In my ministry I’ve had the privilege of serving as an interim pastor at ten churches. Those churches varied from 75 in attendance to 750. Some of the churches were in good shape, while others were in great turmoil. An interim pastor serves as the regular preacher at a church between the tenures of two pastors. My friend, Dr. Bill Whitaker once said to me, “You are really the interim preacher, not the interim pastor.” At some churches that was true; about all I did was preach regularly. However, at some churches I did counseling, consulting with committees, and some visiting in the community (on a limited basis).
I believe that when a church loses its pastor, the church should call an interim pastor. Usually, the interim pastor is a retired pastor, college/seminary professor, or denominational servant. I’ve known some churches that decided not to call an interim; rather, they just invited a different preacher each week. In those situations, the churches declined significantly. An interim pastor provides continuity and stability.
An interim pastor can help the church recover from hurts. Sometimes, a beloved pastor has died suddenly or left to go to another church. The members feel hurt and grief, and they need an interim who can help them process their grief and heal. Other churches have experienced a split, and they need both healing and reconstruction. One church I served split about a month before I was called to be the interim. At the first business meeting I attended, the church granted “letters” to 185 members who joined the break-away congregation. Now that will bless your heart! At that church, every church officer left except the WMU President. (I’m glad she did not leave. She was a good cook and often invited me for Sunday lunch.) So, we had to recreate the entire church organization—deacons, Sunday school, and everything., Of course, that took a while. Those members were angry, hurt, and confused. For sure, they needed help.
Many state Baptist conventions have an intentional interim program. This is a program for distressed churches. The interim pastors who serve in these programs have considerable education and experience, and the state convention trains them to help struggling churches. I have not received this training, but I’ve heard good things about it.
In some churches, the interim will find a situation, or situations, that need resolution before the next pastor comes. For example, a professor friend became the interim at a small church. The church had two men who served as ushers. One was living with a woman out of wedlock, and the other was a Mormon. He dealt with that swiftly. At a church I served, the deacons complained to me that the prospective pastors they interviewed all asked about the church’s vacation policy. They grumbled, “Bro. Smith never asked for a vacation.” So, I asked, “How many of you take a vacation each year?” They all raised their hands. I then inquired, “Don ‘t you think that does you some good?” They admitted that it did. At which I asked, “Don’t you think it might do the new pastor some good?” Actually, Bro. Smith did take a vacation each year; he just combined it with his trip to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. The interim pastor does not depend on the church for his primary income, so he can confront issues that beg for resolution.
When a church has had a pastor for many years, an interim can help the members adjust to the loss of the pastor and prepare the way for the new pastor. I believe it just takes folks some time to adjust to the loss of a pastor who served a long time. For example, it is common wisdom among Baptist preachers that you don’t want to be the pastor to follow a legend; you want to be the second pastor that follows him. A long interim can help alleviate that problem.
An interim pastor can also advise the pastor search committee. For example, at one of my churches the committee asked me about a couple of resumes they had received. The committee said, “We have never heard of these seminaries.” Well, there was a good reason why not. Two of the applicants had listed diploma mill seminaries—you know the ones where you send $100 and you get an Master of Divinity diploma back in the mail. I advised them to disregard those candidates and concentrate on candidates with real credentials.
I enjoyed serving as an interim pastor, and I believe I was able to help the churches I served. What has been your experience with interim pastors? Or, perhaps you have served as an interim pastor. Do you have any tales to tell?