Speak out

Help! Our pastor is leaving!

Effective transitional (interim) ministry

By James E. Roghair


“We can’t waste any time! Everything will fall apart.”

When a pastor leaves a church, the inclination of the congregation is to take off on a mad dash down one of two paths. It might rush to replace the pastor with a clone to continue everything as is. Or hurry to find a polar opposite to get things back in shape. Proposing a slower, more deliberate process is to buck the innate desire for a quick fix.

The time between pastors can be a congregation’s opportunity to grow. In the 1960s and 1970s Loren Mead (founder of the Alban Institute) and his colleagues explored what Mead’s 1986 book title proclaimed: Critical Moment of Ministry: A Change of Pastors. The interim or transitional time is a crucial window for a congregation to consider new options of ministry and life together. The research discovered the phenomenon of interim congregations’ special openness and also of uniquely skilled and gifted pastors who feel the call to lead congregations through this time. The interim ministry movement was spawned. The cutting-edge concept was institutionalized and became a specialized ministry in mainline denominations.

Mead defined five congregational interim developmental tasks that became the standard for interim ministry. The notion of developmental tasks was borrowed from psychology but applied specifically to congregational opportunities. The tasks were never meant as sequential steps, although their psychological background may have fostered that idea. Rather, they were understood to be nearly universal and essential activities to be engaged in interactively, often simultaneously, in a healthy congregational process that prepares for the successful ministry of a new pastor.

Mead’s five tasks have stood the test of time, being rigorously reconsidered and reaffirmed several times. Within this current decade, however, the tasks have been reframed as focus points that flesh out the concepts of the tasks to evoke deeper meaning in the context of the 21st century church. The developmental tasks have not been abandoned but expanded by the focus points and now adopted by the interdenominational Interim Ministry Network and by faculty members of the PC(USA)’s Transitional Ministry Education Consortium. As well as encouraging greater congregational engagement and growth, the focus points are less likely to be interpreted as sequential hoops to jump through.

Consider the developmental tasks and the parallel focus points:

Task: Coming to terms with history
Focus: Heritage
Main questions: What should we celebrate? What do we need to confess?

This is a call to examine a congregation’s past, to recognize what contributed to its high points, to acknowledge what led to its low points, to celebrate the previous pastor’s ministry, and to confront unresolved issues of the departure. This process is healthy preparation for moving forward with strength. The focus on heritage corrects what may be perceived as anticipation of the worst, implied in the words “coming to terms,” yet it can provide safety to say what needs to be said and to tell stories that help articulate and clarify meaning for a congregation.

Task: Discovering new identity
Focus: Mission
Main questions: Who are we today? Where are we going? And who are we called to become?

Though some quibble with the need for a healthy congregation to take on a new identity, becoming a new creation is biblical and theological. The practice of interim ministry includes facilitating a mission study (required by the presbytery) to identify a congregation’s current engagements and to help it conceive new ventures. Task and focus are seamless; no matter what we call this constellation of work, it is crucial to the congregation’s moving forward, and the results are essential to its search for new leadership that fits the needs expressed.

Task: Allowing needed leadership change
Focus: Leadership
Main question: What do the needs and purposes of our congregation require today?

The interim time is an opportunity for paid and volunteer personnel changes. The office manager or custodian, the clerk, treasurer, or choir director recruited by the former pastor might be released from obligation and might even be relieved to move on. This might also be the time to end a staff or volunteer relationship whose effectiveness has waned. The task of allowing such changes has been augmented by the leadership focus suggesting an even deeper consideration of all staff and volunteer leadership needs rather than simply filling already determined slots.

Task: Renewing denominational links
Focus: Connections
Main question: How can we strengthen our relationships with the denomination and the community?

Congregations—even those that seem self-sufficient—typically feel at a loss about what to do when their pastor leaves. The uncertainty uniquely invites the presbytery to become involved with procedural guidance and assurance that immediate and long-term leadership needs can be met. The congregation is usually open to the presbytery’s proactivity, and the interim minister can also help increase awareness of the resources and opportunities the larger church offers. This task is expanded by the connections focus encouraging reconsideration of all the congregation’s relationships: ministry and mission, interdenominational and interfaith, as well as its social media presence.

Task: Committing to new directions in ministry
Focus: Future
Main questions: How do we move forward with our renewed vision and new leadership?

The goals of this task are welcoming the new pastor, including ending residual allegiance to former installed or interim pastors, affirming new mission directions the congregation has developed, and reaffirming directions that continue unchanged. The term “future” emphasizes the value of a positive outlook regarding ongoing good work as well as that which is new. Fostering this outlook is the conclusion of all the interim tasks—the congregation’s work that can be accomplished only by the members.

Currently the “interim time” is more often referred to as “transitional ministry.” Thirty years ago it was assumed that the critical moment was a temporary point of instability between normal periods of congregational stability. In this century most church leaders recognize that there is no normal stability in the church, so it is appropriate to say that in a sense all ministry is interim or at least transitional. We in the interim ministry movement invite all who care about ministry to gain from the evolving experiences of our work.

 Rev. Dr. James Roghair served nine years as interim pastor in three denominations. He was certified as a PC(USA) interim ministry specialist.