Over the past 25 years, a trend has been on the rise for churches going through a transitional phase in pastoral leadership, including Hillsboro churches.
Two local congregations, Trinity Mennonite Church and Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church, have both employed intentional interim pastors since July to lead during a time of regular pastoral absence.
Bill Damberg, serving at Hillsboro MB, and Orlan Koehn, at Trinity Mennonite, both say the purpose of an intentional interim pastor is to help a church overcome various issues in order to move forward.
“The reason I use the word intentional is because interim pastoring in the past was seen more as a period where maybe a retired minister would come in and be pulpit supply,” Koehn said. “But intentional interim implies there’s some intentionality to the timeframe.
“I’m not here just to hold your hand and say, ‘It’s going to be OK, we’ll get through this.’ I’m here to facilitate looking at things in their history and help them to come to terms with their history.”
Six basic issues
Damberg said there are six major issues that may lead a congregation to select an intentional interim pastor rather than a “regular” interim.
The first two issues—both conflict-based—are the most common problems an intentional interim pastor encounters.
1. Conflict between the former pastor and the congregation.
2. Conflict within the congregation.
“You might have two polarized groups or you might have three or four,” Damberg said.
3. Area demographic change.
“(The changes) may be economic, it may be racial, maybe social,” Damberg said. “An intentional interim will come in as a specialist that will help them go through that transition.
“A regular pastor is like a primary doctor you go to—a primary physician,” he added. “Then your primary will refer you to specialists depending on what your health needs are.
“So intentional interims who have some special skills and gifts and experiences can help a church work through some of the demographic changes outside its walls.”
4. The church is going through a building program.
“A lot of regular pastors aren’t skilled in the area of working with architects and fundraising and all the things that go with it,” Damberg said. “So there might be an intentional interim who has those experiences and skills, so he’ll come in just for that assignment.”
5. Strategic intervention.
Damberg said strategic intervention helps churches at a crossroad to decide where it wants to head in the future.
“We live in a society today where things change so rapidly compared to 50 years ago,” Damberg said. “Fifty, 70 years ago it took a generation for major things to go through society. Today it happens in three to five years, so the train is moving faster.
“An intentional interim may help the church to be able to identify what some of those issues are and help them to walk through them while he’s there.”
6. A long-time pastor leaves.
This situation would apply, Damberg said, to churches who have had the same pastor for 10 or more years.
If a church has a good experience with a pastor for an extended period of time, an issue that can arise is transference of loyalty.
“The church needs to have an intentional interim to help them have a buffer until the next pastor comes and help them to process through the previous pastor’s ministry,” Damberg said.
If a congregation doesn’t transfer loyalty to the new pastor, that can cause problems, Damberg said.
“That causes the next pastor to become what’s called the unintentional interim pastor because the people don’t transfer loyalty,” he said.
Ultimately, this can shorten the stay of the new pastor.
A use of church history
While an intentional interim can use many strategies to help a church work through major issues, Koehn said he makes a lot of use out of the church’s history.
“If they’ve had some good things or painful things, all those things make who they are,” Koehn said. “Coming to terms with their history helps them then move into the next step of redefining who they are.”
Koehn describes himself as a facilitator, consultant, pastor and counselor to his temporary church.
“In addition to the normal things you’d expect from a pastor, I wear a consultation hat, I wear a facilitation hat, I wear a counseling hat,” he said. “It’s a ministry of reconciliation. I try to guide people and lead people in those directions.”
But he said that despite the hat he is wearing at a given time, his work always revolves around the church history.
“Churches are a lot like families,” he said. “It’s just that in a church context, the church is made up of a lot of different family systems.
“Those unique and different family systems bring an agenda to the church family, so there’s tremendous potential for good, but there’s also potential for being pulled in different ways,” he said.
“Some of the same dynamics that work in family relations and even on just one-on-one relationships among human beings, are things I try to highlight and move that into the context of the church with a spiritual dimension to it.”
Positives and negatives
Both Damberg and Koehn said a temporary placement has many positive and negative aspects to it. Despite specific organizational needs, some aspects of the job remain the same from church to church.
Both pastors say they enjoy the relationships that are developed during each tenure.
“You meet a lot of people that you develop friendships with and you keep in contact with some of them when you leave,” Damberg said.
Damberg also said he likes the affirmation of a job well-done.
“One of the things we’ve found is that people are grateful for the ministry involvement that you have in a church,” Damberg said.
“It’s a relief for them to have an intentional interim come and work with them for a specified period of time, so there’s that sense of affirmation, of appreciation.
“Plus, there’s a satisfaction I have with myself when a ministry is done and you leave, that you’ve helped them along.”
Koehn also spoke of enjoying the freedom to explore the sensitive issues of the church without repercussion.
“It feels like if the congregation calls and says they want to have an intentional interim pastor, they have given me permission to come in and ask the hard questions,” Koehn said.
He said because the congregation allows him to ask hard questions, he is able to form deeper bonds in a short amount of time.
“We don’t have to mess around with the politics,” he said.
“I’m very concerned about relationships, too,” Koehn said. “The way I build a relationship is try to be authentic with people and real with them.”
While there are many positives that come with the career, a pitfall comes with continuously withdrawing from a congregation.
“We do bond with people deeper than we realize because of the nature of intentional interim work,” Koehn said. “And so to leave, that is always hard.”
He also said it’s difficult for the congregation to let go.
“It is a challenge for the congregation, as a rule, to let go of us,” Koehn said, “especially if we’ve been able to help them in some ways that they feel good about.”