The growing number of churches that face long intervals between installed pastors has called into being the role of the “Interim Pastor.” Since the early 1970s when the Alban Institute in Washington, D.C. began to study the role of the Interim Pastor, mainline Protestant churches have begun to recognize the value of this specialized ministry which has been used in many evangelical churches for generations.
An increasing number of clergy are making this new ministry a life commitment, and it has become a special calling for retired clergy, who find the role of Interim Minister a redirected call.
Ralph Macy defines an Interim Pastor as “Primarily a Pastor with a defined and temporary contract, brought into a congregation when, for any reason, the regular pastoral position has become vacant.”1 The role has changed from simply “holding things together” before a new minister arrives, to an intentional ministry, designed to fit the dynamics of a congregation in this limited time in its journey.
Anita E. Keire points out that two particular situations demand an Interim Pastor: churches that have had long-term pastorates (eight years or more), or that have unresolved conflicts.2 The rule of thumb in some denominations is one month of interim ministry for every year of the former pastor’s service. There is little doubt that churches locked into unresolved conflict need an Interim Minister, as these problems tend to recycle themselves with each succeeding pastor. However, the departure of a pastor, on any occasion, creates a whole gamut of emotions — sadness, anger, disorganization, depression, and grief. Without intentional ministry directed toward these needs, a church may never get over its mourning and move on to new directions.
Another dynamic at work in the interim between pastors is the regrettable tendency of congregations to want the new pastor on the scene without delay. There are dangers of new ministers coming too soon, as it takes time for congregations to mourn their loss, remember their history, and find new directions for their future. In most denominations, the day of “back to back” pastors is rapidly disappearing, and more caution is being exercised.
One recalls the hasty choice of Matthias as the twelfth apostle, and would agree with the conviction of G. Campbell Morgan, who wrote in his commentary on Acts:
“My own conviction is that we have a revelation of their inefficiency for organization, that the choice of Matthias was wrong … we have the wrong appointment of Matthias. Paul was God’s man for the filling of the gap.”3
The stability that an Interim Pastor brings to the moment creates necessary time and space for a wise choice of the new installed pastor.
Biblical Precedents
In the Old Testament, the “wilderness” is seen as an interim period between the Exodus from Egypt and the entry into the promised land. The wilderness is a time of danger as well as opportunity. Life is unpredictable in the wilderness, and there is always the tendency to take shortcuts to the promised destiny. Yet later prophets looked back at the wilderness as a meaningful time, when Israel discovered its identity and realized its mission.
Surely Jesus knew the significance of the wilderness, as His answers to the temptations in His forty day wilderness experience all emerged from wilderness scriptures in Deuteronomy (Matthew 4:1-11). It was at the end of the wilderness experience that the Israelites faced the transition from one leader, Moses, to their new leader, Joshua. One would have to be blind not to see the connection with the interim ministry today.
When the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, the prophets saw this time of redemption as an “interim” between their past history and a glorious new beginning. The prophet of the Exile declared that “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18, 19). In a letter Jeremiah cautioned the exiles in Babylon to settle down in that strange land and wait for their deliverance (Jeremiah 29:1-10).
John the Baptist becomes the prototype of the Interim Minister whose mission is described in the words of the prophet of the exile, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:2, 3). His ministry was to prepare the people for the new day and new leadership.
After a relatively brief interim, John pointed to Jesus and declared, “He must become more important while I become less important” (John 3:30, TEV). In many senses, the Interim Pastor is called like John the Baptist to prepare the way, although in no sense does this imply that the new minister is a Messiah!
Alan G. Gripe claims that Jesus’ ministry was distinctly interim and itinerant. “He never established a home for Himself. His active ministry covered only three years. As He traveled throughout the countryside and in the villages and cities, He was constantly preparing disciples to succeed Him.”4
In Paul’s ministry, we find another biblical precedent. Paul saw his ministry as a shared ministry; he founded churches only to leave in a short time, with the work continued by others. “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gives the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6) is a powerful motif for interim ministry. The Book of Acts repeatedly shows how Paul worked and preached for a limited time in a city, and then moved on, giving way to other ministers to carry on the work (Acts 13:1-3; 14:2-3, etc.).
