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Engaging in Interim Ministry

By Neal Michell

I have served as an interim rector for nine congregations, gleaning lessons along the way, which I share now in this three-part essay. Part One dealt with preliminary concerns. In this installment, we’ll consider the actual work of interim ministry.

Leading the Church

1. Be a non-anxious presence. Change is difficult under the best of circumstances. Whether the rector left because of conflict, or perceived a call to another position as a new challenge, or because of retirement, the interim rector can go a long way in assuaging the fears and uncertainties that come with this type of change in a congregation’s life.

So, how does one go about being a non-anxious presence?

First, the interim rector should pray a lot. Daily. For the congregation. More battles are won through prayer than through talking.

Two, listen, and don’t take people’s complaints personally. Sometimes people need a listening ear and a sounding board.

Three, pray with the person who, in sharing with you, might burden you with anxiety. Prayer will diffuse people’s anxieties.

Four, identify thought leaders on the vestry and among the congregation who can help to calm people’s nerves.

2. Representing the bishop well. The interim rector is the bishop’s agent among the congregation.

3. Speak no ill of any previous rector of the parish. It is easy to want to tell people in the congregation everything you know about their previous rector, but that is not helpful. The interim rector will appear to be picking sides in a conflict.

4. Focus on the health of the basics: worship, pastoral care, administration, Christian formation, newcomers ministry. Ask such questions as these: Is the staff cohesive, or weary of uncertainty from the previous rector? Is it overloaded with responsibility? Similarly, are volunteers happy? Tired?

The Search Committee

1. Don’t attend its meetings. This is often the bishop’s directive but needs to be repeated. The primary role of the interim rector is to lead the vestry and to be a non-anxious presence. In some dioceses, the bishop will appoint a chaplain to the search committee.

2. Have the leader of the search committee or the senior warden give periodic updates concerning the progress of the search. Providing regular updates on the search will go a long way in alleviating the anxiety of the congregation during this in-between time. Even to report that nothing new has happened with the search speaks of transparency and non-anxiousness.

3. Consider giving a “launching lecture” to the search committee regarding its task. Members of search committees aren’t always as knowledgeable about timelines and process. The interim rector can help the search committee make a good start by helping it see the larger picture and encouraging it in the task.

Vestry Meetings

1. Let the senior warden lead vestry meetings. This does two things: First, it allows the priest to take a back seat and let lay leaders lead. The interim rector can have influence by coaching the senior warden at a weekly meeting between the senior warden and interim rector. I have never worked with a senior warden who was not amenable to coaching, once we developed mutual trust. In addition, not leading the vestry meeting gives the interim rector time to “read the room,” assessing body language and listening more closely to what individuals are saying.

2. Let vestry members do the talking. This is not a time for the interim rector to show brilliance or knowledge. It is a time for the vestry to grapple with issues facing the congregation without the strong hand of a rector.

3. Say little. Pray a lot. “Prayer is the work,” Oswald Chambers wrote in My Utmost for His Highest. More hearts are changed through prayer than talking. Also, it’s hard to be angry with someone when you’re praying together. Having time for prayer gives space for the Holy Spirit to work in people’s hearts.

4. Add a “formation” segment to your vestry meeting. Sometimes vestries develop bad habits. Sometimes vestries lack a basic knowledge about how they should operate, or the canons, or basic issues such as how to read a balance sheet, or what dedicated funds or endowment funds the church has. I’ve written a book, Beyond Business as Usual: Vestry Leadership Development, that provides a wealth of exercises, reflective readings, and so on to help vestries grow in their missional focus and commitment.

Work With the Staff

If the church has a staff, it is important that the interim rector establish rapport and trust with it. After all, staff members will still be at the church long after the interim rector has moved on to another assignment.

1. Initial interview. Within the first four weeks, the interim rector should interview each staff member. Before this interview, ask each staff member to send the interim rector two documents: First is the current job description. What is the staff member supposed to be doing? Second is a description of what the staff member actually does. Do the two match? Does the staff member have good direction? Is the staff member self-directed?

Don’t make any major changes at this time. Let staff members keep doing what they are doing until you grasp the larger picture.

Do ask staff members, “What can I do to help you do a better job?” Out of this question may come some changes you may want to make. Note their answers, but don’t make any promises for immediate change.

2. Staff Meetings. Even if you have only a small staff with part-time employees, conduct a regular staff meeting to build a sense of community and camaraderie. Having a regular staff meeting will give the interim rector more input, and prepares the staff for growth. The interim rector should lead the staff meetings.

Also, add a “formation” segment at each staff meeting that serves as continuing-education time. Formation is a time to learn from staff members about their understanding of the current state of the church, help them to understand the state of the church, and build skills for leadership and pastoral care.

Beyond Business as Usual, Revised Edition: Vestry Leadership Development, although for vestries, has a large number of exercises and icebreakers to prompt staff members to talk and think strategically.

One example: “If you Held Stock in St. Swithin’s Church, Would you Buy, Sell, or Hold?” See the appendix to this article for this and other sample exercises to help the staff define reality as Max De Pree suggests, as well as thinking missionally and strategically.

The First Sunday

Ah, the first Sunday. What an exciting time. Chances are very good that this is the congregation’s first encounter with the new interim rector. Expectancy and hope will be in the air. Do your best to make this a warm and memorable experience for the congregation.

First, make sure the hymns are all favorites and familiar to the congregation. This is a Sunday for “Lift High the Cross,” “The Church’s One Foundation,” “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and maybe even “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” and “Be Thou My Vision.”

Then comes the sermon, which will set the stage for the interim period. This sermon should be a sort of “covenant renewal” in which the congregation promises to be faithful to God and even to those who have gone before and are now a part of that great cloud of who are waiting to see if we will do our part for the church.

The preacher (the interim rector) will need to do some advance homework to find stories of times when the congregation faced challenges and responded faithfully. Part of the sermon will entail the preacher identifying strengths of the congregation. It should conclude with a call to action when parishioners promise to do their part in this season of the church’s life.

There are several ways of enlisting the congregation’s support. One way is to conclude the sermon with a charge: “Will you stand with me during this season in the life of St. Swithin’s as we move together into God’s preferred future? Join me and say, “We will!” If the response is less than robust, ask the congregation to “say it again like you really mean it”!

Another way to elicit the congregation’s support is to say that we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, people like Claire Dunlap, our first female deacon, who led us in expanding our reach into the community around us, and Bill Blaswell, our senior warden who led the congregation in raising the funds to build this church in the 1930s during the Great Depression. We stand on their shoulders as they sacrificed so that we could worship in this place. Join with me as we affirm our faith and commitment to walk faithfully during this interim time, as we confidently proclaim together the Nicene Creed, which you’ll find on page 358 of the Book of Common Prayer. (The preacher then proclaims loudly, gestures for the congregation to rise, and proclaims, “We believe in one God”).

In a future, final part, I shall present a couple of resources that can be a boon to interim rectors.

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