There isn’t one type of interim that is best for all churches. Each type of interim brings something specific to the table. The key is to determine which is best for your church to take it to the next level of ministry and mission. For many, the term ‘interim’ brings to mind negative feelings of waiting. However, this critical ‘meanwhile’ time may actually be what many of our churches need to jumpstart a new passion for gospel proclamation and witness.
For the past year I have had the privilege of serving as interim teaching pastor at Moody Church in Chicago. It’s been a fascinating experience and I am continually amazed at the people there and the legacy of the church. But having worked as a pastor in different contexts and watching trends and challenges that churches face, I can say with full conviction that when a church goes through a time of leadership transition, it can be difficult.
I’ve served as an interim for six different churches, from 9000 members to 35 people attending on a Sunday. Sometimes, the interim has been just serving a healthy church; sometimes, it’s been in a time of much tumult.
How a church goes through that time can determine a great deal about its future. As the key leader of the church, the pastor is a key to church stability, so when there is not a pastor in place, it can give rise to issues that require a pastoral heart, head, and hands. The time between pastors can test the mettle of the church. This time can certainly be a hurdle, but it can also be a ramp.
When a pastor leaves (or retires from) a church, it is common for the lay leaders to find someone to fill in until a new pastor is chosen. This is called an ‘interim’ pastor. The origin of the word ‘interim’ is a Latin term meaning ‘meanwhile’. Although it is easy to be discouraged when a good pastor leaves, the fact that there is an interim means there is an expectation that the church is not done.
I don’t know if there has ever been research on it, but my observation has been that the average time a church spends without a pastor is 6-18 months. During this time, most churches will try to install an interim. There are various types of interim pastors; let me share three of the most common types that I’ve seen, and a couple of partners that can assist the interim.
When someone hears the phrase, ‘interim pastor,’ most people think of a leader who comes in simply to keep things going until the new pastor arrives. This type of interim basically preaches on Sunday morning as the rest of the church continues with leaders in place. Some churches and denominations have a fairly smooth process for installing a new pastor and may just need someone to lead during the time that it takes the new pastor to sell a house, move, etc. This interim may be a lay leader within the church who has some pastoral background. A standard interim may be so for a few weeks to a couple of months.
Such an interim is to ‘fill in the gap’ by preaching on Sundays, overseeing the care ministries of the church, and maybe assisting the search committee. This interim may be pastor-now-professor, a local retired preacher, or an evangelist who is not looking to take on a pastorate, but also does not want to see a church flounder during the transition time. This interim often has a chaplain’s heart and approach and is not there to stir anything up, but to nurture along the way to the next stop in the church’s journey. This interim may be in place for a few months up to a few years. (The shortest interim I did was for three months. The longest was for two years.)
Interim Teaching Pastor
The teaching interim is a pastor who primarily uses the role in the pulpit as a way to preach/teach biblical principles that will strengthen the church and sharpen its focus as it prepares for the next leader. This interim will not be involved as much in the day-to-day workings of the church, but neither is this interim just filling in until the church gets their next pastor.