Leading from the 2nd Chair

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Navigating the Interim

9/24/2013

Navigating the Interim

I have been through three interims as a worship staff person.  For two of them I stayed at the local church and received a new Senior Pastor, for one I overlapped with the new worship person for three weeks providing all the transitional support I could.  And then I transitioned out.  Currently, I am just over a year into serving with the new Senior Pastor, and navigating all the dynamics that a new perspective brings to a staff person who has been serving at an existing location for thirteen years.  It is interesting being on the staff side of the equation.  Growing up in a parsonage I saw the staff dynamics from the senior pastor’s view point.

I have heard the criticisms of the Nazarene structure.  I have talked with my peers and senior pastors from a number of other denominational structures.  From the largest vantage point I can muster, taking all into account, I still believe the Nazarene structure is the best of all the options I can see.  The point that I can’t get past is simple – how can you say to a senior pastor, “We trust you with the spiritual life of this congregation, and set upon you the eternal accountability of all that entails.  HOWEVER, we don’t trust you to hire your own staff; the staff that you will need to accomplish the vision and direction the Lord has given you, for which you will stand in judgment one day.”.   In the Church of the Nazarene we have decided not to make that idea the standing philosophy of our staff structure. 

The Nazarene Manual states in paragraph 160.2.The employment of such associates shall be for no more than one year and may be renewed upon recommendation of the pastor with the prior written approval of the district superintendent and the favorable vote of the church board.”   It continues in 160.5 “…upon resignation or termination of the pastor, any associates shall also submit their resignations effective concurrently with the pastor. A local church board may request that the district superintendent approve the continued service of any or all associates.  This approval, if granted, could continue until 90 days after the new pastor’s assumption of duties or until the incoming pastor nominates his or her paid associates for the coming year.”.  This isn’t that new.  For those of us called to staff ministry, this is what we signed up for.  There has been no ‘bait and switch’. 

The normative effect is that pastors are in control of who they have on staff.  Usually during interim, the board votes to retain staff in order for ministries to continue to function.  However, sometimes it is deemed prudent to accept the staff resignations with the resignation of the senior pastor and ‘clean house’ in that moment. 

If you are a retained staff person going into the interim period, I have found a few things helpful to remember that provide personal stability and … some sanity.

Regardless of what your official job description is, it is now your number one mission to deliver to the next pastor the healthiest church you possibly can.  As a staff person you will be working with the District Superintendent and/or an interim pastor to accomplish that task.   Clinging to a job description can be harmful.  This is a time to step up.  This will be a busy season of life, just plan on it and don’t complain.  In this season your God and your Church are calling on you to keep the congregation engaged and on mission.

Unless instructed otherwise, don’t change anything.  Don’t use the leadership vacuum to implement pet agendas.  Don’t start things you feel should be started, don’t end things that annoy you.  Remember the folks.  When the new pastor arrives, things will begin to change.  It is cruel to the folks, to the congregation, to have them change for your pet agenda, and then, just as they have finished buying into that idea, have to change again for the vision of the new senior pastor.  It is a subtle way of potentially undermining the directives of the new leader before they have arrived.  If you feel the need to make unilateral changes on your own, then go somewhere and be a senior pastor.

While I can think of a number of key principles for staff to remember, I will add only one more in this setting:  engage passionately, but hold things loosely.  Statements like, “I don’t know, nobody knows what’s going on” or “We are just in a holding pattern waiting” demoralize and disengage the people.  Passionately continue doing what you have been doing.  Make these the best worship services in recent memory.  Step up the quality, increase the effort, whatever your area of ministry is – just bring it!  Be an example of how a church can grow and stay vibrant even during an interim period.

At the same time hold things loosely, be flexible.  If you are still in your seat when the new pastor arrives, the very things you passionately drove during interim might be the very things you will need to let go of.  Don’t spend interim trying to embed ministries, models, or methods into the folks as the way things must be forever.  They are just the way they are for now.  And for now, we energetically and with excellence accomplish these tasks.  And while they are important right now, the current model isn’t the only model.  When pressed by folks to tell them how it will be next year, don’t get all dark and shake your head.  Rather, it is your job to excitedly point them to what is happening now, and remind them of the confidence you have in your leaders to bring God’s new lead pastor, to this location, in God’s perfect Kingdom timing. 

There is a gear for which you can search that will help get you through interim.  If you have driven a stick shift or manual transmission sometimes you end up searching for the right gear; too high the vehicle struggles and bucks, too low and it screams.  If you find just-right, everything comes together and you smoothly sail from point A to point B.  The best way I can describe the ‘gear’ for interim is to place it in the realm of a spiritual exercise.  Find new depths of surrender.  Meditate on scriptures like, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21.  During this season you are a leader, but you are to lead as Christ led.  Be willing to die to occupation, location, friendships, ministries, or whatever else to which God points; so that you may lead/serve through the power of His Spirit.

-Rev. Clark M. Howe

Clark serves as the Worship Arts Pastor at Chicago First Church of the Nazarene where he has served for over 13 years.