Various church traditions have different ways of handling pastoral transitions. Some have an appointment system, where denominational leaders tell clergy where to go in the event of a vacancy or because it's otherwise time to make a move. Others have a succession system, where an internal candidate is trained for the position while the current minister is still leading the congregation.
I am part of a tradition where, more like in the non-church world, open positions involve a search committee receiving ministerial profiles, interviewing candidates, and presenting their selected candidate to the congregation for a vote.
(This last point, of course, is the difference from non-church workplaces. Imagine if the entirety of your potential co-workers voted whether to hire you or not. I digress.)
You may be able to imagine how long this search-and-call process can take. Unlike the other systems I mention where the reception of a new minister is immediate, this can take some time. Depending on the context, it can take at least a year, possibly two, and maybe even longer.
In the meantime, many churches call an interim minister to lead them while their search committee does this work. Historically, this would be a seasoned minister, usually retired, who would keep the pulpit warm in the meantime. And in post-WWII American Christendom where churches didn't worry much about numbers dropping, this would be fine.
In more recent times there has arisen the concept of the "intentional interim minister." This is one who has been especially trained not just to preach, teach, and give pastoral care during a pastoral transition, but also to help the congregation intentionally prepare to receive their next minister. They lead churches through conversations about where they've been, where they might like to go, and to do the work of honestly assessing themselves to improve the chances of the new minister having a good partnership in ministry with them.
Situations that may especially need an intentional interim include:
- Churches that have just concluded a 20+ year ministry with a beloved pastor and need time to grieve and move on;
- Churches that had their previous pastor leave under less-than-ideal circumstances, such as misconduct or abusive members;
- Churches whose history of conflict has simmered all through every pastoral tenure since the original incident;
- Churches whose formerly robust resources and ministry are eroding, whether they realize it or not;
- Churches that insist that everything is fine and there's nothing wrong and they can't wait to call their next pastor.
I think that last one about covers it.
Many churches may insist that, no, really, everything really is fine and there really is nothing wrong and they really are ready to move on. And yet under the surface, one of the other situations may be brewing. More commonly, churches may be wondering about their future, noticing the larger changes in the culture around them, noticing that the pews aren't as full as they once were.
A rush to call a new pastor in the hopes that they will solve these unspoken anxieties is a setup for disaster. Such a rush may also help serve the denial that the anxieties and issues are there.
The interim minister is charged with making space for churches to do important internal work that they may otherwise avoid. The conflict might not be so blatant and the needs not so obvious, but the loss of a minister may bring these thoughts and emotions more to the forefront of people's minds. The interim time is an opportunity to voice those wonderings and work through them openly and honestly.
So yes, your church really does need an interim minister. They will help you do the holy work of self-reflection so that future ministry partnerships have a better chance to thrive.