From Jonathan New – Executive Director

The Myth of the “One Checklist to Rule Them All” 

“Where’s the checklist?”  It’s one of the most typical comments from those taking IMN’s Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry (FTM) training.  Understandably, those preparing for their first intentional interim (i.e., between clergy leader) postings are anxious to do things right.  And all the participants in FTM training, no matter what context in which they intend to use transitional leadership training (i.e., settled, consultant), are busy people juggling many responsibilities.  Wouldn’t a checklist be great?


I’ve been thinking about this as I pondered the contributions of Terry Foland.  Terry, who died on May 25, 2023, brought his experience as a Christian Church Disciples of Christ pastor and Area Minister to bear through his work as an Alban Institute senior consultant and cofounder and third president of IMN.  He was also an IMN faculty member who was integral to FTM curriculum development.  While he helped us gain clarity about the work of transitional leadership, he modeled the belief that we can’t reduce this work to a list of tasks. 

Terry believed there are a few key things a congregation must attend to during the transitional time.  In a 2021 IMN interview, Terry recalled the early identification of the five Developmental Tasks emerging from Loren Mead’s 1974 research on what happens in congregations between pastors.  Today, we call these Focus Points – in part to remove any pejorative connotation of the term developmental applied to congregations and in part to move away from the notion of things that need to be accomplished as opposed to addressed.  We rely on these Focus Points – heritage, leadership, mission, connections, future – as fundamental for transitional work with congregations.  Each Focus Point is an area of exploration.  For example, “heritage” has the transitional leader helping the congregation review how it has been shaped and formed.

Terry also recognized that Focus Points alone are insufficient.  As he listened to transitional leaders he noticed additional “agenda items” they typically dealt with: 1) rebuilding congregational infrastructure, 2) evaluating and sometimes removing of staff members, 3) looking at financial/stewardship issues, 4) addressing conflicts over Issues or congregational agenda, 5) interpersonal or intergroup conflicts, 6) getting closure with the previous pastor, and 7) improving communication.*  For example, regarding getting closure with the previous pastor, he said, “Formal farewell is one thing.  Weaning a congregation from the previous pastor is another.  The interim pastor can help congregations understand this issue since [they are] not the future clergyperson with whom lack of closure is apt to be a lingering problem.” 

Lest we think Terry was merely adding to the “checklist”, he went further.  Terry identified a set of twelve questions in the following areas that congregations should explore as indicators of health:  1) history and heritage, 2) community, 3) discernment, 4) shared vision, 5) making disciples, 6) ministries in the community, 7) worldview, 8) relationships, 9) facing daily life, 10) stewardship, 11) leadership, and 12) connection to faith community.**  The questions for each of these topics express the nuance Terry believed was important for full understanding.  For example, regarding discernment, he asked:  How do we seek to be open to God’s call to us as a faith community?  What distinguishes us from any other human organization?  Do our efforts to worship help us to discern God’s word and call to us as faithful disciples? 

No doubt, as transitional leaders, we need direction for our work.  Terry would have agreed, with his 5 Focus Points, 7 additional agenda items, and 12 sets of questions.  But it’s not possible to reduce the work of transitional leadership – or even the more narrowly defined between-clergy-leaders work of interim ministry – to a checklist.  Like Tolkien’s Rings of Power, when it comes to transitional leadership, the “One Checklist to Rule Them All” is both a temptation and a curse. 

What Terry and IMN have sought to do is to name key touchstones to guide the work of transitional leaders.  We also suggest theories (e.g., systems) that help deepen understandings, approaches (e.g., appreciative inquiry) that can orient us to the work, and tools (e.g., transition team models) that help get the job done.  Yet the work of the transitional leader is essentially one of exploration and discovery, of feeding back what is found to the congregation so that it can make faithful decisions, and, at times, of exercising leadership to help make things happen that may only occur because of the role the transitional leader occupies.  The touchstones suggest, “Attend to these things.”  But each transitional leader needs to be contextually responsive and, undoubtedly, how they approach the uncovering and consideration of things hidden will be unique to them. 

Terry Foland once wrote that when a congregation’s change is met with intention and transitional leadership to help guide the process, then the moment can become “a time for growth, helpful evaluation, a time to consider useful changes and a time to set new direc­tions that enhance and revitalize a congregation.”***  May we embrace these possibilities and more in our work as transitional leaders, committing to intentional exploration and mindful of the touchstones, but always ready to meet the moment creatively and innovatively as the context demands. 

*Terry Foland, IBT 9 (September 1996), the In-Between Times newsletter of IMN. 

**Terry Foland, “The Marks of a Healthy Church,” Congregations magazine from the Alban Institute, November/December 2002, pp. 24-25.

***Terry Foland, IBT 2 (August 1989), the In-Between Times newsletter of IMN.

Published June 9, 2023 – IMN E-Letter – Request for permission to reprint: send to IMN, 1001 Frederick Road, Catonsville, Maryland 21228 or