The Joys of Interim Ministry
Interim minister. Six times I’ve proudly worn this title, starting in Johnson City, Tennessee, with East Unaka Church of Christ. My day job was as a newbie professor at Milligan College (where I joined the faculty in 1965), but weekends belonged to the church. Then, in June 1968, I began preaching for Colonial Heights Christian Church in Kingsport and continued for the rest of the year. When we moved to Nashville for my doctoral studies in the fall, the church flew me back each weekend until the new minister arrived. Joy and I still treasure friendships from these churches.
After retiring a couple of times, Scottsdale (Arizona) Christian Church called. When an elder told his wife that they’d found their interim pastor, he added, “He’s 70 years old.” She looked dismayed until he added, “He rides a Harley.” That made me acceptable.
We left Johnson City in 1973 and did not move back until I joined Emmanuel’s faculty in 2012. As those professorial days were coming to an end in 2016, I began what I thought would my last interim, First Christian Church. What an opportunity: I would be closing out my preaching years (I thought) among people we had loved for half a century.
But, to my surprise, it turned out I wasn’t finished yet. For many years, especially while pastoring in Arizona’s desert, I had quipped, “Why, when God called me, didn’t he ever call me to Hawaii?” Then it happened. In 2018 Kaimuki Christian Church in Honolulu needed an interim minister. Their beloved longtime pastor was dying of pancreatic cancer. I was blessed to work alongside him as he continued to do what he could until his strength finally gave out. I preached and administered and walked with the grieving congregation.
I believe in long ministries–my longest was twenty years–but these in-between ministries are critical. Transitioning churches have to make difficult adjustments as they let go of the familiar and step into the unknown. They need trustworthy pastoring.
My last big surprise came in 2019 when, as we were planning to resettle in the States after vagabonding over the planet for the better part of four years, the multi-campus Northwest Christian Church in Oregon asked me to become their Senior Associate Pastor (Senior: old; Associate: not the boss; Pastor: privileged person—a wonderfully descriptive title). One of the campuses was in Tigard. I had planted this church while still in college. Now, I was ending where I began sixty years earlier, only this time as an interim campus minister. I can’t adequately describe our joy in returning in time to hold the hands of and pray with three of the charter members during their final days.
Now, midway through my octogenarian years, I am at last fully retired…almost. Yet I have to admit that if a church would ask, “Hey Roy, we need an interim minister here. Can you come?” I’d be tempted. You might wonder, “Why not just hang it up, old man?” (The suggestion has been made, I have to admit. I try not to take it personally.)
They needed the interim to listen before talking…I had to be a student first and then only after study, prayer, and relationship building could I be ready to be their minister.
There are several reasons I’d be tempted. Here’s the first: I love being a pastor. Little churches, big churches, middle-sized churches, I love them–warts and all. I believe in long ministries–my longest was twenty years—but these in-between ministries are critical. Transitioning churches have to make difficult adjustments as they let go of the familiar and step into the unknown. They need trustworthy pastoring.
I want to keep learning. Every church was unique. Each required something different from me; all required humility. They needed the interim to listen before talking, because I brought no expertise with me about that church. I had to be a student first and then only after study, prayer, and relationship building could I be ready to be their minister.
Your job isn’t to make the people love you, but to get them ready to love their next leader.
I like problem solving. Sometimes serious issues must be addressed. One of an interim ministry’s chief contributions is its interim-ness. You’re not there to stay. You’re there to lead through change. You will probably make some mistakes. People may get mad at you. That’s okay. Better you than the next minister. Your job isn’t to make the people love you, but to get them ready to love their next leader.
And, if the new leader is open to counsel, you can prepare him or her for the adjustments they need to make. They may be experienced church leaders—but not of this church. They will have to do some changing, also. And as for you, interim minister, in whatever you say or do you want to be gentle, respectful. You are there both to teach the love of Christ and to model it.
I enjoy this kind of matchmaking, helping the church find a good candidate. God calls, of course, but the church prayerfully, wisely, seeks the best candidate for a long and successful ministerial marriage.
From the pulpit you set the tone, communicate the vision, help to heal frayed nerves and broken relationships, lead the way from the past into a welcoming future, and offer hope where there has been discouragement.
I would get to preach again to “my own people.” Guest speaking offers its own rewards, but nothing compares with being able to speak week after week to the same congregation. From the pulpit you set the tone, communicate the vision, help to heal frayed nerves and broken relationships, lead the way from the past into a welcoming future, and offer hope where there has been discouragement. You get to bring “glad tidings of great joy to the people.” But first, you must get acquainted—and quickly—with the people. From them you’ll learn what words from the Word will do the most good in this place, at this time, with these “my people.”
I would do it again because, as you have caught on by now, with each of these ministries, I have gained so much more than I have given. I really do believe that the call to pastor and preach is a very high and very rewarding calling—even in the interim.
Dr. LeRoy Lawson is a pastor and author originally from Tillamook, Oregon. He has served as President of Hope International University in Fullerton, California, as senior minister of Central Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona, and as Professor of Christian Ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee.
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