In April 2017 I attended training as an Interim priest through the Interim Ministry Network (IMN). For members of congregations who have experienced intentional Interim (transition) ministry, you probably have a good idea of what it involves. If you have not — or it has been many years since your last interim period, here is an overview of what Interim ministry is and seeks to accomplish. While Interim periods can be as little nine months, in most cases they last 12 to 18 months.
Before we begin, I would like to mention two things that the IMN faculty stated during my training that stood out to me. The first is that a Rector (I’m using the Episcopal Church’s term for a priest leading a congregation) has two clients, whereas an Interim Rector has three. A Rector serves God and the Congregation. An Interim Rector serves God, the Congregation, and the next Rector. This calls attention to the fact that an Interim has a dual role to both serve God and Congregation as any Rector would, AND also prepare the congregation well to receive the next Rector. This highlights both the transitional nature of interim ministry and specificity of the role of Interim clergy to prepare a congregation for the priest to follow.
The Second is that an Interim can be considered a success if the Rector who follows stays a minimum of five years and both the Rector and Congregation are reasonably happy with the ministry they do together. In other words, the work of an interim priest should prepare a congregation well enough so that the Rector who follows can have fruitful and healthy ministry with the congregation for what is now considered an average minimum tenure for a Rector.
The Interim Priest
The Interim Priest is a priest trained to assist parishes during a time of transition between the leave-taking of one rector and the calling of another rector. It is an intentional ministry of sustaining the direction and ministry of a congregation as defined by the Vestry; reviewing the past, assessing the present, and evaluating the future. It is expected that the ministry during the interim period will be different from that experienced by members of the parish under the previous rector.
The major goal of the Interim Priest’s ministry is to prepare the congregation for the coming of the next rector. To this end, Interim Rector and vestry, along with the Search Committee, shall work together to fully use the Appreciative Inquiry (A.I.) method of conducting the search for the new rector by accomplishing the following goals:
- Call a new rector.
- Prepare the parish for the future with a new leader.
- Provide ongoing pastoral care and ministry to the congregation during the transition.
- Lead the congregation in articulating the values of the congregation that are rooted in the past, lived in the present, and will be carried into the future. And to begin imagining what the future might be like, articulate the gifts and skills the parish will bring to the future, and the gifts and skills needed in the new rector to help lead the parish into their imagined future.
While it is beyond the scope of this post to go into details, the Interim will use knowledge and tools in:
- Systems Theory
- Appreciative Inquiry
- Active Listening
- Cultures and Contexts (especially Congregation Size)
- Power Analysis
- Learning Styles
There are five general phases (or tasks) of the Interim:
- Enter/Join: Covenant or Letter of Agreement to clarify expectations of how the Interim will function in the role.
- Focus: How the Interim’s role/responsibilities are both similar and different to a Rector.
- Analyze: What does the Interim need/want to know about the congregation to help set priorities (both for the Interim and Congregation).
- Connect: How the Interim can best connect to the people in the congregation and diocese to have resources/help necessary.
- Evaluate/Exit: The Interim Priest offers an evaluation of what the Congregation has done well, what they still have left to do, what they should expect as new rector arrives; and the Congregation helps the Interim Priest evaluate what he or she did well, and what the Interim can learn for his or her next parish.
In departing a congregation the Interim should encourage their future with the incoming rector in three key areas:
- Covenant – They have agreements with God, the rector, and each other about how they live.
- God’s fidelity is assured – If they are faithful to God’s call, God will be faithful to them in keeping their covenant.
- Choose things that are Life Giving – Choose life-giving activities by loving God and neighbor.
It is important during the exit for the Interim to emphasize and encourage that a mature and healthy congregation will accept and love their next Rector — faults and all. The same should be true for the Rector with the congregation. Additionally, the Interim should emphasize to the congregation that they have all they need to succeed; the decision to succeed is up to them.
Focus Points of the Congregation During the Interim Period
The Interim will lead the congregation through conversations around five Focus Points to help them answer the questions: “Who are we?”, “Who are our neighbors?”, and “What is God calling us to do?”:
- Heritage: Reviewing how the congregation has been shaped and formed.
- Leadership: Reviewing the membership needs and its ways of organizing and developing new and effective leadership.
- Connections: Discovering all the relationships a congregation builds outside of itself.
- Mission: Defining and redefining a sense of purpose and direction for the congregation.
- Future: Developing congregational and pastoral profiles.
Every congregation is different, so no two interim (transition) periods will be the same. Nonetheless, the above outlined process offers a well-defined and resourced framework for the Interim Priest and Congregation to follow.
Source: Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry, Interim Ministry Network.