Major Tasks of the Congregation in the Interim
Loren B. Mead has described five major tasks of the congregation in the interim period:
– Coming to Terms with History
– Discovering a New Identity
– Shifts of Power
– Rethinking Denominational Linkage
– Commitment to a New Leadership and a New Future
The wise Interim Pastor will be intentional about sermons that speak to these varying developmental tasks of a congregation during the interim.
William Bud Phillips has further defined the tasks of a congregation in the interim period.5 He sees coping with loss as the first task, whether those losses be personal, organizational, or the loss of momentum. The next task is to assess the new situation, which includes restructuring priorities, and getting new skills and knowledge. Finally, new directions are charted in light of the meaning of the church’s history, and gaining a new vision.
Phillips concludes, “The interim period is also a time when leaders of a congregation can begin to recognize the potential for change, and the opportunities available to them for gaining the strengths and insights of another qualified and gifted person.”7
The Major Tasks of the Interim Pastor
It is important to become aware of these developmental needs of the congregation during an interim, since significant preaching must be confluent preaching, i.e. the coming together of the preacher and the congregation in a particular context of time and place and circumstance.8
In my experience as an Interim Minister — both during my active pastorate and now in my retirement years — I have discovered seven major tasks of the Interim Pastor which call for intentional preaching.
1. Facilitating Grief Work
Even when it is announced far ahead of time, even when pastor and congregation part on good terms, the ending of a pastoral relation sets in motion a whole plethora of grief emotions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, sadness, and guilt. If this “baggage” from the past relationship is not worked through during the interim, these unresolved feelings will resurface, and cause problems for the new pastor.
War stories have been told about “beloved former pastors” from whom congregations cannot separate themselves. At times, the health and ministry of the new pastor has suffered. Far too many congregations succumb to the temptation to end relationships with the former pastor without working through the grief. Congregations do grieve when pastors leave, and often this grief is exacerbated by a gnawing sense of anxiety, described by one member as “that awful feeling of not knowing what we will do without him/her.”
For those who were close to the former minister and valued their pastoral care, the loss resembles the loss of a family member. For them the grief is most intense. Others will feel angry and abandoned, and may vent their anger in attacks on the departing minister. Where there has been conflict between members and the departing minister, the disengagement can bring times of remorse, feelings of guilt, and even some “twelfth hour” attempts at reconciliation. Regardless of the situation, the dynamics of grief are present.
2. Being a Good Listener
Interim Pastors hit the road running. They must possess the skills of building instant rapport and trust. Their major pastoral role must be that of healer, listener, carer. Keire writes, “During the first six months of an interim time, open communications is critical. Beyond maintenance ministry, the Interim Pastor’s primary duty should be visiting all church members … (to) discover the congregation’s pulse beat and unwritten agenda.”9
3. Clarifying the Identity of a Congregation
Like the ancient Israelites in the wilderness, confusion may exist about the nature and mission of the church during the interim. Although it may not have been their intention, many congregations reflect the images of their pastors and when they leave there is a time of identity diffusion.
Through intentional preaching (and group work), Interim Pastors can help congregations avoid cloning their former pastor’s identity and discover their own. Furthermore, such a process helps a search committee as it seeks a new minister who will fit the goals and dreams of the congregation. This reassessment needs to take place before the arrival of the new pastor, so that the shared goals are faithful to the deepest sense of concern and commitment of the membership. One strategy that has proved helpful is analyzing the life cycle of a congregation.10
4. Encouraging the Emergence of New Leadership
In the absence of an installed pastor, lay leadership emerges. Mead, commenting on these shifts of power, writes:
“The time when pastors change is a time when some … potential leaders feel a call to take on more active roles … This is quite healthy, but it often causes uncertainty, if not discomfort, among the old lay leadership …”11
Interim Ministers can encourage shifts in lay leadership if they find that present leadership is stagnant, or a source of conflict. New energy and life can emerge during this time, and sermons can remind the congregation that God often worked through leadership transitions for the fulfillment of His purposes (e.g. Moses giving way to Joshua; David to Solomon; Barnabas to Paul, etc.).
5. Risking Change
Interim Pastors walk the thin line between maintenance and change. It is important to “keep the fires burning” and give the congregation a sense of continuity during this period of disorganization. Yet Interim Pastors can be powerful agents of change.
