By Rev. James Gale
It feels like the last couple of years have given interim ministry a bad name. Everywhere I turn, there are articles about how interim ministry has lost its way or conversations about how the interim process can stall a church. In my experience, it is true that in far too many instances the interim period is simply a placeholder, a time for someone to keep the trains running and be a warm body in the pulpit. It’s also true that there is still a deep need for transitional ministry in so many of our churches.
Too often we talk about interim or transitional work in terms of the individual, the pastor, by nature of title and job description. We reflect upon their training (or lack thereof) and experience as lenses to predict their effectiveness. When we think of interim ministry as resting simply on an individual, however trained and experienced they are, we miss the mark.
Interim ministry is never about a single person, but rather about the community. While interim periods in the church’s life are most easily identified after the departure of a pastor, that transition is a symptom rather than the issue itself. Some departures involve deep grief, others an opportunity to celebrate successful ministry together, and still others require significant restructuring and healing. All transitions present the community with the opportunity to see their ministry in a new way.
Congregational ministry flows in seasons, much like the church calendar. The identity, structures, vision, and resources that are groundbreaking during one season are not always adequate for the new ways in which God is leading. This, of course, includes pastoral leadership, but it is also so much deeper than that.
As my friend Jan Edmiston says, “Transitional periods prepare the congregation for a new chapter of ministry.” Interims are times for reflection and growth. Without honoring this liminal space, we are unable to truly experience the grandeur of new journeys of faith. Interim Ministry is preparing the way, the way the Advent season prepares us for the birth of the Christ child each year.
Much like John the Baptist was a voice crying in the wilderness, the same way a farmer tills the field before planting the next crop, interim ministry provides a community the space, leadership, and resources to recognize where they have been, to celebrate the new place in which they stand, and to contemplate where God is calling. Constructive and effective interim ministry helps the congregation prepare themselves for a new experience of ministry and life together.
At its best, interim ministry is intentional work that centers a congregation to hear God’s calling in new ways. It calls into clarity the cultural and adaptive changes that are necessary to move toward that new vision and equips congregations to hold ownership of their ministry. It is not about the interim pastor, or the next pastor to come, but about particular communities of faith preparing themselves to hear and follow God once again.