Some Benefits of an Interim Pastoral Ministry

Interim pastorates are fairly common. The dictionary defines the word "interim" as that which is temporary, provisional and intervening. An interim pastor would therefore serve the church on a temporary basis, until a regular and full-time pastor is chosen and assumes his duties. It is a ministry that takes place between longer-term, more permanent pastorates.

An interim ministry might consist simply of regular pulpit supply on Sundays. Or it might extend over several days of each week. And as the depth of involvement varies, so does its duration. Often the interim man continues to serve the congregation for several months. The precise job description will vary according to need, but the underlying purpose of an interim ministry is to facilitate an effective transition from one long-term pastorate to the next.

Reasons for an Interim Ministry
A congregation may consider the option of calling an interim man after the resignation of its pastor. The end of his ministry may have come suddenly, because of illness or other occurrence. Or it may simply be that both pastor and congregation have reached the conclusion, over a period of months, that it is time for a change. (For instance, it could be that he accomplished all he could, using his particular gifts, but that someone with different gifts is needed now.)

Depending on the circumstances, it could take a considerable time for the church to find a new man. The search could extend over six months or a year--occasionally even more. Nor should it be rushed, simply to "plug a hole." In order to find God's choice, the right man for the church's current needs, a period of self-examination by the congregation is worthwhile. Where have we come from? What are our present characteristics? What is our vision for the future? Such questions require thought and prayer on the part of all.

Meanwhile, there may be duties that cannot be covered easily by laymen. The Sunday pulpit ministry is one example. Or other things, such as visitation of the sick, leadership at board meetings (particularly as it relates to assessment of the church's future needs), music ministry, conducting Bible studies, taking services at local seniors facilities, etc. Any of these could be attended to by lay persons. However, many are already busy with jobs, or perhaps feel they lack the expertise required. An interim man may be the answer.

Rewards of an Interim Ministry
Consider the Sunday pulpit ministry first. It is possible, especially if the church is situated in or near a larger centre, to have a different speaker each week. Many of these may do a fine job. However, what is often missing is continuity. There are real benefits to having a consecutive ministry connecting one Sunday with the next--such as by a series of messages on a Bible book, or on a Bible character. A series of studies gives a sense of stability, and people tend to learn more as well.

The same goes for other ministries of the Word, such as weekly Bible studies. (It might be beneficial to consider having the interim pastor lead a study of the Pastoral Epistles--the letters to Timothy and Titus--since these provide major instruction on the qualifications and duties of church leaders.)

The interim pastor should support the ongoing programs of the church, he can encourage and challenge leadership, helping them to make each ministry as meaningful and effective as possible. His emphasis should be on a positive ministry at all levels, one which encourages fellowship and interaction. (Scheduling regular fellowship meals during his stay might facilitate this.)

If the church has a denominational affiliation, he should also be one who can strengthen that link, and provide a channel of communication with denominational leadership.

As to involvement in special events, such as weddings, baby dedications, the baptism of believers, funerals, etc., these may have to be evaluated on an individual basis. Some may prefer to summon back the previous pastor, or ask that some other man be involved for the occasion, because he is better known. The interim man himself may hesitate to take on certain types of ministry, for his own reasons. (For example, perhaps he is not licensed to perform marriages, or does not feel adequate to conduct important pre-marital counseling, etc.) These things can be worked out as they come up, and practical solutions found, during the ministry of the interim man.

A word of caution. Some men may be gifted in outreach visitation in search of new prospects to build attendance. (Other interim pastors may not.) A visitation program such as this may be helpful if the church and its programs are operating effectively and flourishing. But if there are important issues to be dealt with, or if there is essential groundwork to be laid before the coming of a new pastor, it may be wise to wait on an extensive visitation program.

The period of time between full-time pastors need not be a negative thing. But losing a pastor--especially if he has served the church for some time--is almost like having a death in the family. There can be grieving, and a sense of loss. A positive and consistent ministry afterward can help to bring healing and a sense of anticipation about the future.

The interim pastor may also be able to assist the congregation in working through any conflicts that might hinder the work of the Spirit of God in time to come. And if there were problems during the previous ministry, and hard feelings toward the pastor on the part of some, this is something that needs to be addressed. Either way, it is not fair for a new man to begin his ministry with serious strife in the church. Let an interim man help you work through some of that.

There are things an interim pastor can do that are more difficult for the regular pastor. He has come into the situation without prior involvement and "baggage." And everyone knows he will not be there long. For this reason, he can sometimes guide the congregation in addressing difficult issues--such as establishing realistic expectations of the coming pastor, or determining what an appropriate financial support for God's servant should be.

The interim pastor can also lead the church through an examination of its past history and future vision. (Who are we? And what do we want to become, by God's grace?) The church can benefit from a clearer understanding of its identity and a fresh vision of its ministry. In this regard, there are government assessments available for each area in Canada ("Community Profiles" assembled by Statistics Canada). These provide a helpful snapshot of the community in terms of things like age breakdown, language, education, economic status and religious affiliation. These surveys often contain some surprises! And they can be a useful tool in defining the church's future ministry.