There seems to be a discrepancy among Interim Pastors on this issue. Some say, “Since I will be here for such a short time, it seems inappropriate to make any changes.” Others view the interim as prime time for change. The more reasonable approach is to find a happy balance between maintenance and change. Interim Pastors both “hold the fort” and “storm the garrison.” In such a way, they reflect the ancient biblical models of both priest and prophet.
Interim Pastors render an invaluable service to the new pastor by being a change agent. When there is anger about these changes, it is wiser for it to be projected on the interim rather than the new pastor.
6. Resolving Resurfaced Conflicts
Some churches may be in serious conflict when a minister leaves. Gripe says:
“Persons who understand conflict management, and are skilled in handling it, can often make the difference between a relatively short period of conflict resolution and growth oriented change and a long, sometimes painful avoiding of issues …”12
Even in the best of situations, there are always unresolved conflicts revolving around church policies, personnel or buildings, that can erupt in a new pastorate. Like all human beings, congregations tend to deny problems and sweep them under the church carpet, or project their problems on a scapegoat — often the departing pastor. Some church members naively believe that when a pastor is gone, all problems vanish with him. The Interim Pastor needs to help congregations confront unresolved conflicts, and work with them in moving toward resolution and reconciliation.
7. Preparing for the New Minister
Although all of the interim time is seen as preparation for the new minister, this task takes on special urgency during the latter stages of the interim, especially when the new minister is chosen. The Interim needs to be sure that dysfunctional ways of relating to ministers are recognized and broken. This can best be done by preaching on the nature of the ministry, and a congregation’s responsibility for supporting the pastor.
Kinds of Sermons Needed
The preaching ministry of the Interim Pastor should vary between maintenance and change. The church is held together by maintaining its life of worship and work. Celebration of the great events of the church year needs to be emphasized, and the wise Interim Pastor will not neglect these pivotal Sundays in preaching.
However, the heart and soul of preaching during an interim is pastoral response to the needs of the congregation, and prophetic call to change and new direction. Responding to the grief feelings of a saddened congregation, focusing on new directions for the future, preaching about change and conflict resolution, and preparing the way for the new minister, call for sermons of a special nature.
A cursory study of published sermons during an interim reveal very few sermons of this nature. One exception to this is a collection of sermons and addresses which focuses on the departure of a minister (Saying Goodbye: A Time of Growth for Congregations and Pastors, by Edward A. White).13 Among the sermons are “At Home In The Wilderness: A Sermon On Saying Goodbye,” and “What To Do Until The Preacher Comes.”
Suggested Sermons for Preaching During the Interim
It is my intention to suggest some preaching themes and biblical texts for each of the seven tasks of the Interim Minister. The suggestions are minimal, as there remains a wealth of texts that relate to these needs during the interim period.
Introductory Sermons
An early sermon on “Life In The Meantime” might be a way to describe this time in the life of the congregation. Reminding the congregation of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles (Jer. 29:1-10) who faced their in-between-time, might provide some guidance in this time of uncertainty and excitement.
Other introductory sermons might center on “When Life Is On Hold,” reminding the hearers of the story of the Syrophoenician woman whose life seemed on hold when Jesus at first rebuffed her cry for help, but later her persistent faith won out. The story of how God led the Israelites through the wilderness and made them avoid the shortcut to Canaan (Exod. 17:13-22) might also be helpful. Any sermon in the wilderness motif would resonate with hearers who are grappling with the same issues of fear and uncertainty.
Other good possibilities for introductory sermons during the interim would be:
– “At Home In The Wilderness” (Deut. 8:1ff)
– “Keepers Of The Flame” (Lee. 6:8-13)
– “When Life Is On Hold” (Matt. 15:21-29)
– “No Shortcuts In The Interim” (Exod. 13:17-22)
– “Called For Such A Time As This” (Esth. 4-14)
– “Lord, Give Me Patience, But Not Now!” (Hab. 2:3; Acts 1:1-15)
Preaching on Grief Work
The writer of Ecclesiastes maintained that “there is a time to weep.” During the first days in an interim ministry, sermons need to deal with separation and the grief process that always accompany a minister’s departure.
A sermon I have preached early in the interim period is “It Is OK To Grieve.”14 Based on a proper interpretation of Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, “Grieve, not as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13), the congregation is reminded that grief is normal when a minister leaves. The emotions of grief are all there: anger (that the pastor has abandoned us); guilt (that something we did made the pastor leave); and grief (the feeling of losing someone we trusted so deeply). The stages of grief — shock, recoil, and recovery — are described, signs of recovery are explained. Only as the congregation expresses grief over the loss of the pastor can they begin to move on to new directions.
