Interim ministry is relatively new in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. It is intentionally short-term, with a maximum of two years. It usually occurs either when a pastoral relationship has ended because of problems in the congregation or when a minister who has served a charge for a long time moves on, retires or dies. In those situations, the church is in a time of transition; and interim ministers help congregations deal with these changes.
The Exodus story can be used to explain transitions.
A transition involves an ending, a wilderness period and a beginning. In the Exodus story, Israel ended their time in Egypt by crossing the Red Sea. They spent 40 years in the wilderness being changed from a group of runaway slaves into God’s covenant nation. They began their new life when they entered the land of Canaan.
A church in transition must consciously close the previous chapter in its life. It must engage in a process of self-examination and change—the wilderness period—so that it is ready to call a new minister.
When the new minister is called and inducted, the new beginning starts. To attempt to begin anew before the old has truly been ended and the wilderness has been experienced can lead to tragedy. Ending and wilderness are essential preparations for a good new beginning. Leading a congregation through the ending and the wilderness is the task of an interim minister, a task that is both a challenge and a joy.
It is always a challenge for a minister to enter a new congregation. But an interim minister faces the extra challenge of coming into a congregation that is under great stress and reducing their anxiety, coming to a congregation that feels adrift and providing stability, coming to a congregation that needs a new sense of mission and helping them to find it.
A congregation in transition has some specific tasks it should face. It needs to be reminded of what it is. Many congregations give little thought to their histories, but those histories can affect them greatly. Two of the congregations I served as interim minister were started in 1925 by people whose former congregations had voted to join the United Church; the third was an extension congregation about 25 years old. Their histories were very different, but in each case the history had a strong impact on the congregation’s personality.
The congregation needs to understand its setting. A congregation that is not part of its neighbourhood will eventually face survival problems. But neighbourhoods change and so do congregations; an up-to-date analysis of how a congregation can serve its neighbourhood is important.
Congregations in transition often feel alone, unsupported by the rest of the denomination. One of the jobs of an interim minister is to re-establish or strengthen denominational ties.
The congregation needs to know where it is going. What is its vision? If it has a vision statement, is that statement appropriate today? A congregation without a clear vision really has no idea of what kind of minister it should call.
In addition to leading the congregation through those tasks, the interim minister must provide a model for handling difficult situations. By remaining calm when problems arise, the leader reduces anxiety; by communicating his or her intentions fully and clearly to the whole congregation, the leader reduces gossip; by encouraging people to voice their dissenting opinions openly and by not rejecting those who disagree, the leader discourages cliques. In my judgement, modelling acceptance of others while maintaining one’s own position is a major part of an interim minister’s job. An interim minister needs to demonstrate Christ-like love combined with commitment to Christ-like service.
Why would anyone want to take on a job like that? Because there is a lot of joy connected with it—joy that makes all the difficulties worthwhile. An interim minister is highly appreciated, for people in transition situations generally feel desperate and they are deeply grateful to the one who comes to help.
An interim minister comes into a situation where leadership is needed and is able to take leadership quickly and easily. An interim minister can bring about needed change more quickly than is usually possible, because everyone realizes that his or her time is limited. And she or he doesn’t have to worry about whether people will still like them in five years. Consequently interim ministry is deeply satisfying.
The time of transition can be a positive time for a congregation. Especially in difficult situations, an interim minister can help the process greatly. I’m glad we’ve begun interim ministry in the Presbyterian Church; I hope that there will be more ministers who see it as God’s call.