Whither interim ministry?

A file-drawer label popped out at me as I moved into my new office: “VACANT CHURCHES.” For a moment, I imagined empty buildings all across the continent. Then I opened up the drawer, flipped through folders, and realized the churches were not vacant. They were full of people—what they lacked was ministers.

That’s where I came in. It was 1980, and I was the new ministerial placement person for the Unitarian Universalist Association. My job was to fill those “vacant churches” up with ministers.

But not right away—first, we filled most of them up with interims.

Interim ministry, we were convinced, helped navigate a moment of importance in a congregation’s life. The year of transition was an opportunity to rethink program, leadership, strategy, and purpose. It was also an emotional transition, similar to grief. As for many other national and regional church bodies, for us, interim ministry was an almost unquestioned good.

Almost, but not quite. Clergy have always accepted the interim idea better than lay people, many of whom find it odd to spend so much time in transition. Larger churches—which have become more numerous since the 1970s—resist cookie-cutter formulas promoted by denominational bureaucracies. The idea that a congregation has to “do grief work” fits small congregations better than large ones, which tend to define pastoral roles more functionally.

Over the last decade, the consensus in support of interim ministry has softened somewhat. Lay leaders question the automatic use of interims in every case. Some of the objections make sense to me—but as an Alban Institute consultant, but I should acknowledge some accountability for the status quo.

Before founding Alban, Loren Mead tested “vacancy consultants” in 23 Episcopal churches under the name Project Test Pattern. Later, Mead kept looking for ways to help congregations in transition. In 1981, Alban fostered the formation of the Interim Ministry Network, an interfaith association of clergy for whom interim ministry had become a special calling.

Transitional ministries were not new, of course. They had existed under many names, and consultants like Lyle Schaller had promoted interim ministers—but this was something different. Equipped with new ideas like the “stages of grief” made popular by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, interims helped congregations talk about what they were experiencing.

No historian has yet mapped the spread of the interim ministry idea, but apparently it spread quickly. In some denominations, most clergy openings are filled by interims, sometimes for two years or more.

But doubts about the interim idea have not gone away. Carolyn Weese and Russell Crabtree, in The Elephant in the Boardroom (Jossey-Bass 2004), complain that the “prevailing stream of thinking about leadership transitions tends to be illness-based. A pastoral transition is treated like a terminal diagnosis….” (p. 19)  Ouch!

A morbid emphasis on “wounds and weaknesses,” say Weese and Crabtree, forces congregations into a supine, patient-like dependence on the expertise of denominational officials and interim ministers.

Whatever the merits of their alternative suggestions, Weese and Crabtree call needed critical attention to some aspects of Alban’s early work on transitions. Some interim ministers do rely rather heavily on the Kübler-Ross grief model—which can sometimes be a bit dramatic. The most effective interims, I find, balance openness to grief feelings with an appreciative approach to congregational strengths, and bring a broad and flexible portfolio of skills and concepts to the work.

Professional interim ministers, as a group, engage in more self-critical reflection and creative thinking than most other clergy. In “Rethinking Transitional Ministry” (Congregations 2012, issue 1), Norman Bendroth, a network-certified professional interim, surveys some of the current experiments among the members of the Interim Ministry Network.

To date, Bendroth observes—and so far as I have been able to determine, he is right—no one has mounted a serious, objective study to evaluate whether interim ministry reduces conflict, improves ministerial selection, lengthens subsequent ministries, or improves congregational self-knowledge or effectiveness. Given the impact of the widespread use of interim ministry, this is an odd omission that some social scientist should remedy.

The widespread acceptance of interim ministry has instead been based on observation and evaluation, mainly by interested parties like me. Though I can’t prove it, I believe interim ministry has done far more good than harm. But any change in institutional practice has both intended and unintended consequences.

A major side effect of interim ministry is that it produces a strong lobby for its own perpetuation. Interim ministers are a self-conscious professional group, a “guild.” The more interim ministry a denomination recommends, the more interim ministers it will end up with. Over time, it becomes politically hard to entertain alternatives that might reduce the number of jobs for interims.

Another unintended consequence of urging congregations to hire interims is that congregations understandably expect qualified interims to be available. Despite intensive efforts to maintain a strong cadre of effective interims, every year some interim ministers fall short of the advertised ideal.

I still believe in interim ministry, though I agree with Norman Bendroth that after forty years, it’s overdue for some rethinking. What works for pastoral-sized congregations differs from what works in larger ones. Weese and Crabtree’s criticism of the “illness-based” approach has merit—though the fact that I prefer to see myself as healthy doesn’t mean I am.

Congregations in transition are not “vacant churches” and should not be treated as such. At the same time, the departure of a clergy leader does create a vacancy of some importance. Even in large congregations that plan ahead for their transitions, the first day after the departure of a long-time clergy leader feels quite different from the days that went before. On that day, leaders, staff, and members look at one another and ask questions like, Who are we? What shall we do next? With whom?

When asking questions of this kind, a companion who has been this way before can be a comfort and a help no matter how much—or how little—health is in us.