March 2014 – Pastor’s Post

WP_20131006_002The Ministry of the Interim Pastor

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. Christians, especially those who minister, so often think they must always contribute something when they are with others. They forget that listening can be a greater service, than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon no longer be listening to God either. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual sounding words.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The paragraph above was taken from the book “Life Together a classic work by the famous German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the book, Bonhoeffer offers a meditation on the nature of Christian community. In our culture of individualism, we can all benefit from reminders of what it means to live as Christians in community. We all know that the Christian life is informed by the theology of loving your neighbor as yourself but how do we break that down in practical terms? Just what does it mean to love your neighbor? Besides the obvious things such as showing love and compassion, and doing justice in the world being in Christian community involves listening to others. Before we can love, we must first listen.

Reflecting upon the above paragraph by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I am reminded of the task of the Interim Pastor.  The Interim Pastor comes into a congregation to journey alongside the congregation with the primary task of listening to the congregation while they discuss their past, present and future. The interim is listening and not necessarily trying to fix problems as the community is doing the following:

Coming to terms with their history

  • Discovering a new identity
  • Reconnecting to denominational linkages
  • Managing shifts of new leadership
  • Deciding if or when they want to make the commitment to new leadership and a new future.

The five tasks of the interim is a pastoral response to a faith community facing a transitional crisis in its life. The interim then acts like a pastoral counselor.  If anyone has been to counseling, you know that the counselor does not give you the answers but rather helps you to listen to the answers you already have within yourself. The interim process in a congregation is designed to reflect a developmental phase of an individual, passing through stages of growth in a journey toward maturity.  Developmental psychology rooted in pastoral psychology serves as the guidance for Interim Pastors to help them view the congregation as a whole community, just as a counselor would take into account the whole person. Failure to acknowledge the meaning and importance of each task would result in a deficiency in the health and wholeness of the church. The developmental tasks are completed by the community with the Interim Pastor present. The congregation often misses this important point of transitional ministry and expects the interim to tell them what to do and who they are. This is the challenge of the service that Interim Pastors provide to churches. The Interim Pastor can certainly help congregations understand where they are by listening to what they hear but a good Interim Pastor has to hold back their assessments of who should be doing what and when.  It’s similar to listening to a good friend go through the details of a personal problem. You may want to jump in and “save” him or her but any good friend knows that sometimes it is just best to listen rather than try to give advice.

David Sawyer in his article “The Process Tasks of the Interim Leader” notes that “over-zealous or misguided temporary leaders [Interim Pastors] might take the five tasks as their personal objectives, to “work through the developmental tasks.” This is oftentimes why congregations become misguided as to the role of the Interim Pastor.   helps to explain why in the past denominations have frowned upon Interims becoming the Installed Pastor of a congregation.  When their previous leadership role was to listen versus take action on most issues, the change of leadership style can be confusing for both Interim Pastors and congregations.  Moreover, if an Interim Pastor continues on as the Installed Pastor it can cause the developmental stage to be rushed and ineffective.  David Sawyer goes on to say in the above mentioned article that ““in reality, the church organization will work through these tasks or not, and the best an interim leader or interim consultant can do is to coach, guide, or encourage resolutions as they emerge.”

As the congregation works through the developmental steps, they are called upon to acknowledge that their growth is dependent upon themselves working with each other with the support of the Interim Pastor all accountable God.  With that belief the Interim Pastor can successfully assess a congregation, while assuming a limited area of focus.  In some churches the focus might be on healing from grief or reconciliation following conflict. In other churches the situation calls for or assessing administrative effectiveness based on the strengths and needs of a congregation, or simply spiritual renewal.

Most Interim Pastors pick one of two areas of focus. My area of focus has been on spiritual renewal. Much of my work here has been to help the congregation come to terms with its past history and reframing the importance of being a connectional church within the presbytery, this includes regular contact with presbytery leaders, the Snyod, and the General Assembly office.  As difficulties arise, it is important to consult and look for wisdom and leadership within ecclesiastical structure.  This helps churches to see the big picture and helps to remind them of their mission and their unique and collective identity. I n cases when the problems are numerous it may require more than one interim. In any case a good Interim will identify their tasks, attempt to complete them, prepare to leave, and be confident that God will complete the work that was started.

I plan to use the Lenten season to encourage spiritual renewal and to help the congregation discover a new identity. My sermons will conclude with questions for communal reflection that may help the congregation decide if they want to make a commitment to new leadership and a new future. These conversations that will happen during will require grace filled listening and an understanding that these conversations are designed to move the church forward and not to beyond the hindrances of the past. I ask you to prayerfully prepare your hearts for Lent and to engage in self and communal reflection about how you can help the church thrive.  Begin by coming out to the Ash Wednesday service on March 5th at 7pm. to bury the past and look forward to a radiant resurrection. I also encourage you to participate in the Community Lenten Program sponsored by the West End Clergy Cluster comprised of pastors in the West End of the Long Island Presbytery. The community will gather here in Levittown on March 25th for a communal meal followed by a Lenten study. You will receive more information about that in the Deacon Speakin’ and weekly inserts.  In the meantime, remember The First Presbyterian Church of Levittown is a vibrant community that has a bright future that depends on your participation and prayer.

Yours in Christ.

Reverend Terri Cisse