4 Good Reasons to Pause and Hire an Intentional Interim

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1) Dealing with Binary Thinking – Contemporary congregations often find that they are recruiting against a background of decline or anxiety about decline. Whether receiving transfer growth from declining congregations, or losing members to neighboring churches or to the post-institutional realm, church-members may have an unspoken awareness that congregational life is a declining aspect of Christianity in the West.

If a congregation begins to sense a declining trend within its own gathered life – or feel that the congregation’s relevance or attractiveness to the community has dipped – it will often be tempted to simplify the picture and look for a single cause (an albatross) and a single cure (a silver bullet.) In moments of pressure in their desire to find an albatross people may point to the current pastor, and for a silver bullet to a new pastor!

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An intentional interim has the task of enabling the congregation to pause. In this pause (s)he will draw this conversation out, to allow the people to see the wider picture, get a sense of what are the layers in the story and so avoid this kind of binary thinking.

If this binary thinking is left unaltered then when the new pastor fails to act like a silver bullet the pastor will find they have been automatically re-designated by the alternate category of albatross. This is not a role anyone will wish to occupy for any length of time! “We employed you to turn things round. but you haven’t. In fact we’re still declining! Fix it!!”

Interestingly, I know of a denominational region in Australia which has been in consistent numerical decline over the last two decades. For over more than a decade of that period the average tenure of a senior pastor has been two and half years. That’s just long enough for a new pastor to go through a single silver-bullet/albatross cycle!

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I have been meeting recently with, Don, the pastor of a semi-rural, independent congregation. By the end of his first 12 months, Don found that the Diaconate had shifted him from the silver bullet category to the albatross category. (I should mention that Don is a very capable and experienced pastor.) The deacons made this call because, evidently in his first 12 months Don hadn’t “fixed” the many layers of social, ideological, and generational challenges confronting his and almost every western church in the 21st century.

The Diaconate made clear to Don that he has been redesignated in a meeting which laid the declining trend (a trend unaltered in the last decade) squarely on the new pastor’s shoulders. Without acknowledging the longer picture and the many  and various layers of challenge impinging on them, the deacons have graciously allowed Don a 12 month window to fix them all! If he fails to deliver and reverse all those societal dynamics, then Don is assured the deacons will be looking for a proper silver bullet pastor!

From the outside it’s easy to perceive wrong thinking in the Diaconate’s process. But from inside that little community of faith – lacking the dispassionate perspective of an outside voice – all that judgment being piled on the new pastor would appear to make perfect sense!

If, prior to Don’s arrival, the congregation had undertaken the very simple exercise of white-boarding together the various challenges contributing to the church’s decline, mapping the timeline too, even that simple activity would have positioned the people better to engage intelligently with their new pastor without the binary mindset that has scuppered relationships on the leadership team so quickly for Don. It is a very simple exercise but it can contribute significantly towards a far more collaborative experience as the new pastor and congregation get into exploring the way ahead.

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2) Time Check – Another great reason to pause is that, if the previous pastor left after a fruitful 10 years, say, still looking to the people like a silver bullet, the congregation may wish to replicate him/her. However the outgoing pastor may have left because they felt that they had made their contribution and saw that the needs of the church, looking ahead, were not needs they were equipped to meet.

So looking for a repeat of the previous pastor threatens to fail on two counts. Firstly, if the previous pastor arrived in 2008, then looking for another-pastor-the-same would be to recruit for the needs of 2008 and not for today. Secondly, if the congregation replicates the previous pastor then they will have appointed somebody who will find that the needs of the church looking ahead are needs they are not equipped to meet – if they really are wired the same way as the previous pastor.

This is why it is helpful for the church to pause between pastors and allow an intentional interim to work through with the people to a new awareness of today’s needs, today’s missional environment, the make-up of today’s congregation and be absolutely sure that the selection criteria match 2018 and not 2008.

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Assessing the season in life of their people is another vital aspect of the kind of time-telling a pastoral search team will need to do. Perhaps in 2015 the congregation had 10 families who were pioneers, generators and leaders of ministry. But if in 2018 those same families now each have a child in Sunday morning sport and three evenings a week booked for team commitments, they may now be people needing to receive ministry rather than be leading ministries. So the leadership and pastoral needs of the church can shift dramatically in a relatively short time.

So even to recruit for 2015 in 2018 can throw up a significant mismatch. If changes of this nature are not taken account of a congregation can significantly miscalculate how much leadership energy the new pastor can bank on from among the people – and therefore misdiagnose what shape the new pattern of ministry will need to take. These changes will directly impact the PD for the new pastor. This is where an interim audit can pay enormous dividends.

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3) Health Check – Not only does the environment in which the church operates need a good look at, but issues in the life and health of the church might need an honest going over before recruiting the new pastor. Another reason why a guided pause can be helpful. Often in taking on a promising new pastor a church will tend to gloss over complex, endemic issues optimistically hoping that the uplift of an energetic new pastor will cancel out any underlying issues that really ought to have been addressed before.

The new pastor may have the acuity to identify these unresolved issues and say, “Wait a minute, you’ve got some problems here. We need to deal with these before we can get far with anything else, or strike out in new directions!” When this happens a congregation a diaconate or an eldership board can feel embarrassed – especially if root and branch action is then needed, and a lot of conflict, guilt, resentment and anger can get all mushed together. Suddenly things will be much tougher going than the people had expected and they can cry out or act up in the distress of it.

