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Preparing for Interim Ministry

By Neal Michell

I have served as an interim rector for nine congregations. Although I lay no claim to being an expert, I can say that I have learned a few things along the way that might help someone else. I share these thoughts in thanksgiving for the gift and privilege of leading some wonderful congregations and getting to share life with them.

First, in my opinion, serving as an interim rector is one of the most joyful ministries in the church. (I use the term “interim rector” to include “priest in charge.”) Almost everybody in the parish loves and appreciates the priest in charge. The interim rector makes no major or difficult decisions, being there merely to lead the congregation at a very basic level.

Second is a caveat. Not every suggestion will fit every congregation. Some of these suggestions won’t apply to larger churches, or to smaller churches. Find what fits for your church in your situation and ignore what doesn’t seem to fit.

Here we go.

Before You Start

1. First things first: Have your letter of agreement signed by all parties before you show up on your first day. An interim has no right to be at any congregation in a priestly capacity without a signed agreement. Having the letter of agreement signed by all parties (bishop, canon to the ordinary, senior warden, and the interim rector) will prevent misunderstandings.

2. Do your homework on the history, health, and possible conflict in the parish. The Episcopal Church’s website offers a great resource for data on membership, average Sunday attendance, and giving, as well as demographic information on the area surrounding every Episcopal church.

3. Be clear about the bishop’s expectations. The bishop is the authority in the parish; the interim rector serves at the bishop’s pleasure.

4. Visit with the previous rector for insights into the life of the parish. This can involve several conversations. The previous rector can be an invaluable resource in helping the interim rector understand the people of the congregation.

Determine (Discern) the Goal

Here are several possibilities, any or all of which may be appropriate.

1. For the church to be healthy when the new rector arrives. This certainly is true for every church. As pastors we seek to help our churches be healthy. Healthy churches grow … certainly more than dysfunctional ones. Jeremiah 29:7 says, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” (ESV). Some churches enter the interim period after conflict with the previous rector; they need to grow in health. Others enter the interim time in a healthy place. The goal is still the same: to help the church be healthy.

2. For the church to “own itself” once again. The previous rector may have suppressed lay ministry and lay initiative. The church needs to “own itself” again and re-embrace its God-given (and canonically mandated) authority. The interim rector does this by modeling collaborative leadership, sharing decision-making with lay leaders, and can foster this collaborative style of leadership by using the vestry as a sounding board for decisions and proposals.

3. To create a healthy, non-anxious environment for the search committee to do its work in a non-anxious way. Years ago, I was on an eight-day silent retreat and I spent the first three days sleeping and napping. I apologized to my spiritual director for my sloth, but she said, “Don’t worry, it’s hard to hear the Lord when you’re tired.”

Similarly, the vestry and search committee are charged with discerning whom God is calling to serve the church as the next rector. It’s hard to discern when most of the leaders and congregation are anxious and fretful.

When people ask how things are going at my current church, I jokingly tell them, “It’s great. The church is in a healthy place. All I do is show up to meetings and be anon-anxious presence.”

4. Possibly to restore or improve the relationship between the parish and the office of the bishop. Sadly, not all churches get along with their bishop. This is a propitious time for the bishop’s office and the parish to mend their relationship. The interim rector can be a key person in mending those relationships. Having served as a canon to the ordinary, I can help leaders know things like who is best to call, whether a text or email is the best means of communication, and how best to phrase what they want to know.

The Role of the Interim Rector

1. Know the bishop’s expectations for the interim period. First and foremost, the interim rector should know what the bishop’s expectations are for the interim period. Bishops generally know more about the history of the congregation and have a greater insight into the possibilities nascent in that congregation than the average interim priest. Also, the interim rector serves at the pleasure and under the authority of the bishop. It is incumbent upon the interim priest to help enervate the aims and desires of the bishop for that particular congregation.

2. Keep the buses running on time. That is to say, the task of the interim rector is to improve or maintain the administrative health of the congregation. Nothing allays the anxieties of parishioners so much as when things in the parish run smoothly.

3. The interim rector should not be a candidate for rector unless it is agreed upon beforehand. The task of the interim rector is to lead the congregation, not to audition to be the next rector. Sometimes the rector must make a difficult decision on behalf of the parish. One of the reasons churches love interim rectors so much is that churches don’t make any hard decisions.

Sometimes the bishop will allow a person to serve as interim rector with the express aim of allowing the parish to “try out the interim rector.” I have seen this done when the parish cannot make a decision. I have seen it done when the bishop wants to place a younger priest at a parish, and the parish may call the priest after being led by this priest for one to three years. This needs to be agreed on up front, however, so it is clear that this is the bishop’s hope.

