FRESH THOUGHTS ON INTERIM MINISTRY
J. Michael Smith
I am too worn out, used-up, and decrepit to embark on another perennial pastorate. Those marathon days are over. I might, however, win the occasional 50-yard dash, (in the way the tortoise beats the hare.) No longer interested in lugging a church the 26 (plus) miles demanded by the marathon, I am still eager to take them on a shorter trip: to find those advantageous places where they might begin ministry anew.
Perennial pastors are expected to bloom in the same place year after year. An Interim pastor is more like the annuals we plant in our gardens: there only for a single season.
In the UMC, interim pastors are not the norm. Pastors appointed to new churches finish up their long-time appointments on June 30, then begin another perennial spell, somewhere else, the very next day. There is no gap, either for the pastor or the congregation. Instead, everyone quickly adjusts themselves to new people and circumstances. This “adjustment” period may take several months. But adjustment is not the same as transition. One might even argue that all this adjusting actually sidetracks us from necessary transitions.
Adjustment is how we cope with new people and places. It is how we show our flexibility in the face of pressing problems and opportunities. Transition, on the other hand, is something deeper, more difficult. Transition is what we do when we need to turn the whole story in a different direction. We may realize, as a congregation, that our story is headed in a direction that no longer pleases either God or ourselves. We need a strategy to change the story. Interim ministry, occurring in ruptures already present, is a prime opportunity to create environments more conducive to genuine transition.
Our Book of Discipline only mentions interim ministry in one place, paragraph 338.3: “Interim appointments may be made to charges that have special transitional needs.” When a church senses that its story is going in the wrong direction, that would constitute a “special transitional need.”
My first opportunity to serve as an interim pastor came in 2020, the year I retired. Grace UMC in Salem had an unexpected vacancy when their new pastor was not able to take up responsibilities on July 1. Bishop Beard sent me in to plug the hole “for a few months.” It turned out to be a 12-month hole. Salem Grace church is an historic, county seat church with a glorious history. But its numerical highs are now seen through the rearview mirror, a familiar phenomenon for the vast majority of our mid-sized churches. The leaders of the congregation quickly signaled to me that they wanted our time to be one of transition, not idling. Combining my curiosities with their openness and goodwill, a synergy developed that allowed us to see possibilities not imagined at first. It was not my job, as the interim, to turn everything upside down. But we did have fun together, moving everything over 50 yards or so, discovering in that change some more hopeful paths forward.
Many of our congregations are taking a battering these days, getting knocked down and depressed. We can blame COVID, but it’s more than that. We can blame the conservatives or the liberals, but it’s more than them. We can blame Sunday sports leagues, fickle church shoppers, ‘missing-the-point’ worship services, a host of hypocrites… Personally, I like to blame the devil. But that’s exactly what the devil wants me to do: play the blame game; get myself worked up, distracted… diverted from finding strategies that will actually change the story.
I aim to be the kind of interim pastor who effects strategic and systemic change in the short time I have with a church. While I’ve discovered no magic formula, I have gleaned a repertoire of ten guidelines, (a work in progress, in no particular order) as I go about this ministry:
- See the congregation and its people with fresh and detached eyes. When a congregation is battered by events within and without, folks lose sight of what there is to appreciate. Insiders have trouble seeing the good in themselves, each other, and their community. From my detachment, I can point out blessings others don’t see. Jesus says that when the eye is sound, the whole body becomes sound. This more appreciative way of inquiry avoids picking and poking on problems, which only makes things worse, and instead discovers new internal pathways toward strength and health.
- Immerse everybody in pastoral care. What congregation couldn’t benefit from this? Find something to enjoy about each person. Listen to story after story. Stay empathetic. Find common ground with each person. Laugh and cry with everyone. Pray for each one. Be curious. Ask “leading” questions that help people through their valleys and out from being stuck. Respect each person enough to be transparent and authentic. Protect each one’s vulnerability and expect them to protect yours. Prepare a banquet table, literally and figuratively.