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Put simply, this is not a part of the journey that anyone put their hands up for. They had hoped that the new pastor would be able to swiftly carry them away from having to wade through a layer of the story they would prefer to avoid – and which they feel depleted by having to consider. (In reality complexity of these underlying issues may even be the reason the previous pastor decided to move on.)

The new pastor is then often scapegoated for the pain of these issues and the discomfort of this part of the journey.“The church isn’t feeling happy. And it’s been since you came and therefore you must be the problem!” When that is the perception sometimes a stalemate dynamic can set in – because how can a pastor be creative and thrive when laboring under that kind of disapproval?!

This is why it is far more helpful for the voice that says, “Wait a minute, you’ve got some problems here. We need to deal with these first…” to be the voice of an Intentional Interim – not the voice of the new pastor.

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4) Avoiding Transference – Another good reason to pause is to avoid the fairly common problems of transference for the new pastor. This can be done in a fairly tight time- frame in two or three consultations.

When a pastor moves on naturally people are going to miss the previous pastor and, hopefully, will remember all that was good about them. there is a grieving process that has to run a certain course before a more nuanced telling of the previous chapter can be expressed. They may not wish to recall the pastor’s faults, omissions, mistakes, gaffes, frustrating quirks, issues left unresolved etc. Then comes the new pastor who most likely will wish to present their most disarming face as they get to know their new parishioners. To his/her surprise the new pastor may find that they are soon being lambasted for attitudes or approaches that they genuinely cannot identify as their own.

“You always guillotine discussion on the board.” “You hold the pulpit too tightly!” “You don’t show any interest in the youth ministry!” “You’re too controlling.” “You don’t respect the elders.” “You give the junior pastors too much rope.” “You’re unapproachable.” “You’re too slow in responding to problems.” “You’re not doing enough visiting!” 

This is transference – and it can happen in  at least a couple of ways:

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Reactive Transference

With this pattern all the frustrations that church members had wanted to voice to the previous pastor during his/her tenure but couldn’t, they now make sure to speak out unapologetically to the new pastor – whether or not those frustrations bear any relation at all to the shape of the new pastor.  Most of the time this transference is done subconsciously.

The underlying emotion may be along the lines of “I have had enough of being controlled!” or “I am not listening to any more hype!” – not registering that it was in reality the previous pastor who maxed them out in those ways, or that what has hit that raw nerve in the present is in fact something quite minor or innocent. They don’t notice how out of proportion their response is to the actual stimulus in front of them. They only know – and they know viscerally – that they have zero patience left for whatever the thing is. (Zero patience is another way of saying zero grace!)

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Preemptive Transference

In this scenario the new pastor may find him/herself unexpectedly attacked for something that might appear not to be a problem at all. Imagine, for instance that Aaron, the new pastor, invites staff one day in his first month of tenure to each share something they are praying for in the area of their own portfolio. Suddenly Todd, the Assimilation Pastor, riles up and says, “Aaron, please don’t get us to be all fake and false, talking as if we’re intimate friends and wanting to share all our deep secrets and anxieties with each other. We really don’t need that. The fact is we’re actually here to do specific work! And it’s work we’re already able and motivated to do. Some of us have been on this team for 10 years or more! So we already know each other well enough to work together…if you will allow us the time to stop shooting the breeze and just get on with it!”

Now Aaron might go home thinking, “What in the world did I do wrong?” What he doesn’t know is that his predecessor had spent half of every week for 300 weeks in a row asking his staff to “share” and eating into their work time with amiable but unproductive conversation. Now, in this scenario Todd is not confused about who he is angry with. He is simply trying nip something in the bud. In his mind he is simply acting early to prevent any repeat of what happened with the previous pastor! That’s why his reaction was out of proportion. But the out-of-order instruction to his new boss and the force of emotion behind it sets the new pastoral relationship on a poor footing and leaves Aaron feeling like he’s walking on eggshells.

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Both with reactive and pre-emptive tranference the emotional dysfunction of the previous tenure gets unwittingly transferred into the new pastoral tenure.

These kinds of Transference may sound complex. Yet they can easily be avoided. If a church will simply pause and take the time over a couple of sessions with an Intentional Interim, simply answering questions like, “What did we really appreciate about previous pastor N?” and “What were the things we found most challenging or even annoying?” “What problems facing the church were left unresolved through the previous tenure?” (In fact as I write a relation of mine is in just such a conversation with the pastoral search team at her church. They have positioned that conversation right at the start of their process.)

If these things can be named in love and good humour and a spirit of thankfulness, often that is all it takes to clear the air, get all that steam vented, and free up expectations before the new pastor arrives.

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Conclusion

These pauses have to do with facilitating a process of closure at the end of the previous tenure, enabling an honest engagement with the now of the church’s journey, and setting the church up with the healthiest of expectations ready to welcome and champion the different input, style and directions that will come with the new appointment.

They are not difficult processes to engage with when provided by a good facilitator or interim. But when not attended to a church only sows difficulty into the foundations of the next chapter without knowing that’s what it’s doing. Four very good reasons why a pause is really a wise and fruitful investment of time. It paves the way for a better future.

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