by Rev. John Keydel, Jr.
As diocesan officer for congregational transitions, I usually get one of the first calls that the elected lay leader of a congregation makes when he or she learns that “their” member of the clergy is leaving. And one of the first questions that the leaders and members of congregations usually ask at the beginning of any clerical transition, for any reason, is “Do we (really) need an Interim?” or “Why do we need an Interim?” Among the many assumptions, assertions, and anxieties buried within those few words, there is usually a much more basic question, one that few congregational leaders spend much time thinking about until the need is fully upon them – “What do we actually need an Interim to do?”
While I really do think that the best short answer is “It depends,” this rarely satisfies congregational leaders, so some explanation of the broad range of situations that may characterize congregations in transition is usually necessary. Over the years, I have noted that, as one moves form the most basic to the most involved, there is a clear progression in the complexity of the work, the length of time that it takes, the skills that are necessary, and the costs involved.
First Tier: Basic Church
In the Episcopal Church, all congregational priests are expected “to proclaim the Gospel, love and serve Christ’s people, nourish them, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come” and to do so “By word and action, informed at all times by the Holy Scriptures, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese and the General Convention.” Clergy in charge of congregations are further expected to “lead ___ Church as pastor, priest, and teacher, sharing in the councils of the congregation and of the whole Church, in communion with the Bishop.” This is the sacramental and pastoral foundation, the basis upon which all other personal or corporate practices and proclivities rest. It is, of course, very important, and most clergy do it reasonably well. It is not however, Interim Ministry in any but an eschatological sense. As one retired cleric once phrased it: “you can have some old bird like me come out here and read the service every week, but that won’t do much to help you grow or get to know just who it is that God’s calling you to be …”
Effective and healthy clergy transition can be done without the presence of a trained interim, but it must rely very heavily on the prior formation, discipline and hard work of the congregational leadership, and their willingness to be guided by whatever judicatory or consulting resources are available. This also assumes that there is basically no conflict, that the administrative systems are dynamic and healthy, and that the internal and external contexts are not in a significant state of change. Unfortunately, the temptation/pressure to believe that this really is the case is usually very powerful, and it regularly exerts its allure on both congregational and judicatory leaders, often despite significant evidence to the contrary.
Within the context of congregational transition, this option usually appears as some form of Pulpit Supply, Sunday coverage of Word and Sacrament, maybe even some pastoral support in case of emergency, but not much else. Some refer to it as “congregational babysitting,” someone to watch the kids until a new Father or Mother can be found and persuaded to come home.
The leaders who call for this usually do so under the banner of cost reduction. Of course, how this is done, and with what degree of effectiveness, varies widely from place to place and person to person, yet even this First Tier: “Basic Church” costs some money, and requires years of professional study, practice and experience.
Second Tier: Transition and the Interim
As Loren Mead and his colleagues discovered in their early research on congregations in transition, there is more to congregational/clergy transition than simply finding another pastor who can perform the essential actions of the First Tier. During times of transition, “basic church” is rarely enough; whether we like it or not, change has already crept in. Indeed, healthy congregations are those which find ways to use the inevitable disruption of patterns and expectations to arrive at a greater measure of perspective and self- awareness, gaining insight on themselves and their ministries, listening to who it is that God is calling them to be and what it is that God is calling them to do, in their unique place, at that particular time, choosing the ways that they believe they can best live into their future.
The familiar 5 Interim Stages or Developmental Tasks have been shown to be effective ways of doing this work hundreds of times, in congregations ranging from rural Maine to downtown Los Angeles. But, as anyone who has lived through a congregational transition knows all too well, those 5 stages don’t just happen. They require hard work and a high degree of desire to learn and to grow. Furthermore, the Interim can guide, never actually do that work for the congregation; indeed, it is my belief that almost all of the attention to self-differentiated leadership is simply to prepare the Interim to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to say nothing of the pleading, wheedling, threatening and emotional and financial cutoff that can result when some of the members of any/every congregation actually begin to understand that they are the only ones who can (and must) do the work. The real primary task of a good Interim is to provide a steady hand, a constant self differentiated presence, to guide and encourage the congregation and its leadership as they do the spiritual, emotional, organizational and cultural work summed up in those 5 Developmental Tasks.
The Second Tier is characterized by the management or facilitation of the work of transition, in, through, and in addition to the basic First Tier elements of Blessing, Absolving and Consecrating, “hatching, matching and dispatching,” being faithful through the cycle of the seasons, recognizing that the transition in the congregation is simply another image of the presence of the Promise and its fulfillment in all of the transitions of life.
Needless to say, this Second Tier requires additional training, focused experience, and the appropriate personality and temperament. And “Yes,” the additional layer of expertise that functions at the Second Tier does usually cost a bit more than Sunday supply….
Third Tier: Trauma and its aftereffects,
Unfortunately, there are also those situations in which the particular events resulting in transition violate fundamental values such as appropriate boundaries, trust, and even the basic assumption that we and our loved ones will see tomorrow, better or not. The shock, pain and anger that often result from the violation of these aspects of our humanity make them especially difficult for congregational members to recognize, acknowledge and integrate into their ongoing personal and corporate identities. Echoing the early research of Loren Mead and his colleagues, these can be summed up within several broad categories: Abuse or Misconduct – regardless of whether that Abuse or Misconduct was of: Relationship(s): persons or relationships abused by or for the benefit or gratification of some other person or group, Substance(s): of any of a number of legal, licensed or illegal chemical substances, or Resource(s): misuse of any of the various Resources of the Congregation or its Members. Any Combination of these.
Congregational Conflict – regardless of whether that conflict resulted in or from the departure of the prior cleric and/or important members of the congregation.
Severe Trauma or loss, in any form, regardless of whether that event involves people, property, or personhood.
Barring any of these, two additional situations were identified as critical moments in the transitional life of a congregation:
Clergy Transitions involving a particularly Short Tenure (the definition of this is often a function of local experience and expectation) and those involving a particularly Long Tenure (my initial rule of thumb is anything over 15 years).
Seven years of judicatory level work causes me to add one additional observation to this list: the traumatic effect and emotional potency of any of these traumatic categories is increased by a full order of magnitude any time the transition happens because of or is sufficiently severe as to require the direct involvement of the judicatory or its senior staff.
In Third Tier situations, it is important for everyone to note that even the basic Second Tier Interim Work cannot begin until the emotional turmoil of the traumatic event and its aftershocks (sometimes far more destructive, widespread and enduring than the initial event) have been recognized, acknowledged, and have begun to be dealt with in a constructive, ongoing and systemic way, and the congregation has begun to move toward the restoration of basic trust.
The Third Tier Specialists who deal with these situations must be highly skilled, well trained, experienced specialists, who are functioning at the top of their capacity, both personally and professionally. These folks are often described as “Smoke Jumpers,” “Circuit Breakers” or “First Responders.” All of these images are apt – their immediate task is to deal with the crisis and its repercussions, recognizing that the way that they and the congregations involved do so will have a lasting effect on the culture of the congregation and its members well into the future.
Needless to say, the level of experience and expertise required for Third Tier Ministry requires even more knowledge, more training, more experience, and a combination of gifts and temperament that is even more uncommon. It is no surprise then, that Third Tier Specialists who can provide guidance through the most difficult situations are not inexpensive in financial terms.
So what do we (really) need an interim for? It depends……. It really does.
Rev. Keydel is a member of the IMN Board of Directors.