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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — Coping with, and leading through, change

You know how when you're going on vacation, and you leave, and there's this nagging feeling that you left behind something really important as you're getting on the road two hours later than planned, and it's downright eating at you until you finally just say to heck with it and give it to God?

That would be what happened to Ask the Matriarch last week (she said, very sheepishly), and so, without further ado, here it is for THIS week, with humblest apologies in particular to our question-asker:

I am an associate pastor and just found out recently that my senior pastor is leaving at the beginning of August. I've already asked if there is an expectation that I too will leave, either around the same time or by the time a new installed pastor arrives, and have been told there is not that expectation but that I will hopefully be a calm presence, a little continuity in the transition, and then I can decide when a new pastor is installed (which could be 6 months, a year, or more after this one leaves) whether to stay or go.

I know there will be some congregational panic when this news is announced. The last senior pastor was here 31 years, this one has been here 4. The last interim period involved two interims who were really terrible and allowed a lot of dysfunction to continue--the SP and I have worked really hard with this congregation to bring them to a healthy and positive-energy place.

So I guess my questions are really: What are some good coping tips for me during this transition time? Are there any ways I can deal with the panic that is coming? How do I help the congregation through the grieving process until (or even while) we get an interim? What kinds of things should I be sure to ask for or about as we approach this transition? The SP and I have already talked about encouraging the session to keep my job description the same and to get an interim quickly, rather than thinking I can just take over responsibility for the whole congregation but get paid the same. What else do I need to ask about/be aware of/plan for? And how do I go about planning for my programs for the fall, and how do we go about worship planning (we plan 8 weeks ahead, due to musician issues) when we won't know anything about the pastor/preaching/etc.?

Our matriarchs agree that whether you decide to stay through the transition or go is something that you should get out of the way first, but if you decide to stay, others have been through this before and, as a result, there are resources you can tap to help smooth the process. Getting someone who specializes in interim ministry, laying out a transition plan, and continuing on as close to normal as possible are all key things. Here are some tips and advice from our matriarchs:

From Peripatetic Polar Bear:
The first things that I would suggest are these:

a) I would hope that SP, you and the key congregation leaders (sounds like that's the session for you) and your denominational liaison (again, assuming Presbyterianism, that would be someone from the COM) would sit down shortly to have a "transition planning meeting" where you iron out all the details of the plan. Once these things are ironed out, a letter needs to get out to the congregation outlining this plan. We have a lot of denomination hoppers, and things like pastoral changes make it really evident that denominations handle such things differently.

b) While you hope there will be an interim who steps in the day the pastor leaves, be sure to get an understanding that if you need to be acting solo pastor for 3-6 weeks, there will be extra compensation for that short period--some churches pay extra, some give additional vacation or continuing education money/time. Whatever it is, even if it's "just" 3 weeks, if you're doing two jobs at once, have a plan for some just compensation for that. And seriously consider utilizing pulpit supply for those couple of weeks, if they happen--doing all the pastoral care and program does not leave much time to plan a sermon.

c) Worship planning should go on as usual, with the understanding that the new interim might change things other than music. But you don't want to stop planning ahead and then have to scramble--so stick to business as usual. Same with your programs. Go ahead and plan like normal. It will be important, in a time of transition for you to be trucking along like normal.

d) I would check your vacation schedules carefully. You do not want to be on vacation in the first few weeks of an interim. He or she needs to get acclimated to a 2 pastor church.

e) Carve out time to meet with SP before he or she leaves. Ask about references (if you want to use him/her in the future), get information that you haven't needed to have so far--major pastoral care situations that he or she has dealt with, locations of keys or documents that you haven't needed. Yes, there will be an interim, but you're going to be the institutional memory for a while.

Have fun!

Ann says:

Easy to fall into panic thinking of every thing that has to happen in the next year and feeling like it all has to be done now. First: breathe. Take it one day at a time, one moment at a time - planning is good, and can help stave off panic. Read some good systems theory books. Friedman's Generation to Generation: Family process in church and synagogue, is the original but sort of long. Peter Steinke has written many shorter and more accessible books for the busy pastor.

Most denominations have materials on the work of an interim time for a congregation. The tasks for churches in times of transition are:
1) to connect with their history
2) assess and clarify their current identity (not some imagined one)
3) review leadership needs and raise up new leaders as needed
4) strengthen denominational ties—lots of opportunities if your denominational leaders have resources,
5) commitment to a new future (letting go of that which might have been or will never be - the grief work)

The basic stance for you is to be a non-anxious presence reassuring the congregation that they have the gifts to see them through this time. Even if you feel like the sky is falling, take those feelings to your spiritual director or peer group. Do not get into triangulation situations. When the new Interim Pastor arrives (and pray that she or he has some training in interim ministry), make a plan together and agree on how you will communicate. You stand between the old and the new - the "family" and the "stranger" - be very clear about you responsibilities and model the kind of behavior you want to see in the church.