Other biblical texts for sermons on grief work are:
– “God Is There When We Mourn” (Psalm 23)
– “A Time To Mourn … And Rejoice” (Eccl. 3:4)
– “How To Say Goodbye and Hello” (Phil. 1:3-6)
– “Dealing With Loss” (Phil. 3:7-15)
– “Letting Go Of The Past” (Luke 9:57-62)
Preaching on Listening
Active listening is imperative if the needs of the congregation are to be identified and addressed. Preaching on such subjects as: “How Well Do You Listen” (Mark 4:1-9) or “Overcoming the Failure to Communicate” (Acts 2:1-11) set the tone. As the congregation perceives the Interim Pastor as an empathic listener, their own listening skills will be sharpened, and a climate of caring will ensue.
Other texts for sermons on listening are:
– “How Well Do You Listen?” (Mark 4:1-9)
– “Be Someone’s Tomorrow” (John 4: 1ff)
– “Sit Where They Sit” (Ezek. 3:15)
– “Jesus: The Listener” (Selected)
– “Overcoming The Failure To Communicate” (Acts 2:1-11)
Preaching on Helping the Congregation To Discover Its Identity
Helping the church look at its own stage in a congregational life cycle can be helpful. A sermon on the image of the church described by Luke in Acts 2:42 might focus on traditional identities of the church. The early church was a learning church, a dynamic fellowship of believers, a church with a witness to the world, and a church that never ignored its spiritual dimension.
Other biblical texts for this stage might be:
– “Affirming Your History” (Acts 7:2-53)
– “Dead Ends And New Beginnings” (Acts 2:1-11)
– “Discovering The Lost Image Of The Church” (Acts 2:42)
– “The Glue Is The Koinonia” (1 Cor. 12:12-27)
– “Where Is Your Church In Its Life Cycle?” (Phil. 3:12-16)
– “The Rock On Which The Church Is Built” (Matt. 16:13-20)
– “You Can Be A Rainbow Church” (Gen. 9:13-27; Eph. 2:11-22)
Preaching on Encouraging New Leadership
During an interim, new leadership invariably emerges. With the departure of the leader, sometimes people are moved to leave their spectator role and become responsible leaders. The congregation discovers all kinds of talents and gifts of which it was unaware. At times this brings new enthusiasm; at other times some hidden hostility and resentment that power in the church is shifting away from traditional sources.
Congregations need to be reminded that the church is comprised of many members with varying gifts.
A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 would remind members that every member is essential to the health of the church, and all are>Other possible sermon subjects might be:
– “Use Your Talents Or Lose Them” (Matt. 25:1-14)
– “God’s Saving Minority” (Judges 7:2ff)
– “God’s Recycles” (Jer. 18:1-6)
– “Leaders Arise From Strange Places” (Amos 7:10-15)
– “An Old Manipulator Becomes A New Leader” (Gen. 32:22-32)
– “The Changing Of The Guard” (Josh. 1:1-9; Num. 27:15-23)
Preaching on Risking Change
The interim can be a time for creativity and change. Too many members still parrot the Seven Last Words of the Church: “We Never Did It That Way Before.” Creating a new environment of openness to change allows the new pastor to be as innovative as desired. The Bible provides many texts for sermons on change.
Preaching from the Transfiguration Story (Matt. 17:1-8) confronts listeners with the words of Jesus to Peter who wanted to remain on the mountain rather than face the valley of service. Jesus’ words challenged Peter to stay out of life’s stopping places, and be where the need exists.
Other possible sermons might be:
– “This Unconventional Christ” (Matt. 11:16-19)
– “How Do You Handle Change?” (Mark 2:18-22)
– “Keeping Life Out Of Stopping Places” (Matt. 17:1-8)
– “Get Off The Briar And Get On The Wing” (Isa. 40:27-31)
– “Are You A Thermostat Or A Thermometer?” (Rom. 12:1, 2)
Preaching on Resolving Conflict
There is always need to deal with conflict during the interim. In some instances, major conflict between pastor and congregation — which results in a “forced” exit of the pastor — leaves unhealed wounds. Too many members still “join the pastor” and not the body of Christ, then insulate themselves from the life of the church when the pastor leaves.
