A Gap and a Bridge

A Gap and a Bridge

What happens to a congregation when a pastor leaves? It may feel as though there is a gap that must be filled as soon as possible. After all, there are worship services to plan and carry out, Sacraments to administer, sick calls to make… the life of the church does not stop, and congregation members scramble to keep things together. There may be a sense of urgency to find a replacement pastor but, sometimes, this hiatus can be a God-given opportunity to reevaluate and redirect ministry.

Enter an Intentional Interim Ministry (IIM) pastor on the scene. IIM pastors are trained specifically for the purpose of helping a congregation during a vacancy. For some people, the term “Intentional Interim” may bring up the notion that this type of ministry is only used when there is trouble—such as when there are contentions in the congregation that caused the pastor to leave. That can certainly be one of the uses for a specifically trained minister, but IIM pastor Jim Eggert says that “Intentional Interim pastors are used for a variety of reasons, including simply to give a congregation time to reflect on its past, sort out lessons to be learned, and plan for its future. Sometimes members are sensing a need for re-focusing, and sometimes they are not.”

What does an IIM pastor do?

Rev. Steve Schilke, an IIM pastor who finished his 5th assignment in 2015, says that intentional ministry can be used in almost any situation of vacancy. He explains: “Sometimes, when a long-time pastor who served well leaves, there is grieving, and an IIM pastor can help transition to a new pastor and a new way of doing things; he can take care of emotional attachments and maybe smooth over rough spots.”  

When there are contentions among congregation members, Rev. Schilke explains how these specially trained pastors can be helpful: “IIM pastors can help two factions of a congregation come together and get over some of the grief, sorrow, anger, or whatever is there. They can ask tough questions because they’re free from attachments. People know that the IIM pastor will leave after a while, so they can freely talk about the ‘elephants in the room’ and resolve emotional issues.”

Rev. Gary Siefert, who began serving as an IIM pastor two years ago, says the primary task of the IIM pastor “is the same as of the settled pastor: administration of the Means of Grace. His primary responsibility is preaching and teaching. However, because of the nature of the program, he also has the duty of leading the congregation to foresee where they would like to go into the future.”

Rev. Dr. Robert E. Kasper, Michigan District’s Interim Ministry Director, further explains:

The IIM pastor INTENTIONALLY prepares the congregation for a new beginning with their new pastor. (…) He makes every effort to immerse himself in the congregation’s system, while staying outside the system in order to provide objective diagnosis and healing through intentional use of Law and Gospel. A trained IIM pastor ‘begins with the end in mind.’ He comes to the congregation knowing he is the temporary shepherd and not eligible to become the settled pastor. His sole purpose is to bring the congregation to the best outcome, which is well defined at the outset of the interim. Therefore, the congregation has everything to gain, and the IIM pastor has nothing to lose.”

Sometimes, the vacancy simply affords the congregation an opportunity to reevaluate its ministry. Rev. Siefert observes that congregations are organisms that are constantly changing: “Whether they’re growing or dying, they’re always changing. It’s highly advisable to get an IIM to reflect on where they’ve come from and they’re going; whether to stay on the same path or choose a different one. The congregation and the community around it change. Every few years they should reassess ministry and purpose by asking, ‘Why are we here?’”

The Process

What does an Intentional Interim Ministry look like in practice? Even though there is no “canned” way of approaching it (since every congregation is different), there are certain steps an IIM pastor might take with the congregation. According to Rev. Siefert, the congregation has to look at its own history in order to understand where it is. Together with the IIM, the congregation explores its pastoral and growth history. Then it examines its personality and try to answer the question: “Why does the congregation want to go from A to B to C?” Rev. Siefert adds that “the responsibility of the IIM pastor is not to take them there, but to show how they themselves can achieve that goal; to show that they should not expect any particular pastor to take them to that goal, but how they can get there on their own.”

Once the congregation goes through the process, it writes its profile, which helps determine what kind of pastor it can and should call. Ultimately, according to Rev. Siefert, the purpose of the IIM pastor is to help the congregation answer two questions: “Who are you going to call as a settled pastor and why?”

Results

What do congregations have to say about IIM? Faith, Port Huron, was recently served by IIM pastor Steve Schilke. Faith’s Church Council Chair, Curt Jevens, wrote on April 18, 2015: “As a result of [Rev. Schilke’s] and our work here, it appears we are receiving a new pastor hopefully in the next few months from one of our seminaries, which we are very excited and grateful for. … It has been a pleasure to get to know Pastor over this past year and we are feeling a sense of calm in our congregation, as well as a renewed sense of mission.”

In the congregation Rev. Eggert is presently serving, they had a year-end evaluation, which included responses from Elders, Church Council Members, and Interim Task Force Members. He says, “On a five-point scale (with 5 being ‘yes, definitely’) the response average was 4.85 to this question: ‘Do you think the congregation is in a better condition for calling a pastor than it was a year ago?’ I would say that attests to the value of going through a process to re-focus and set sight on a future direction in preparation for calling a pastor.” Rev. Siefert concurs: “I’d highly encourage any vacant congregation to seriously consider an IIM pastor (…) It’s a very, very rewarding ministry for both congregations and clergy who participate in it.”

For inquiries about Intentional Interim Ministry, please contact Dr. Kasper at the District Office: robert.kasper@michigandistrict.org or 734.213.4230.

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