Interim ministry: A vital step towards congregational health?

By | September 24, 2019

I’ll be the first to admit: I’ve often been no fan of interim ministries. Why? Because these interregnums are too often periods of turmoil and confusion, in which churches and their members are left to flounder, while giving and membership collapse. But when understood and done correctly, interim ministry is a vital step towards congregational health.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that diocesan officials and church members — and even many clergy — often don’t understand what interim ministry is, or what it’s supposed to do.

The concept of interim ministry arose out of Alban Institute studies that examined years of failed search processes and callings. These studies revealed that there is a natural process that occurs when a priest leaves. This process can be encouraged and facilitated, or it can, either accidentally or deliberately, be sabotaged. As a result, congregations are very vulnerable during an interim period.

Many times diocesan officials fall prey to the notion that they just need to get someone in there, and fast. As a result, far too many parishes are assigned a kindly, gentle, retired priest who is reassuring, harmless, and non-controversial. But by their very nature, these priests are seat warmers, whose main purpose is to be a friendly, familiar face until the “real rector” is called. Yes, they may troubleshoot the odd issue here or there, and they may listen with compassion to those who voice concerns, but that and Sunday worship are about the extent of their ministry before they sail back off into the golden years of retirement. Such situations are at best uninspiring, and at worst highly risky for churches in transition.

Real interim clergy, however, have professional training. As part of this, they recognize and facilitate the natural stages of interim ministry. These are:

  • Coming to terms with history
  • Clarifying identity
  • Raising up new leadership
  • Developing denominational linkages
  • Welcoming a new rector

Of course, there are numerous components to each of these stages, far too many to list. But when these stages don’t occur, the parish is placed at tremendous risk.

While all parishes benefit from a proper interim ministry, parishes that have had the same rector for many years may have a particular need for a strong interim. Such parishes often come replete with unexamined issues and hidden conflicts, as well as strongly held notions of the “way things should be done.” This is particularly the case in parishes that have had a charismatic rector, where questioning clergy may be viewed as disloyal or disruptive.

Needless to say, parishes in conflict have a particularly compelling need for proper interim ministry. Left unaddressed — a tendency far too common in The Episcopal Church — conflict can poison parishes for years, if not generations, to come. As the Rev. Robin Hammeal-Urban notes in her excellent book “Wholeness After Betrayal: Restoring Trust in the Wake of Misconduct,” congregations in this situation often learn unhealthy ways of relating to each other that will persist indefinitely if ignored.

This is particularly the case in congregations that have experienced spiritual abuse, which may be recognized only after a troublesome clergyperson has left. Such churches often have experienced behaviors that, taken individually, appear innocuous, yet taken as a pattern are definitely a form of misconduct. For example, an isolated case of a priest yelling at someone may be nothing more than a bad day. But if this occurs repeatedly, it may become clear that there is larger issue. In such cases, normal boundaries may be eroded or missing, natural leadership thin or nonexistent, and roles and expectations for clergy, vestry members, and others confused or distorted.

As Robin notes, such parishes often have become adept at discounting or writing off spiritually abusive behavior, saying things like, “Don’t take it personally. It will be someone else’s turn next week,” or “That’s just how he is.” Moreover, such churches may become breeding grounds for bullies, and it takes only a handful to turn an entire parish toxic.

In these cases, an interim, often with help from diocesan officials and trained experts, can facilitate healing and recovery by promoting disclosure in a safe environment. This is essential, as church officials, fearing potential liability, may cause lasting harm by following a “no comment,” “less is more,” or “everything is confidential” policy. Even worse, diocesan officials and outsiders may come to view a conflicted parish as “damaged goods,” not worthy of pastoral care and support.

Ironically, it is situations in which a parish has not had a successful interim where the church indeed becomes “damaged goods.” Well qualified clergy will want to know that there’s been a successful interim and that church members are ready and able to welcome a new priest with joyful anticipation. So in cases where there has not been a trained interim, the most qualified clergy often will decline to apply for the position, fearing that they are setting themselves and the church up for failure.

On the other hand, there are numerous examples of successful interim ministries leading to vibrant church growth. That is particularly the case here in Virginia, where the property recovery litigation resulted in several churches successfully rebuilding and experiencing tremendous growth, despite the challenges involved in churches “learning to be a church.”

In closing, was your church’s last clergy transition successful? If there was an interim involved, was he or she formally trained for interim ministry? And what would you have done differently, if anything, to make your transition more successful?

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