Studies over the last 20 years have shown that the transition period between pastors is crucial in the life of a congregation. Those weeks and months — sometimes a year or more — will shape the church’s growth, identity, and health for years to come.
“A church in pastoral transition is a church in crisis,” says Dr. Charles McGowan, long-time PCA pastor now president of McGowan Search, which helps churches in their pastoral search process. He notes that the church in transition often faces a financial crisis, a moral crisis, and a leadership crisis. Some in these churches are grieving, some are anxious, and some may be working behind the scenes to advocate a personal agenda. Many such churches are turning to intentional interim pastors to shepherd them through this difficult time.
McGowan identifies a distinction between intentional interims and traditional interims. “A traditional interim is essentially pulpit supply; he preaches and gives a face to the church, and might make emergency or even routine pastoral calls.” But an intentional interim, McGowan argues, has a ministry akin to that of John the Baptist: he prepares the way for the next pastor. In addition to preaching, he carries out an in depth analysis of the church, identifies problems, and leads the church in addressing them.
Such a ministry requires a clear sense of call, says Rev. Mo Up De Graff, who has recently concluded his third interim pastorate. It is not part time work for retired pastors, nor is it something to do “until something else comes along.” “God puts interim ministry on your heart as much as any other calling,” Up De Graff says. It is a ministry that demands specialized training. “Many churches see the interim as a ‘plateau preacher’ who can simply carry them until they get a new pastor,” he says. “A trained intentional interim is much more than that.”
Along with six other PCA ministers, Up De Graf has received training for interim ministry through Interim Pastor Ministries (IPM), which has been training and coaching interim pastors for 25 years. Executive Director Tom Harris, himself a veteran of interim ministry in nine different churches, observes that churches usually have better transitions under the leadership of an intentional interim. “The time of pastoral transition is the most effective time in the life of the church for doing some evaluation,” he says. With an intentional interim, “It can be a season of refocusing, of solving problems, of determining the type of pastor they need, and preparing for the call of that pastor.”
Harris cites several other advantages of the intentional interim model. Church attendance generally stays higher, he says, than it does with traditional pulpit supply.
According to Harris:
- The “fringe people” — those who don’t have a long history with the church —“seem to stay more positive and more attached.”
- The stability provided by the interim seems to improve visitor retention.
- Giving tends to be higher because the intentional interim is trained to maintain the effectiveness of church ministries.
- And the energy of a church remains stronger and higher under the leadership of an intentional interim.
Harris believes it is preferable to call an intentional interim even when a church has a qualified associate. The associate often becomes so accustomed to the senior role that it is difficult for him to submit to the new senior pastor’s leadership.
Rev. Tim Diehl, who has served as an interim pastor in four churches over the past nine years, believes an intentional interim can also help restore a congregation’s self-esteem. “Often a congregation feels that they’ve let their pastor down and that’s why he resigned. I can help them see that they didn’t necessarily do anything wrong — that their pastor was sent to them for a purpose, God used his gifts there for a time, and now He’s sending him elsewhere to use those gifts.” Diehl tells the congregation that they now have the opportunity to show the same love for a new pastor.
McGowan agrees, pointing out that when a much-loved pastor leaves — when profound relationships have been radically changed — an emotional gap needs to be filled. That takes leadership, McGowan says. Otherwise, the next senior pastor is likely to become an interim.
The same is true in the opposite situation, after a period of unusual instability and deep-seated problems. In that case the church needs “a wise, courageous, and strong hand on the wheel.” Additionally, McGowan believes an older experienced interim pastor is needed for a church that has young inexperienced staff.
Up De Graff argues that any church in transition can profit from an intentional interim. He recalls a seminar on interim ministry at General Assembly led by the former and current pastors of Briarwood PCA in Birmingham, Dr. Frank Barker and Dr. Harry Reeder, who orchestrated what is widely held to be one of the smoothest transitions from a retiring pastor to a new pastor on record. In the seminar, they noted that the adjustment of the congregation to Dr. Barker’s leaving was more difficult than they had anticipated. They have concluded that transition would have been smoother had an intentional interim been called first, and they would recommend that in the future.
Rev. Steve Mirich, Jr., pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina, affirms the value of following an intentional interim. Mirich accepted the call to Covenant in the summer of 2014 after Up De Graf had served as interim. Mirich identifies a number of things Up De Graf did that helped the church through their transition. He called them to 90 days of prayer and provided very specific requests for them to pray. He made many personal visits which gave members an opportunity to express their concerns. He worked with the session to bring them to greater unity. He also advised their pulpit committee in its search process. “I guarantee there were a lot of other candidates who had impressive qualifications,” Mirich says, “but we were the right fit.” He credits Up De Graf’s counsel with helping the committee determine the proper criteria for selecting their next pastor.
An intentional interim not only needs a strong sense of call and specialized training; he also needs experience. Harris suggests at least 15 years; McGowan thinks 20. And both men agree, the intentional interim, like many pastors, needs administrative skill, preaching ability, and leadership. But he also needs to listen, Up De Graff says. That’s invaluable in this role. Men over 50, McGowan and Up De Graf believe, tend to be the best intentional interims. They have the experience, wisdom — and flexibility — to serve in this capacity.
To date, very few PCA churches have called intentional interims during pastoral transitions. Up De Graf attributes this to the PCA’s legacy of independence. “Too often we have said, ‘We can do this thing!’ ” he says. “Instead, we need to ask, ‘What can we do that will boost us forward in ways only God can accomplish?’ ” Up De Graf sees calling an intentional interim as an important answer to that question.
Note: those interested in more information about serving as an interim pastors or calling an interim pastor for their church may contact Interim Pastor Ministries.