- Season everything with humor. Battered congregations stop laughing. Therefore: no committee meeting can adjourn until everyone’s had a cleansing laugh. Self-deprecating humor is one way we “let go and let God.” Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, and no congregation can be the body of Christ without it. Our people deserve it and are often desperate for more joy in the church. An indefatigable sense of humor unlocks happiness, contentment, rejoicing, amusement, and energy: fundamentals for congregational transformation.
- Preach Christ. More specifically, preach the good news that Jesus of Nazareth preached, and offer people the same invitation to draw close and follow along. We often drift away from each other in our congregations, especially during conflict. In the worst scenarios, we are fractured and poles apart. But I don’t preach about problems and polarizations. I preach Jesus and urge people to get right with Christ. I challenge my people AND myself to mean it when we call Jesus “Lord” and “Savior.” When we are busy getting our own lives right with Christ, we don’t have time to complain about how others are goofing it up. According to the rules of spiritual geometry, when we get closer to Christ, we get closer to others in our church as well, even if they’re not budging an inch.
- Play my strategy game with the congregation. I accidently invented a board game that entertains you with the decisions and characters found in most every church. (Actually, I had started to write a book explaining the principles of “church strategy,” when I realized that hardly anyone would read it. They might, however, be lured into playing a game that subtly introduced the same concepts. So, I changed my strategy.) Let’s be blunt here: the traditional mission statement/vision casting/program prescription strategy doesn’t work in most of our churches. My game bypasses all that and goes straight to thinking strategies that grip hold of what our churches are really like today… and what we can realistically produce and offer people. The game introduces strategic concepts rooted in realities and relationships, not programs and wish lists.
- Find new leaders: recruit, equip, and integrate more people into the key ministries of the church. Minister to current leaders who are anxiously protecting their turf. Help all staff and volunteers to spend more of their energy and time engaging in work that accents their strengths and passions.
- Organize collaboration between the cabinet, the new pastor, and myself. Make sure the church does not get whip lash in all the comings and goings of different pastors. Spend generous amounts of time getting in synch with the new pastor.
- Conduct my “15 Point Administrative Review.” Murky communication, outdated policies and procedures, poor record-keeping, neglected property needs, over-lapping job descriptions, missing financial reports, and weak organizational structure subvert the work of Jesus Christ. Administrative common sense involves picking the low-hanging fruit that can quickly make life better for everyone.
- Make “making friends” the centerpiece of all activities during the interim period. Could each of us make just four new (or deeper) friendships within the church this next year? None of us has enough friends. And as our congregants age, they constantly lose friends, for many reasons, and those friendships are seldom replenished. I teach people how to have conversations so they can make new friends and enhance the power of long-time friendships. Where two or three are gathered together, Christ shows up. And that, after all, is what any pastor is supposed to evoke.
- Perform the interim pastor paradox: be the pastor while simultaneously detaching. As the appointed pastor of a congregation, I make sure to either perform or delegate all the pastoral responsibilities listed in the Book of Discipline. But I also stay somewhat detached the entire time so the local lay leadership has space to expand and grow strong. It has become increasingly difficult in our denomination for laity to find their footing and their rhythm. Local leadership is destabilized and made more insecure with every pastoral change. As an interim, I give the local leadership affirmation, guidance… and opportunity. When I cannot (or will not) do everything their past pastors have done, they must rise to the occasion. I teach laity a strategy for gaining more strength in our UMC system. After all, we all need to grow more able and powerful for the living of these days. And we need accountability to make ourselves worthy of that power.
We are going through peculiar seasons in the church these days, times never before experienced in our lifetimes. Ecclesiastes bids us to mind what season it is as they shift swiftly to and fro. Is this a time to plant or a time to pluck up what is planted? …a time to break down or a time to build up? …a time to mourn or a time to dance? …a time to tear or a time to sew? Interim ministry is only for a season, to give the church in that season what God most wishes it to have.