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July, 2011
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Embracing Change: Maximizing the Interim Experience

by, Dr. Les Robinson, Jr.

Raise your hand if you love chaos, uncertainty, and insecurity. Those who did not raise their hands lose their television-watching privileges for one day for not telling the truth. The rest of us have identified three of the primary reasons faith communities want to avoid the interim time between pastors. With the very best of intentions, congregational leaders may immediately form a search committee and begin seeking candidates. This anxiety-driven reaction, however, can lead to less than maximum outcomes.

Of course, pastors leave for many different reasons: retirement, going to another church, accepting a denominational call, moving to another non-profit organization, shifting into another profession/career, forced termination, and death, just to name a few. While each of these circumstances is different, all create a sense of not knowing what the future holds. What if attendance drops, we don't attract new members, finances begin to dwindle, or other staff leave? Who will handle hospital emergencies, sit with a family whose loved one is dying, perform weddings and baptisms?

No congregation is exempt. Every faith community has, or will, experience a time when their current senior pastor is no longer serving their congregation. So doesn't it make sense that congregations look for a method of addressing this interim in a way that will help strengthen the congregation and make the transition to the next pastor a smooth and positive experience? Those who did not raise their hands in agreement have lost another day of television viewing!

Since the late 1960's, studies of hundreds of interim faith communities have shown that the period between senior pastors is a rich and fertile opportunity for congregations to experience significant spiritual growth, both individually and corporately. In order for this growth to take place, however, the congregation must be patient and intentional about what they want to do. 

Bringing Order from Chaos

Scripture is loaded with stories that underscore the powerful outcomes of living through chaos, uncertainty, and insecurity. The first chapter of Genesis reports that in the very beginning of time, the earth was formless and empty, with darkness covering everything. Eugene H. Peterson (The Message) translates verses 1-2 this way: “Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness….a watery abyss.” At this point, God brought about light so there was day and night, the waters were separated so there was sky and dry ground and seas, and thus creation was launched by moving from chaos to order, structure, and certainty.

Perhaps the best remembered biblical story about chaos, uncertainty, and insecurity is the wilderness journey. This is the story that describes how Moses leads the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to their new home, the Promised Land. The modern version of this journey in the wilderness was reframed and named for us in the early 1970’s. A major, interdenominational research project known as “Project Test Pattern” sought to identify the best ways for congregations to experience renewal. One of the most surprising findings was that, contrary to popular opinion, the interim time between pastors is the most opportune time for a congregation to affect long-term beneficial plans for change.

The work that has grown out of this initial study makes it possible for present-day congregations to reenact this powerful biblical story during the interim time between pastors. This potent time provides the congregation with the same challenges and opportunities that Moses and the Israelites encountered. One challenge is for a congregation to leave behind the enslaving behaviors and attitudes that keep them looking toward the past and to decide which worthwhile aspects of history, tradition, and practice will be carried into the future. Another challenge is to clarify the congregation’s mission as the people of God and develop an energetic vision that will call the congregation to better meet the spiritual growth needs of its members in order to enhance their ministry in the world.

Yet another challenge is to see more effective ways to organize present ministry; to develop and incorporate new leadership, and to find more inclusive ways of making decisions. A final challenge is to take a fresh look at the others on journey with you and how you relate to one another, the neighborhood and community, and other partners in ministry.

A faith community that does the crucial work of asking itself, “Who are we?” and “Who do we believe God wants us to be?” during the interim period can become stronger and better prepared to call and work with its next pastor. What is done in this transitional interlude determines whether the new pastor and people will form a solid ministry team. One of the most powerful ways a congregation can address this time of transition is by engaging in the intentional interim ministry process.

Growing through the Process

Although the intentional interim ministry process was originally designed to address the interim period following a long pastorate, it quickly became evident that churches dealing with conflicted issues could benefit as well. Today, thousands of congregations of every size and shape have experienced the benefits of taking time to reflect on five interrelated aspects of congregational life that address the two questions noted above. This effort is carried out under the leadership of an Intentional Interim Minister and a group of laity known as the Transition Team. The faith community usually moves through the focus points in the following manner:

  • Heritage: reviewing how the congregation has been shaped and formed
  • Mission: defining and redefining sense of purpose and direction
  • Leadership: reviewing the membership needs and its ways of organizing and developing new and effective leadership
  • Connections: discovering all the relationships a faith community builds outside of itself
  • Future: developing congregational and pastoral profiles

Intentional Interim Ministry works differently in every setting because it is a process designed by the lay leaders, under the guidance of a specially trained minister. Here are two random comments from recent experiences:

I must admit that, at first, I was a little skeptical that we, as a church, really "needed" to go through a special program/process after the internal difficulties we experienced a couple of years ago (after all, our internal "difficulties" had actually left the church anyway. Therefore, I felt we probably just needed to continue on). But shortly after our intentional interim came and we began going through the process, I realized how helpful and healing this process really is. I would HIGHLY recommend this program to any church that is transitioning from one pastor to another - especially in the unfortunate event of turmoil.

Transition Team Member – Baptist church of 1050 members

The transition team has been a valuable experience for the church. We learned a lot about our strengths and weaknesses and have figured out ways to solve them in order to be ready for a new full-time minister.

Transition Team Member – Baptist church of 200 members

To the extent that a faith community works its way through these significant elements of congregational life during the interim period between pastors, it is better equipped to move into the future with new leadership and renewed vitality for ministry.

Les Robinson is vice president and manager of interim ministry resources for the Center for Congregational Health® ( in Winston-Salem, N.C.