6 Ways an Interim Pastor Can Help a Church in Crisis

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” — Winston Churchill

I still remember my first day as the interim pastor. I was hardly in the building 15 minutes when an assistant pastor shared with our pastoral team just moments before the 8 a.m. service that he and his wife sold their condo and would be moving to Kentucky in a few weeks. I thought to myself, Happy days are here again! It gets better: eight days later, another assistant pastor confided that he would be leaving for Tennessee to accept a deserving opportunity as a family pastor at a prominent church.

These two departures were not the reason I came as interim pastor to this church. Several months before, their lead pastor abruptly resigned and left—overnight—with no warning or announcement to the leaders or to the congregation. An assistant pastor found the departed pastor’s letter of resignation on his desk the next morning.

Although this was a good, loving congregation in many ways, you can imagine the shock, bewilderment, and feelings of crisis that came as three beloved pastors—tenuring more than 30 years ministry—left for different reasons.

Interim amid Crisis

Welcome to the world of interim pastoring in a crisis.

What do you do when you are thrust into such a situation? On my first day, I encountered residual shock over the senior pastor’s unforeseen departure. Now the situation compounded itself with two more pastors leaving. Where would you start? In my one year of service, God’s grace dripped with many wonderful resolutions: the congregation secured not only a permanent senior pastor, but also several key staff members; the finances of the church remained in the black and actually increased towards a building program; and a feeling of optimism anchored the congregation before the new pastor’s arrival when I left.

Upon reflection on that interim pastorate, God’s grace brought to light six important dimensions of leadership engagement that converted this congregation’s shock into opportunities for strategic advancement in ministry. These six dimensions provide an evaluative template for a church leader or pastor in an interim period.

This is important: if you are a leader (interim pastor, officer, staff, or lay person) in a church that is currently in transition, make sure that before, or at least in the beginning days of interim ministry, you and the other leaders resolve the following issues with heartfelt unity. From experience, this resolution enables practically everyone in leadership to play and to sing off of the same page.

Six Dimensions of Leadership

1Engagement: how will you engage this interim period?

Is it a season for growth, ministry development, and forming identity, or is it a time of waiting for the next pastor to come? More specifically, what is the emphasis of the position title? Does more stress fall on the “interim” (implying a short-term, “keep it together” approach), or on “pastor” (implying a comprehensive engagement)? Whatever side you choose (proactive or maintenance), whole-hearted unity is needed between the interim pastor and other leaders.

My two interim experiences showed that both churches wanted to move ahead, so goals were formulated to steer the ministry forward. However, this stance should never be assumed. There are legitimate times when a congregation needs to pause and enter a time of respite, especially if their former pastor (long-term or founding) has died or from some other tragedy that has left parishioners in need of healing space. Keep in mind that both approaches to engagement can intertwine on occasions.

2. Priorities: effective leadership necessitates printing and communicating as early as possible the objectives for the interim period.

This step should be done no matter how long the interim period lasts. What I found strategic was a “first 100 days plan of action,” a document outlining intentional initiatives that not only required aggressive participation by the leaders (through their buy-in), but also held the interim pastor accountable. In any transitional period, a pastor will need to be a leader, manager, overseer, coach, preacher, conflict-resolver, counselor, and trail guide, to name just a few roles. When you think about it, a 100-day action plan is good for practically any pastor (short term or long-term) who wants to inject new vitality into a congregation’s ministry.

3. Communication: reinforcing leadership priorities necessitates explanation.  

You may fulfill this task through preaching, church bulletin, newsletter, website, and social media. People need to hear and to see things as much as four to five different ways to impress new perspectives upon their consciences. This point especially applies to sermon themes. Make sure that the chosen biblical propositions connect with the leadership objectives that were initially adopted. That way preaching becomes a springboard on Sunday for leaders to reiterate within the congregation throughout the week.

4. Presence: when a congregation suffers a crisis, strong pastoral presence is needed.

Personal, proactive presence by the interim pastor (with help from other leaders) initiates calm, stability and confidence within the parish. Presence and time are especially important with staff members who need reassurance that everything will eventually be fine over time. After a number of meetings (either in the parishioners’ home, the pastor’s home, restaurant, and so on), a growing sense of buoyancy should develop within the congregation, something similar to what one parishioner said privately to me after the first three months: “You know, it’s going be okay.” There is no substitute for an active, shepherding presence within a congregation and among a staff/leadership dealing with crisis.

5. Identity forming: an interim pastorate is an excellent opportunity to prayerfully reflect on a congregation’s calling in mission.

Asking, “Who are we?” and “What are we called to do?” can allow congregations to express their convictions and vision for present and future ministry.

For nearly four months, I led the staff and officers through a time of strategic planning, culminating in an official document that we presented to the congregation and the pulpit search committee used to evaluate and to communicate with potential candidates. Giving people a sense of identity and direction is crucial in an interim ministry period. Comprehensive and carefully communicated strategic planning leads to greater likelihood of increased stewardship (the time, talents, and treasures package). During my interim, the giving not only improved, but also the groundwork for a capital campaign was prepared before the permanent pastor’s arrival.

6. Optimism: it is important to spot moments of accomplishment and to communicate them publicly as another “win” for God. 

These wins can come from a stewardship milestone reached, a successful outreach endeavor, a new staff hire, or something else that instills optimism and a sense for God at work. The idea is to look for substantive, strategic moments to inject hope and to encourage broader participation within the church.

Winston Churchill said it best: there is opportunity and difficulty in leadership, especially in an interim period. Yet, if engaged strategically, collaboratively, optimistically, and prayerfully, this time under God’s providence can produce lasting fruit—and friendships—for years to come.