Editorial Note: Although Pastor Paul Schmidt is not a credentialed intentional interim minister in the LCMS, he is a member of NALIP, the National Association of Lutheran Interim Pastors, and has participated in its annual meetings. Pastor Schmidt served churches in Bingen, Washington; Greenacres, Washington; Murray, Utah; and Spokane Washington. From 1986 to 1995 he served as mission executive of the Northwest District of the LCMS. Since retirement he has served interim pastorates in Wahiawa, Hawaii; Yakima, Washington; Oregon City, Oregon; Vancouver, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Tualatin, Oregon; Kennewick, Washington; and Beaverton, Oregon. He is the co-author with David Belasic of The Penguin Principles: A Survival Manual for Clergy Seeking Maturity in Ministry.)
Although the following document was originally written to provide some practical suggestions for intentional interim ministers in the Northwest District of the LCMS, Christian church leaders everywhere will find some helpful ideas for putting their theology into practice. My experience has only been in congregations of less than 400 people per Sunday.
When I serve a congregation in an intentional interim ministry, I follow the Developmental Tasks listed in chapter 4 of Critical Moment of Ministry: A Change of Pastors by Loren Mead, an Alban Institute publication.
For publication purposes I reduce the number of developmental tasks from five to three:
- Coming to terms with history or reviewing the history of the congregation
- Discovering a new identity or evaluating the strengths of the congregation
- Commitment to new directions in ministry or setting goals for the future
Encouraging needed leadership change is, in my opinion, not the kind of task that one wants to publicize. Renewing denominational linkages happens automatically in the LCMS and does not need to be listed publicly.
Coming to Terms with History
Involve as many people as possible in the review of the congregation’s history. Look for copies of anniversary booklets. Find out when you can get as many people as possible together for a couple of sessions. Read through the history out loud and ask the people to fill in from their memory. Look for events that continue to have impact of the congregation today. Ask for written response to questions like, “How has this church been of help to you in the past?” “Has this church hurt you in any way in the past?”
In a larger congregation or a congregation with a severely conflicted history, a series of “Town Hall” meetings of about twenty-five people can provide a safer setting for discussion of the church’s history.
To involve a maximum number of people follow the group sessions with a “History Sunday” in which you summarize the history of the congregation with your evaluation. This can be done in the sermon or in five to ten minutes at the beginning of the service.
Finally, summarize it all in a newsletter article or letter to the congregation, which will give you a document that can be used in the future and in the calling of a new pastor.
Discovering a New Identity
I use the Natural Church Development Survey available from Church Smart. This survey is to be filled out by thirty leaders of the congregation. It will list eight categories of a healthy congregation and score the congregation in each one. Although this will identify both strengths and weaknesses of the congregation, identifying the strengths is the most helpful.
Another way to identify strengths is to hand out three-by-five cards on a Sunday morning and ask them to write down the reason they continue to attend this church and what they gain from it.
A congregation with an intentional interim ministry is usually thinking about their weaknesses and problems. Identifying and calling attention to their strengths is the first step to getting things turned around. Another helpful process concentrating on strengths is called “Asset Mapping” developed by Luther Snow.
A “New Identity” or “Congregation Evaluation” Sunday is an important way to involve a larger number of people in the process.
A concluding article in the newsletter or letter to the congregation reinforces this evaluation for more people and gives you another document that can be used in the future or in the process of calling a new pastor.
Commitment to New Directions in Ministry
Once again, gather as many people as possible for a number of sessions. Try not to get bogged down with distinctions between goals, objectives, targets, desired outcomes, etc. I ask for goals that are SAM: specific, attainable and measurable. Prepare some samples.
Let small groups write out as many “Goals” as possible. A total of thirty to forty goals is not too many. The important thing is to have the goals come from the people, not the interim pastor, elders or church council.
Between sessions someone may have to rewrite the goals to keep them specific, attainable and measurable and put them in a common format.
When the total number of goals is complete, ask the entire assembled group to vote on them (4 or 5 votes for each person). This will give you a prioritized list of goals.
Present the top nine or ten goals to everyone in church on a given Sunday and ask them to vote on them. “What do you believe God wants us to be doing in the future at this congregation?”
Reduce the list of goals to four or five, and present them to the voter’s assembly for adoption. The process of involving a large number of people in the goal-setting process minimizes the influence of the vocal minority and presents a powerful “goal resolution” to the voter’s assembly.
These goals didn’t come from the interim pastor. They did not come from the elders or the church council. They came from the people.
List the final goals for the congregation in a sermon on “Goal Sunday.” Write an article on “Goals” in the newsletter or in a letter to the congregation, and keep this document for use in the process of calling the new pastor.
Instead of or in addition to goals, written responses to the question, “What kind of Church do you think God wants us to become?” makes a good survey.
This process isolates and identifies the “vocal minority,” which in many cases has been standing in the way of the will of the majority for the future.
If official groups like Elders or Church Council are not able to serve the purpose, an informal Mutual Ministry Committee can be formed to help you fine tune ministry for this congregation.
Clarifying and insisting on proper procedures will take care of a lot of unhappiness in the congregation.
Majority vote is better than decisions made by an individual or a small group. Building consensus brings the greatest peace.
Sunday morning surveys will help to inform majority votes at a voter’s assembly.
Interim pastors have little influence. Save what influence you have for things that are of greatest significance. If you express too many opinions on too many different subjects, what you say about the really important things will be dismissed. Most minor problems in a church are “self-repairing” as they go through discussion and decision in a number of different settings.
Successful interim pastors have “well bitten tongues”.
Conflicts in a church are like a wound. It takes a little time to find out if they will heal by themselves, or need surgery. Surgery creates pain and discomfort, but sometimes is necessary.
Some conflicts will heal in time if no one keeps picking at the scab.
Talking about problems is best done in small groups. Surgery or treatment of wounds is rarely done in public.
Sometimes a new exciting focus will draw attention away from the wound and help you forget that it even exists.
With God’s help each congregation has within it the resources they need for a meaningful future.
Talking about what people have in common tends to build community. Concentrating on conflict publicly will tend to blow the conflicts out of proportion. Talking about Jesus has the greatest power to bring Christian people together.
Attached to the end of these notes is the information I use to explain intentional interim ministry to a congregation.
Intentional Interim Ministry
Northwest District LCMS
“Intentional” — Especially for congregations experiencing the end of a long pastorate or some special situation that needs to be worked through. An attempt to avoid the opposite, an “Unintentional Interim Ministry.”
“Interim” — A pastoral ministry for a limited period of time, part time or full time, usually nine to twelve months or until a new pastor is installed. Normally, the interim pastor is not eligible to be called as permanent pastor. The interim pastor normally does not direct the calling process in the congregation.
“Ministry” — The interim minister does all the necessary pastoral work plus leading the congregation through the following tasks:
- Study the history of the congregation.
- Determine the present strengths of the congregation.
- Set goals and objectives for the future.
After these tasks are completed the congregation begins the process of calling a new pastor.
(The time it takes to go through this process is an important factor in preparing for the new minister.)
When a pastor knows a congregation has gone through this process, he may be more favorably inclined to consider a call to be its pastor.