By Jeff Brumley
The modern interim pastor is radically different from his or her predecessors, ministers and congregational coaches say.
It’s increasingly rare for an interim to be a mere placeholder between full-time pastors in a church. And relatively few are simply retired ministers wanting to stay active in ministry or make a little extra spending money, experts say.
Instead, their skill in preaching and pastoral care has to be matched with strong qualifications in conflict resolution, coaching and vision-casting.
“It’s a specialized calling,” said Mark Tidsworth, president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates in South Carolina and himself a part-time intentional interim pastor — though between pulpits at the moment.
“They are troubleshooters and many times they are called in times of crisis,” he said.
The position also increasingly requires a lot of specialized training, according to Tidworth.
LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tenn. and the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C., offer programs preparing ministers for interim work, especially in Baptist churches. Coursework ranges from conflict management to guiding congregations through the process of self-discovery and missional advancement.
Intentional interim pastors — those hired specifically to bring such coaching skills with them — must rely on such training and their own experience to handle the job, Tidworth said. “They also need to be sure of themselves.”
‘A growth industry’
Baptists are not alone seeing the transformation in the interim pastor role.
Tom Harris, executive director of Interim Pastor Ministries, said the demand for trained interims has doubled in the past three years among the mostly evangelical churches his ministry serves. And they expect to see that trend continue thanks to the continued challenges churches face in today’s society.
“Our culture is very conflicted and it’s bringing to our churches more conflict and discontinuity,” Harris said.
As that happens, pastor turnover increases as ministers find it more difficult to remain in the good graces of their congregations, Harris said.
The need for interims will also rise as pastors in the Baby Boomer generation begin to retire at higher rates — at least in the evangelical churches Harris’ ministry serves.
Meanwhile, younger generations are less interested in established churches, making it harder for some congregations to find full-time pastors.
As a result, Interim Pastor Ministries is seeing a growing demand for the ministers it trains — either as traditional, intentional or interventionist interims.
“I think it’s a growth industry — and that’s kind of sad to say,” he said.
‘They are professionals’
Of those three kinds of interim pastors, the most common among Baptists and others today is the intentional, said George Bullard, author and leadership coach with the South Carolina-based Columbia Partnership.
They are brought in for all of the usual pastoral and preaching responsibilities but also to help churches find their purpose and direction and to open the way for a healthy pastor search process, Bullard said.
What he and others are finding is that pastors in the 55-65 age range, with full-time pastoring under their belts, are stepping forward for training in this area, and increasingly reporting callings to this ministry, Bullard said. “They function very well in those roles because they are professionals.”
‘Working to get out of a job’
And many enjoy the old-fashioned parts of ministry that still are expected of modern-day interims.
“I visit hospitals, I interact with people, go to lunch with people and counsel people,” said Layne Smith, the new intentional interim at Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas.
“I have not done weddings, but I have done and participated in funerals — and that’s holy ground,” he said. “I develop friendships with people across the board.”
The Hendersonville, N.C., native served as a senior pastor for more than 26 years before feeling a call to interim ministry. In 2007 he underwent training through the Center for Congregational Health. In 2009, at 59, he embarked on this first interim position in Charlotte and has completed two more interim pastorates since then.
The evolution of the interim pastor has been inspired by a realization by churches that more is needed between full-time leaders.
“Churches are seeing now that the interim time is not merely down time but an opportunity to explore where God is calling them and to get clear about their vision,” Smith said.
The interim period is ideal for that because it gives congregations time to figure out who they are and where they want to take their ministries — and use that vision as the basis for conducting a pastor search, Smith said.
And the idea is not for the interim to lead that process, but to facilitate lay people as they work through those processes, he said.
Smith said his top rule as an interim is to never be a candidate for that open position.
“That helps me be perceived as an honest broker,” he said. “I am not working to get a job, I am working to get out of a job.”