Abi says:
Do you want to stay where you are? Is God calling you to stay or go? I think that is the first thing you have to decide, and then you can go from there. And if God is calling you to stay, then what is God's vision for your work there through this next transition? I think it is good that you have asked the governing body if there is an expectation for you to leave. And it would be important to continue to work with them about what they expect from you, and to monitor on a regular basis if that is still applicable or not. When your focus is clear, it can help keep your anxiety down, and can help you refocus when you feel like you have gotten off focus. And if you all are working together, and being clear about expectations then that can help keep the anxiety down too. Communication. Communication.

I am not so sure that instead of jumping in and getting an interim, just to get an interim, that the governing body needs to get clear about their role and their expectations of an interim. And that they might want to even work on being healthy as to how they will handle their anxiety and the anxiety of the church members so as not to allow dysfunction to happen again. They can maybe work through Peter Steinke's Healthy Congregations. Or have someone come and work with them on these issues.

Then I would add; lots of time in meditation and prayer. Even a Spiritual Guide can help you to monitor your anxiety, your being in touch with God and self.

Plan around the lectionary the best you can. Plan your programs the best you can. This again can be communicated with the governing body and the different teams.

Do we have anyone specializing in interim ministry who might want to comment? Or have you seen this in your experience? Please feel free to share your own wisdom in the comments. As always, we welcome your questions on ministry at


  1. I know in my ELCA synod we have trained resource people -- pastors with that specialty, as well as trained laypeople -- available to help churches navigate through interim periods. I'd encourage anyone whose congregation is going through this process to seek out help from their denomination.

    Something I've noticed is that newcomers/returnees to churchgoing seem to have an especially difficult time with clergy transitions -- I think because they've not been through it before, and/or because oftentimes they're emotionally invested (perhaps because of positive pastoral care during a difficult time) in a particular clergyperson rather than in the congregation as a whole. I wonder how the rest of us can be more sensitive to this, and keep those new members on board when a beloved pastor/priest moves on.

  2. Weighing in from the vantage point of an Interim Minister: I have to disagree with Abi about waiting to get an Interim. That "in between" time is very hard on a church as it only ramps up the uncertainty. We have a shortage of available interims in my Conference, and we're seeing more churches have to get by with supply for an extended period of time. I have to believe that if it's at all possible, getting the Interim in place in a timely fashion is crucial.
    And in this particular case, where there is an Associate Pastor, there is a risk of the job being "unofficially" given to the AP whether or not they hire an interim, which creates systems confusion, too. We don't want the church to take advantage of the Associate! I liked the advice about being very clear about AP duties and being paid for additional duties as specified over the short term.

  3. Encourage the congregation's leaders and denominational liasons to keep everybody informed. This was amazingly helpful during a recent transition time in our community. A bulletin board was set aside specifically for reporting on what was planned for the transitional period, the process for finding an interim pastor, where we were in the process week by week, what the procedure for finding an installed pastor would be, etc. etc. It was very useful in relieving anxiety and in keeping us from dividing into a group that was "on the inside" of the process and a group of the rest of us.

  4. This situation happened to me in my last call. The congregation's practical and emotional relationship with me changed, as I became The One Who Knows Them (and knew how things were supposed to work).

    I strongly urged the congregational leadership that we needed intentional interim, but we had a bad experience with our synod when trying to arrange for an interim (the synod saw nothing wrong with me acting as the interim, and just taking care of everything myself). In my experience, you really have to be your own best advocate, and have to be careful to take really good care of yourself.

  5. Dear Sisters,
    I'm 2 months into my first Interim after 30 years in ministry. Whee.
    Good advice has come before these words but I suggest that you understand that they WILL hire a head of staff and the staying/or going on your part when that happens is probably going to be based on her/his desires and how the two of you work together. Sometimes a new head of staff holds suspicions of a residing associate pastor and that would have to be dealt with.
    And so deciding whether you want to stay 'after' the new pastor is hired, is important to discern on your part and take the proper steps to cover your bases.
    Form very very very clear boundaries when the Interim comes in and then the HoS when that happens.
    There will be those who will want you to front for them. The "not triangulating" suggestion is so very important. (I have a card with a triangle on my desk with a line thru it...and so does my secretary.)
    I'm amazed the first head of staff staying 4 years after the last one was there 31. Good work was done there for sure.

    and do B r e a t h e
    God abides


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