4. Assist in pastoral care, but don’t do it all. All clergy need to do pastoral care, but the interim period has two caveats about that requirement: First, often, an interim rector serves part time. The everyday requirements of sermon preparation, staff meetings, vestry meetings, committee meetings, weekday services, and requested meetings with the interim rector may leave little time for the priest to make hospital and nursing home calls.

Second, remember the goal for the parish to own itself again. To this end, because the interim rector will not be a part of the congregation for very long, it is better for pastoral caregivers to be people who will remain at the parish after the interim rector is long gone. This is not a time for the interim rector to show off skills as a pastoral caregiver; rather, it is a time for parishioners to show how loving and caring they are without a rector.

5. Show up to meetings and events and be a non-anxious presence. The task of the interim rector is to stabilize parishioners so they are not anxious. It is difficult to discern whom God may be calling to serve as the next rector if the congregation, vestry, and search committee are anxious.

6. Heed Max De Pree’s wise counsel: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” How true this is.

The first responsibility of the leader is to define reality. If you don’t know where the church is now, you won’t know what changes need to be made to get the church where it needs to go.

For example, did the previous rector leave because of conflict? It may be that this conflict requires more work. Is the church overstructured for its size? That is, has the church declined and has too few people to fill all the programs and ministry of the church structure that worked when the church was larger? Is the church in a positive place? The role of the interim rector is to keep everyone on task, show how the vision of the church continues to be carried out, and to be a non-anxious presence.

The last is to say thank you. Well, maybe not the last, but you get the idea. Say thank you often. Write thank you notes, not emails. Pour the energy of thankfulness and appreciation into your leaders, particularly your volunteers.

What to Change: It’s Not About Me

Change is concomitant with this interim time. Several years ago, our youth group came up with this definition: “You might be an Episcopalian if … the only kind of change you like comes out of a Coke machine.” We don’t like change. The interim time in a parish is stressful enough without the interim rector adding more (unnecessary) change. Here are some changes that can be made and some that probably should not be made.

1. Canonical infractions. Clergy are under the authority of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church and of the local diocese. If a practice of the church is a violation of the canons, such as allowing non-baptized people to vote in vestry elections, this practice should not be allowed. Canonical authority trumps local prerogatives.

2. Change the liturgy? Nope, unless there are some rubrical corrections. All priests have their preferences when it comes to liturgy. The interim rector should make no changes to the liturgy just because they do not accord with the interim rector’s personal preferences. To change the liturgy based upon the interim rector’s preferences is to insult the parishioners who have been spiritually nourished on these forms of worship, possibly for years. Remember, it is their church and not yours. Don’t leave the next rector a mess to clean up of your making.

However, some practices may have crept into the liturgy that are contrary to the rubrics. We are under the authority of the prayer book; so we do not make these changes based upon our personal whims; rather, the changes we are proposing are based on mutually recognized authority of the prayer book.

3. Music? Probably not, but maybe a nudge here and a nudge there. I am a musician, and I have very strong views about music in our churches. I believe that much of what we sing in our churches is difficult for the average parishioner in the pew. Nevertheless, I would be very reluctant to do much tinkering with the music … unless you introduce music that is more singable and already well-known among the congregation. Like so many other changes in the church, we must earn the right to change music. It takes time to develop sufficient trust between the organist, the congregation, and the interim rector. Most interim tenures are too short for this to happen smoothly.

4. Be healthy and do things in healthy ways. Many interim times come about as a result of conflict between the previous rector and major parts of the congregation. People say things and do things during these times of crisis that they later regret. It is incumbent upon the interim rector to model healthy ways of communicating, healthy ways of relating to certain parishioners, and healthy decision-making processes.

In a future essay, I will consider how an interim should approach actually shepherding a parish on an interim basis.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I read this as a long term supply priest serving two parishes wondering what makes interim’s special. I took the first IMN course, work of a leader, and never did learn anything new, no “Aha” moment that said “this is what makes interim ministry special”. In my time as the supply to these parishes, I have taken them through the wasteland known as the pandemic, I have been a non-anxious pastoral presence, I have done the pastoral work (baptisms, funerals, weddings), yet I’m not considered “interim.” With many parishes with less than optimal finances, some with little or no staff, what are we to do for them? In some ways I consider myself a hybrid, not quite supply, not quite interim, not quite priest-in-charge, but something bordering on a new way of being priest.

  2. I can corroborate the article’s mention of the need to be crystal-clear upfront about whether or not the interim will be eligible to be a candidate for the permanent position. It prevents some potentially awkward situations and unpleasant, unhelpful conflict.

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