is fraught with opportunity and danger. A congregation in the midst of senior clergy transition is likely to experience high levels of anxiety and energy manifested in stagnation, conflict, or in brilliant creativity and rebirth. The Interim period has long been viewed as a special time in the life of a congregation, a time requiring a “different” sort of leadership. Rather than moving from one ministerial relationship immediately into another, the long standing practice generally involves the employment of an Interim Minister, a temporary shepherd who leads the congregation through the murky waters of transition. 

Increasingly, large congregations are questioning whether or not pastoral transition is sufficiently unique in the large setting to warrant a different way of thinking and different practices. Many large congregations today are considering direct pastor to pastor transitions that eliminate the practice of interim ministry.

The congregant in the small to medium sized church must use the interim period to let go of a personal one on one attachment to the departing pastor.  In the larger church those personal attachments are likely to be more present among the staff team and among key lay leaders. The larger population of the congregation is attached to a persona, not to a personal relationship. There is still important transition work to be done in transferring attachment, but the transition experience will be different from that of a smaller congregation.

Issues of identity and distinctiveness are fundamentally different in the larger church. Smaller congregations often describe their core identity as caring communities of support. It can be difficult for the small or medium sized congregation to describe the unique nature of its ministry, the distinctiveness of context, or who it is seeking to serve. These congregations have a great deal of identity work to engage during pastoral transition. In the smaller church the interim time is designed to be a neutral, resting time where the congregation can stop action and engage these important identity conversations.

 The healthy large church already possesses a unique way of talking about its identity, its context and the unique niche that it serves. The persona of the current pastor projects that uniqueness. The vision work of the large congregation during the interim generally does not involve re-inventing the church, but looking for fresh ways to articulate what is already present, and looking for evidence of vision drift. During the interim period the large church will claim 3-5 strategic priorities to project the established identity into a preferred future and to name the attributes of the pastor who will manage and personify the identity. In the large church the interim time period is not a vision neutral time zone. Leading the large church is like steering an ocean liner. The vessel turns slowly and with great deliberation. It is not flexible and nimble and if momentum is lost during an interim time period it will take huge amounts of energy on behalf of leadership to get the vessel moving again. The interim time period in the larger church is not a time to stop action. It is a time to review, reflect and refocus while maintaining important momentum.  Typically the momentum is maintained by the staff team and board leadership while the search committee engages leadership in reflection about future focus and strategic priority.

Anxiety and conflict express themselves differently in the larger church than they do in the smaller congregation.  Smaller congregations are constructed around simpler relational cells and networks. When anxiety surfaces in the smaller congregation it is quickly experienced throughout the entire congregation, and must be managed systemically.  In the larger church anxiety is likely to express itself in increased interest and speculation across the congregation, but outright conflict is likely to be localized and experienced in leadership pockets. During the interim period the overall anxiety of the congregation will be higher, but it can be managed through clear and transparent communication and by involving congregants in important data gathering activities that will shape the choice of future pastoral leadership. Outbreaks of conflict are best handled from the center and at the source, engaging the staff team and key lay leaders in the important work of conflict management as needed. Stability on the staff team and governing board are critical to keeping conflict healthy and anxiety at a minimum. Stability on the staff team and governing board may be best served by a single transition from one senior ministerial leader to the next, not by entertaining two major transitions (one from the retiring senior minister to the interim and then a second transition from the interim to the new senior minister).

In future entries I’ll explore different models of pastoral transition in the large church. In the meantime, what do you think about the notion of doing something other than an interim pastorate? Is the large church significantly different enough to warrant different models of pastoral transition?

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One Response to “Interim (or not?)”

  1. Maureen Killoran Says:

    As an interim minister currently serving a large congregation, I want to suggest that Susan’s perspective on interim ministry assumes a “one-size-fits-all” approach (though I would challenge her assumption that IM in smaller congregations represents a “vision neutral” time zone). Her article also seems to assume that all large churches in transition are healthy — an interesting and more optimistic assumption than I would be comfortable making.

    As Susan rightly indicates, the pastoral transition in large congregations, and the manifestations of anxiety, take different shape in large congregations. And yes, interim ministry for large congregations must be different than in small or mid-size churches, and requires different skill sets of those interim ministers who can be successful in expediting healthy transition.

    None of these points argue against engaging a trained, competent interim minister for pastoral transitions in the large church, healthy or otherwise.

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