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The Particular Roles of Interim Pastors

The Billings Gazette featured an article discussing interim pastors and the particular roles they play. The article begins:

Billings pastors Tom Hall, Joel Westby and Aline Russell enjoy getting together once a month to chat.

None of the three recent acquaintances will be in town for more than a year or two, and they come from different faiths.

What they have in common is that their pulpit is temporary. They are intentional interim pastors, specially trained to work with churches that are between pastors, to lead the congregations through a series of steps, and possibly some healing, on their way to calling a permanent minister.

“An interim comes in for a limited amount of time and hits the ground running to learn as much as he can about the church within a short period of time and then shares these observations and suggestions for areas to work on and areas where they are doing well,” Hall said.

The article explains that interim pastors often help congregations align their spiritual or emotional relationships, as well as examine the congregation’s identity and mission.

One of the pastors, Aline Russell, uses the congregation’s culture to attempt these difficult decisions. From the article:

St. Andrew’s longtime pastor left a year ago in September, and a series of supply ministers have filled the pulpit since then. Russell hopes to help the congregation develop a vision for the future. The church, which draws 35 to 55 people on a weekend, is aging.

“That’s one of the issues, looking into the future, because they’re losing people through death or disability,” Russell said. “That’s a concern to everybody, what to do about that.”

Russell has started meeting with church members one on one. Her next step is to meet with the church as a whole. At an annual dinner that celebrates the close of the stewardship campaign, Russell plans to give members a chance to talk about what characterizes the church as it is and where it wants to head in the future.

“The reason I chose the celebration dinner is because I thought we would have a good number of the members there, at least the more active ones, to have that discussion,” she said.

Pastor Aline began by meeting with congregants one on one, presumably because in that manner she could work to better understand who the congregants think they are and what the congregants view as the future of the church. By having those conversations individually, she is able to ask more probing questions, ask specific details, and there is a lower likelihood of the congregants becoming defensive. By then having a broader conversation during the annual dinner, she is tying the stewardship campaign — an annual fund-raising campaign — with a discussion about the future health and vitality of the congregation. In this way, she is aligning a particular congregational tradition with her goal for having this broader conversation about the life of the church.

Through better understanding where the congregation is, in terms of the physical surrounding neighborhood (ecology), the modes in which they get things done (process), and the financial, physical, and membership resources the congregation has to offer, Pastor Russell can use her time as an interim minister to praise strengths and attempt to resolve conflicts and weaknesses.

In what ways do you find it useful to align discussions about the future with longstanding traditions or important rituals? What sorts of questions do you think Pastor Aline should ask at the annual dinner?

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org