Noticing those interim ministers

Back in my days as a full-time reporter on the religion beat, I had my share of arguments with editors in which I attempted to convince them that (a) worship attendance is much higher among their readers (and former readers) than among newsroom personnel and (b) that religious people care deeply about seemingly ordinary issues linked to life in their congregations. But how do you convince a tone-deaf editor that it's a big deal when a denomination switches from one hymnal/prayerbook to another, that many people sit in pews weeping when this kind of thing happens? That some Catholics truly want to receive Communion while kneeling? That people over the age of 60 may be offended the first time their pastor illustrates a sermon with a video clip from an R-rated movie?

My point is that major religion stories often sit in clear sight waiting for Godbeat veterans to get the go sign to write about them.

I thought if this the other day when sent the URL to a story by Bob Smietana of the Nashville Tennessean about a very important issue -- who fills the pulpit after a beloved pastor or a controversial pastor hits the exit door? What happens if some people loved the pastor and others loathed him?

Who helps the church work through these very complex scenarios? The answer, to one degree or another, is the "interim pastor." However, it should be noted that different denominations and traditions approach this type of ministry in very different ways. Some go fast, filling the vacancy. Some take it slow.

So Smietana has a story here that is part religion and part, well, business. But the key is that he simply let's the reality of the situation play out. The story opens with thoughts from the Rev. Molly Dale Smith, an Episcopal priest speaking at a Nashville conference on this topic.

In the past, interim ministers were often retired preachers who filled in when a church lost its pastor. Now they’ve become more of a specialized ministry, with interim ministers serving as a combination preacher, crisis manager and strategic consultant. They come into a church, deal with any conflict or unfinished business from the old minister, and then get the church on solid footing.

“They have a specific task: helping a church prepare for the future,” Smith said. ...

Smith said that some congregations don’t feel they need an interim pastor unless they are in the middle of a crisis. She believes even healthy congregations can benefit from an interim pastor.

“People have understood interim ministry as medicine for the sick, and it’s not,” she said. “It’s a practice that helps a church move into the future in a positive way.”

Some departures feel like deaths and others like divorces.

Church leaders may feel pressured to hire a new leader who is just like the perfect pastor who left or retired -- or is totally different than a failed leader who was forced out. The reality is that most interim pastors try to serve everyone by being human demilitarized zones in which flocks can face their own realities.

And then there is crisis management in the Internet age:

Some interim ministers do find themselves face-to-face with a congregation in crisis. That can include financial or sexual misconduct by a former minister, the death of a minister or conflict among congregation members.

Dealing with those conflicts has become more difficult as email and cellphones have made it easier for conflict in a church to spread rapidly, said Susan Nienaber, a senior consultant with the Alban Institute, a nonprofit that specializes in congregational development. Nienaber is speaking at the Nashville conference.

“You can blow up a congregation much faster now,” she said. “Before you had to get on the phone and talk to people,” she said. "Now all you have to do is send out an email.”

Retired preachers from earlier generations are supposed to handle that?

If the story has a major fault it's a simple one: Smietana needed more room to get into some of the other complex issues linked to this subject (such as bishops or other denominational leaders sending in interims who are supposed to steer a "problem" church in a so-called safer direction).

In one region in which I worked, almost all of the interim mainline pastors were women -- because supposedly progressive local denominational leaders lacked the courage to appoint them as full-time pastors. Thus, local churches often exploded with controversy -- pro and con -- about the interim pastor whose main job was to help bring healing.

Like I said, this is a complex subject hiding in plain sight. This story opened an important door.

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