Change: Anxiety-Provoking and Liberating
News of a minister’s departure may be received with distress by many, but other feelings are inevitably present: approval of the departure’s timeliness, relief at its finally taking place, even unseemly joy. The purpose of interim ministry is to enable a congregation to call a successor minister based not reflexively but on the basis of its own independent identity, strength, and direction—in sum, based on its health.
It is difficult to overstate the opportunities provided to a congregation during an interim period. Rarely in the life of any human institution—congregation, business, nation, or household—is there such a chance to begin anew. The interim period following the end of one relationship and preceding the beginning of another offers such an opportunity, providing the breathing space during which a congregation can review its goals, assess its programs, consider the quality of its life in common, and “tune up” for a new era. The one- to two-year period it usually takes for a congregation to grow into and own its identity, independent of both positive and negative feelings about the ministry that has come to an end, can be exciting, even transformative, when devoted to self-examination and institutional renewal. A palate cleanser, one might say.
Although people’s initial instinct will often be to simply hunker down and “hold the fort,” it is inevitable that as the power structure realigns, some will step back and others forward to fill the power vacuum caused by ministerial vacancy. As the lid comes off, anxieties may first express themselves over relatively mundane matters—who will see to filling the pulpit? who to the provision of pastoral care? who to rites of passage, administration, supervising the staff, locking up the church?—but soon more serious concerns unearth themselves. The church staff feels overwhelmed, momentum stalls, new members and even some long-timers back away, the canvass falls short. Anxiety-driven conflict rends the fabric of congregational life. Compounded, these stresses will weigh heavily on the present, yes, but also on prospects for a successor ministry.
For twenty-five years now Unitarian Universalist congregations, many of the mainline Protestant denominations, and synagogues of all traditions have depended on interim ministry to deal with the phenomenon of transition. They have done so largely in response to an important Alban Institute study which established the fact that congregations not hiring an intentional interim minister during a ministerial transition often find themselves having called an “unintentional interim minister” instead. At best the next minister will have heavy going. At worst the minister will not last. And indeed, among Unitarian Universalist congregations the practice of hiring an interim minister following a ministerial departure is almost universal.
To enable congregations to heal and to enrich their sense of religious community during this transitional period, the specially trained interim minister seeks to:
- bring the reassurance that a seasoned professional is working with the congregation. Momentum will not be lost. The search for a new minister will not be unduly pressured. The disaffected can return freely.
- deal with "termination emotions" surrounding the former minister who, whether beloved or disliked, was at the center of a web of relationships now tender, often torn. Unless these emotions are discharged, they will wait to be dumped onto the following settled minister.
- help the congregation review its operations and clarify its goals. The new called minister will thus find the congregation to be a moving train, instead of a stalled bus waiting for a driver—or a mechanic!
- model a different but still successful style of ministry, thus showing the congregation (for many of whom the departed minister may have been the only UU minister they’ve ever known) that more than one ministerial style can be effective.
Additional guidance on the possibilities offered by an interim ministry can be found in two fine Alban Institute books on the subject: Roger Nicholson’s Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry (1998) and Loren Mead’s A Change of Pastors, and How It Affects Change in the Congregation (2005).