Even when there are no major conflicts, old problems may resurface. Sermons need to state that conflict is inevitable. Without conflict, there can be little growth. The Bible is full of texts for preaching on conflict and its resolution. Paul’s struggles with conflicts in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 1:10-17; 11:17-34) are good texts for sermons.
Suggested texts for sermons on resolving conflict might be:
– “Church Fights” (1 Cor. 11:17-34)
– “Jesus’ Constructive Anger” (Mark 3:1-6)
– “How To Handle Conflict” (Neh. 4:1-6)
– “Who Is Your Scapegoat?” (Exod. 32:21-24)
– “Every Church Has This Problem” (Acts 1:1-11)
– “Divided You Fall” (1 Cor. 1:10-17)
– “Reconciled To Be Reconcilers” (2 Cor. 5:14-21)
Preaching on Preparing for the New Minister
In the late stages of the interim period, especially when the coming of the new minister is imminent, one of the gifts that Interim Pastors can offer to the new pastor is sermons on the nature of the ministry.
Old Testament stories provide good models. Moses, the minister of the people, was supported and encouraged by Aaron and Hur who held up his arms so “his arms were steady until the going down of the sun” (Exo. 17:8-13). Moses passed that encouragement on to the newly elected pastor, Joshua (Num. 27:12-23).
Sermons on the nature of the Christian ministry, based on Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:5, or his words to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:1-5) are also helpful ways to prepare the way for the new minister.
Interim Ministers must know how to handle their ego needs. The persistent thought for every Interim must be that of John the Baptist, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30, NIV). When the new minister is chosen, the Interim should be the best PR agent for the new pastor, and prepare the way through intentional sermons on the ministry and support for the new minister.
Other suggestions for final sermons in preparation for the new minister are:
– “Preachers Come In Different Shapes and Sizes” (John 3:30; Luke 7:19)
– “The New Preacher: Will You Boost or Boot Him/Her?” (Exo. 17:8-23)
– “The Lonely Life Of The Minister” (Jer.; selected)
– “Life In The Goldfish Bowl” (1 Cor. 13)
– “It Is Time To Cross The River” (Exo. 14:15)
– “Disciples For Building And Battle” (Luke 14:25-34)
Interims are “foster pastors,” bridges between history and hope. It takes a special kind of person to be an Interim, to become involved quickly in the life of a congregation in such a limited time. There are rewards. Interims have the freedom to cause a gentle rocking of the boat since they are not under consideration as the next pastor. Like the ancient prophets, they have no need to curry favor with the power-brokers of the congregation and can proclaim the truth without fear of dismissal.
Since they have nothing to prove, it can be a fun, relaxing time, with the freedom of the proverbial clown, whose antics disarm yet force truth. Paul’s ancient word about preaching relate well to the work of the Interim Pastor:
“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2, NIV).
1. Ralph Macy, The Interim Pastor (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 1976), p. 3.
2. Anita E. Keire, “Long-Term Interim Ministry,” The Christian Ministry 20 (May-June 1990): 10.
3. G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1924), p. 21.
4. Alan G. Gripe, The Interim Pastor’s Manual (Philadelphia: The Geneva Press, 1987), p. 25. The Interim Ministry Network is an ecumenical organization (916 S. Rolling Rd., Box 21251, Baltimore MD 21212-0751; (301-719-0777). It includes twenty-two Protestant denominations.
5. Loren B. Mead, The Developmental Tasks of the Parish in Search of a Pastor (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 1977).
6. William B. Phillips, Pastoral Transitions: From Endings to New Beginnings (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 1988), pp. 30-44.
7. Ibid, p. 44.
8. Conrad H. Massa, “Preaching as Confluence,” Heralds of a New Age (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1986), pp. 56-57.
9. Keire, p. 11
10. Martin E. Saarinen’s The Life Cycle of a Congregation (Alban Institute, 1989) is a helpful tool to assess whether a congregation is in a growth phase (birth, infance, adolescence, prime, maturity) or declining phase (aristocracy, bureaucracy, death).
11. Mead, The Developmental Tasks …, p. 5.
12. Gripe, p. 51.
13. Edward A. White, Saying Goodbye: A Time of Growth for Congregations and Pastors (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 1990).
14. Published in Richard L. Morgan, Graceful Aging: Sermons for Third Agers (Fairway Press, 1990).

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