A friend of mine is an interim pastor by choice and training. He’s good at it and loves it. Our conversations often turn toward the dynamics of interim ministry: what it means to arrive, heal what has been hurt, prepare the way for what is to come, and leave, with a certain degree of sadness, a place of welcome for the one who will follow. Sounds like John the Baptist doesn’t it, except for the brood of vipers part? What has stuck me is the realization that all pastors, even long term pastors, are interim ministers.
Congregations never belong to the pastors who serve them, they are merely stewards of it for a season, however long or short the season may be. Congregational leaders, especially those of long standing, perhaps generations of long standing, seem to know that, and are quick to let each pastor know that he or she is a temporary fixture who will be replaced in due time. I’ve run into some, maybe you have too, who take perverse delight in making that clear. It may be an uncomfortable truth, but it is a truth. It might be a good idea for every pastor to take interim training. My guess is that it could relieve more than a little of the angst one feels when one discovers the parish as it is, is not the parish that was described in the profile. It could also help reduce the nascent disappointment parishioners feel when they discover that the new pastor is not the messiah that had been promised. Long term pastors might rediscover the delight in knowing they are preparing the way for those who will follow, rather than setting a standard they hope no one will ever surpass.
But here’s the real news. All those parishioners, even the ones of long standing, are also interim ministers. Congregational membership, however defined, turns over surprisingly fast. People move away, die, go elsewhere, quit altogether. Others are born, move into the neighborhood, come from other churches, or just pass through out of curiosity. It’s a moving river. I wonder why more congregational leaders don’t see that? I’ve heard, and so have you, a well meaning elder say something like, “We’re so glad you’re here, but of course you are only here for a time while this is our church and we are here forever. Some day you will go, but we will stay.” It isn’t true.
Every pastor is an interim minister leading a congregation of interim ministers in a church that belongs to God and to no one else. As Christians we know God through the peripatetic life and teaching of Jesus Christ, who, in calling us to follow him, keeps us constantly on the move. We cannot not be interims and still be followers of Jesus. You’ve seen what happens when that is ignored. Congregations slowly die out as fewer and fewer sit stubbornly in their pews unwilling to give up their building or memories of who they once were, while the work of following Jesus is going on somewhere else. With enough money, a church building and its traditions can be the permanent thing, until the money runs out. Through it visitors may flow, sometimes staying a few years, sometimes a few minutes. Museums are like that, even liturgical museums offering worship services. It can be a way station on the path of following Jesus, or it can be a terminal stop from which following Jesus is no longer important. Maybe it never was. Entertaining preaching and terrific music can be a lot more fun than following Jesus.
So here’s to interim ministry. We’re all in it. Or should be.