Transitional Ministry? Interim Ministry? What's the Difference?

The term “transitional” is still fairly new to many people in the church.  Most often I find people are confused with the differences between “interim” and “transitional.”  

“Interim” ministry has a focus of stability.  There are times when a church needs help just keeping things steady, so things don’t fall by the way side, especially during the absence of a pastor.    Years ago Moreen and I were away from our church visiting churches and individuals getting ready to move to Japan. A retired couple moved into our home and pastored the church while we were away.  They did an amazing job and we returned to find a church healtheir than when we left.

“Transitional” ministry, on the other hand is an interim phase which is intentional.  It is initiated by a felt need which is often redefined as the process continues.   Typically a church does not feel ready to bring in the next pastor without doing some work.  The transitional ministry is built around some or all of the transitional goals listed in the following document.

The Eight Recommended Goals of a Transitional Leadership Process

During the Transitional Process there are 8 goals that are recommended so that the church experiences the full benefit of a pastoral change and doesn’t just go on autopilot until the next pastor shows up.

    1.  There is a need for closure.

        *dealing with the past in such a way that it doesn’t hinder or restrict what God is wanting to do in the future.
        *A Transitional Leader counsels and helps people deal with their grieve and loss – as well as celebrating the past and leaving to let go in a healthy way so they can move on.

    2.  There is a need for relevant preaching and clear communication.

        *not just filling in while they wait for the next pastor, but sermons that are messages from God designed with this church in mind.

    3.  There is a need for short term administration.

        *There is the management function that the transitional leader needs to do or ensure is being done by someone.

    4.  There is a need for pastoral care.

        *The congregation continues to need a transitional leader who ensures that people are cared for even if he or she does not fulfill that function.

    5.  Focus needs to be given to relational renewal.

        *“relationship renewal” refers to the connections both with God and with each other – during a transition, the opportunity is there to renew, restore and revive any weak or poorly functioning connections.

    6.  There’s opportunity for vision renewal.

        *Since healthy churches have a vision and an action plan to bring it into reality, a time of transition can be a time for the whole congregation to listen and discern what God is saying to them.  It can be an incredibly healthy thing for the church to see where God is leading them so that their next pastor can match who they are and where they are wanting to go.

    7.  There’s an opportunity for structural renewal.

        *If the structures of a church are mismatched or in need of review, a time of transition is an excellent time to renew them – for the purpose of achieving their mission.

    8.  Then, lastly, a transitional leader takes a congregation through a search process.

        *There’s no denying that God has a specific leader(s) for every church that is listening and responding to Him.  The greater prepared the church is to move forward in a healthy way, the more successful the search process will become.

                (Source: Transitional Leadership Ministries, Outreach Canada)

Philosophy of Ministry Thoughts:

Over the years I have been quite involved with governance changes.  Although these kind of changes need to be carefully addressed, sometimes spending energy changing governance can be a smoke screen or a behind-the-back way of dealing with difficult relationships. We don't "fix" relationships in the church by "fixing" processes or changing policies.   The Bible has almost nothing to say about governance and much to say about relationships.  I find there are both sick and healthy churches with a wide variety of governance models- demonstrating that governance isn't necessarily the key issue.  While governance is not the key to good health, it can make a significant difference, if we are not avoiding the subject of healthy confrontation.

We have discovered each church is very different in its culture, including DNA, history, approach to ministry,  the unique challenges they face, and  personalities of the individuals who are drawn to identify with them.  Moreen and I do have a tool kit for encouraging healthy change, but we focus more on organic change than on specific strategies.   We are wary of formulas which may have worked in another context.  We seek to leave the church more empowered to move ahead, but we bring no guarantees.   A church body, by its very nature, is focused on Christ the Head, and is healthiest when members are spiritually healthy, doing what they do best, while contributing to the good of the whole.

Eugene Peterson, one of my spiritual mentors, informs our philosophy of ministry with these thoughts:  "The way of Jesus cannot be imposed or mapped---it requires an active participation in following Jesus as he leads us through sometimes strange and unfamiliar territory, in circumstances that become clear only in the hestations and questionings, in the pauses and reflections where we engage in prayerful conversation with one another and with him.  After all, we are not just learning how to think right about God...And we are not just practicing ways to behave right before God....We are already "on the way" acquiring insights and developing habits of obedience....gradually and incrementally maturing in the way so that who we are and what we do is realized coherently and comprehensively."  (The Jesus Way p.19)