The interim man can help the members assess the kind of pastoral leadership that would be most helpful as the church moves forward. (I.e. what gifts would be best suited to the need.) And help them evaluate the effectiveness of each church agency. Are there ministries that have outlived their usefulness? Or ones that require some fine-tuning to meet current needs? Are there new ministries that should be explored? This can be a time of brainstorming for fresh insights. This might be done in regular meetings with the board. Or (somewhat depending on the size and makeup of the congregation) all might be included in the discussions.

In addition, the interim man may have special gifts that would be a blessing to the congregation, even in the short term (such as musical ability, a business background, or athletic skills that would interest teens, etc.). He may have administrative gifts that can be put to use if the church needs to reorganize its program, create or fine-tune a constitution, develop job descriptions, or other key documents. Or perhaps he has a special rapport with children, or with young people, or maybe seniors. Using his unique abilities can advantage the church in many ways.

In very rare cases, a church may seem to be coming to the end of its ministry. This may be because of its location and changes in the community, or because of dwindling resources (such as in a small town that is, itself, dying), or some other reason. It may be the task of the interim pastor to help the members assess the overall viability of the work for the future. If the difficult conclusion is reached that it is time to close the church, the interim man can have an important role in assisting with this (in concert with denominational representatives). Fortunately, terminating a church's ministry fully will be unusual and exceptional work!

Requirements of an Interim Ministry
The interim pastor should be a man with previous pastoral experience. Facilitating a smooth transition between permanent pastors is not a ministry to be taken on by a green recruit. It calls for a level of knowledge and wisdom that comes from having "been there."

The exact duties of the interim pastor will have to be discussed and negotiated in each situation (with appropriate flexibility to adjust as needs become better known). As noted earlier, some congregations will want to focus mainly on Sunday ministry. Others may engage the man for a couple of days a week or more. On week-days, he may be able to visit the sick, conduct services or Bible studies in the community, attend board or committee meetings, and so on.

It is vital to discuss and clarify expectations on both sides. A list of duties and responsibilities should be drawn up which both the pastor and the people find acceptable. Keep in mind that saddling an interim man (or a full-time pastor) with numerous duties unrelated to his gifts may rob the church of the most effective use of his time (cf. Acts 6:2-4). You will also need to include some description of assistance, financial and otherwise, which the pastor can expect from the congregation. Consider both his personal well-being and the needs of his family in this.

The termination date for the interim ministry should also be discussed, though it is wise to keep this somewhat flexible. It should be understood that if a prospective candidate for full-time ministry is invited to speak or to visit the community for several days, the interim man should absent himself and keep out of the way. If it becomes clear that this is the man of God's choosing, the interim ministry should be brought to an end. But usually this should be done over a period of weeks, so it can be concluded smoothly, and not involve another jarring change.

It is important to realize that pastoral ministry requires adequate preparation time. Again, this varies with the individual. As a rule of thumb, a half hour sermon can take a day or more of research and study to prepare. And if there are Bible studies or other services to lead, and board meetings at which you want him to provide input as you assess or organize the church's ministry, each of these could add preparation time too. So, two days of public ministry may well involve at least four days' work, on average, each week. You can see that this becomes more than a half-time involvement, an important factor in determining the level of financial assistance for him.

While the man of God--if he is truly seeking to serve the Lord--is not working to make money, the Bible reminds us that it is important to materially support him. Paul discusses this in First Timothy 5:17-18, and at some length in First Corinthians 9:7-14. In the latter context, he tells the church that, though he has a right to be helped by them, he has not claimed that right (vs. 12). However, it should be noted the reason he could do this is because he was being financially supported by other congregations (cf. II Cor. 11:8).

And "support" is a better word than salary in this case. The church is not hiring the man, as the boss of a company might do. They are seeking prayerfully for God's choice to serve among them and oversee the ministry. Technically, the pastor is not "paid" for his work. He is supported out of the Lord's treasury so he can give a significant amount of time to the Lord's service. (Time he would otherwise need to spend in secular employment in order to provide for the needs of himself and his family.) If the interim man you call has to drive some distance to serve in the community, this added cost needs to be covered as well. Or he may have other unique financial constraints. Consider these things when you discuss this issue.

In summation, the Bible reminds us that, in the local church, "God is not the author of confusion but of peace," and that we should therefore see that, "all things be done decently [in a fitting and attractive way] and in order [with each element in its proper place]" (I Cor. 14:33, 40). With regard to churches between long-term pastorates, each situation has its own unique characteristics requiring both investigation and choices. But it is hoped these few thoughts will be a useful guide in determining the viability of an interim pastor in your church. In general, the congregation should look upon the interim not simply as a means of marking time, as they wait for a permanent pastor. It should involve a ministry with a mission--to facilitate an effective transition. Such a ministry can benefit your congregation tremendously, preparing the way for the coming of a new, full-time pastor, and increasing his potential for success.