Why Your Church Should Insist on an Interim Season

Some churches have an interim season thrust upon them. A minister resigns to take another position … or has a moral meltdown. Suddenly the church finds itself “in between,” uncertain of the future and struggling to navigate a confusing present.

But some churches have a different challenge.

A long-term and beloved minister wants to retire, perhaps, or move into a different kind of ministry in the same town—and asks the church for a transition period of a year or two. The church wants to be supportive and encouraging. Elders tend to accommodate such requests out of gratitude and a desire for stability.

Such accommodation takes care of the minister’s need for transition. But what about the church’s?

I consulted with a church in this predicament recently. The minister told the elders (and the church) that he needed to move back to Texas to care for his aging parents. Once he sold his house, he would be gone. He posted a “For Sale” sign in his front yard. Two years later, it was still there … he was still there. The elders were gracious and patient. They continued to support the minister and he continued to preach and do his ministerial work.

But the church was “on hold.” Everyone knew the situation was temporary. Everyone knew the minister would be leaving at some point. There was no energy going into planning, visioning, or looking over the horizon to the next stage of the church’s life. The church fell into a listless rhythm of “marking time.” Morale sank. All the “oomph” leaked out of the congregation.

By the time I stepped into the situation, they had lost a third of their members and contributions were in steady decline. It took everything they had just to keep up with past commitments: to ministries, missions, and mortgage. The church had put its own future at risk for the sake of a minister’s desire for a safe transition.

We gave the minister three months’ salary and told him to use those months to move his family back to Texas. He cut the price on his house (something he’d been unwilling to do without a deadline looming) and sold the house within a month. He found a new ministry near his parents and left with a new-found sense of optimism and energy for his future work.

And the church itself was freed to think about its next season of life. Finally, they could start asking the kinds of questions necessary for a healthy and productive future. They could celebrate all the good God had done in their recent past. But they could also identify the habits they needed to change, the ministries they needed to cut or create, and the mission God was calling them to address in days ahead.

Momentum started building once again. Excitement and energy and expectation blossomed. There was a revival of hope and optimism. New vision began to emerge. And, when the time was right, that church was able to ask, “Who is God calling to lead our church into a better tomorrow.”

Hard Truths about the Interim Season

1. Churches do not handle “treading water” well.

Any time (and for whatever reason) a minister is in a “lame duck” role, the church is going to suffer. The longer the time of transition, the greater the suffering. Certainly it is appropriate to celebrate a beloved minister and his tenure at a church. But churches do not exist for the purpose of celebrating past ministers. They exist to accomplish kingdom business. When a minister knows his ability to provide effective leadership is compromised, it is time for that minister to step aside for the health of the church. And when a church realizes the same, a relatively rapid transition to new leadership is recommended.

A strong sense of tomorrow is critical to a church’s health. The question, “Where have we been?” can give a church comfort and encouragement. But only the question, “Where are we going?” injects energy and vitality into a church. A church that does not see a clear and imminent path to the future is a church ripe for stagnation and discouragement.

It is difficult for churches to be in a “holding pattern,” waiting not just for the next season of the church’s life but for the necessary process by which that next season is defined and envisioned.

2. A productive interim season cannot begin while the former minister is still present and actively leading a congregation.

I would prefer that this statement were false. How comforting (and convenient) it would be if a church could define its future while benefiting from the “known quantity” of the exiting minister.

Sadly, experience suggests this won’t happen. There are necessary (and difficult) conversations the church must engage in as it feels its way to a godly future.

  • “What do we do well and what do we do poorly?”
  • “What needs to change about our mission, the way we interact with each other, the way we interact with the community?”
  • “What skills do we need in a new minister that our former minister did not possess?”
  • “Who are we trying to reach and are we being effective? If not, why not?”
  • “Where is the theological core of our congregation? Have we focused on that core or on peripherals?”
  • “If this church ceased to exist tomorrow, who would notice?”
  • “What is our unique calling from God and are we addressing that effectively?”

These conversations are difficult for churches. They require a level of self-awareness and self-critique that everyone finds demanding. They compel an honesty and steely-eyed candor that churches (at the best of times) find challenging.

But those conversations can’t take place with the departing minister in the room and in the pulpit. They necessarily question what has been, what has been done, whether a church has been effective, how (and how well) a church has accomplished kingdom business. Any minister would find such questions intimidating and critical, touching on insecurities and inflaming self-doubts. Any minister would understandably take this discussion personally. And any church, caring about their minister, would refrain from addressing such matters with the kind of openness and frankness that are most needed at such a crucial time.

3. Churches need a significant break between the former minister and the next.

Churches need time to adjust to the loss of one minister and the calling of another: a time for celebrating the past and mourning its passing … a time to prepare for the next minister and anticipate his coming.

The longer the tenure of your departing minister, the longer the interim period should be. (Think one month of interim for every year of ministry.) This is recommended for several reasons:

  • The longer a ministry, the deeper the ruts, and the more time and effort required to develop new habits.
  • A new minister will inevitably be compared to the last one. The passage of time (and a growing sense of anticipation) can help blunt such comparisons.
  • Fans of the former minister need the time to accept that the new guy (just because he is not the old guy) is not therefore a “bum.” Many good ministers are never given a chance to develop their ministry because the church is not ready to give them a break.
  • Critics of the former minister need the time to accept that the new guy (just because he is the new guy) is not therefore a “Messiah.” Unrealistic expectations have been the downfall of more-than-a-few new ministers.

An intentional and effective interim ministry allows a church to “cleanse the palate” of the former minister (no matter how sweet and appreciated the taste may be) and prepare the church’s tongue for new taste experiences ahead.

4. Significant changes in the church “system” need to happen before the new minister arrives.

Don’t wait for the new minister to land before you identify and address needed changes in your church. Waiting not only postpones necessary transitions, it also requires the new minister to shoulder the burden (and the blame) for those changes. Putting your house in order before the new minister arrives creates a healthy and forward-looking environment in which he can operate effectively. It allows church leaders to make changes on the basis of kingdom principle rather than open the new minister to charges of preferential and arbitrary changes.

A church that is committed to protecting the new minister recognizes the wisdom of fighting some battles before he arrives on the scene. Once again, this is a good reason for a longer interim period and an intentional interim ministry. Someone stepping into your church between your present minister and the next can lead you through a season of change, take some of the arrows that will inevitably be launched, and set up the next pulpit minister to have a more peaceful and effective ministry.