(Unexpected fringe benefits for the interim pastor or “Guys, have your wife read this!”)
I’m always kind of shocked to get this kind of response, even though I’ve experienced it many times. I love my work. It’s a joy. God has used us far more powerfully than we had imagined He would when we began this adventure six years ago. I suppose most pastors don’t really have any need to have their misconception corrected; the more pastors who think interim pastoring is awful, the easier it will remain for those of us who do it to stay busy. But for those of you who are genuinely considering this way of being a pastor or who are sensing a call of God to “hit the interim trail,” I want to offer some perspective.
Yes, there are some difficult things about being a strategic interim pastor: saying goodbye again and again, learning dozens (or hundreds) of new names, the physical task of moving most or all of your earthly possessions, the harder task (I think) of transferring your “infrastructure” (my term for changing addresses, utilities, banks, internet connections, doctors, dentists, automobile licenses, etc.), trying to lead troubled, grieving, or divided churches through a process of change, seeking to overcome the disrespect with which some greet the interim pastor, etc. Of course these challenges await the interim pastor, over and over again. They are the warp and woof of the job description. They require everything we have along with total dependence upon God, again and again. When your current congregation has been revived and refreshed and the saints have learned how to work out their difficulties with grace, it’s time to move on to the next mess!
You probably know all that already. What you may not be aware of are the fringe benefits. These were mostly surprises for me. I’ve learned that God loves to surprise us with such delights and I’ve also learned to enjoy the surprises more than the benefits I’d counted on. So here are some of the unexpected blessings we’ve received along the way:
* Incredible people. Each interim pastorate has given us the privilege of meeting some of God’s “choice” servants: saintly saints, colorful characters (inside and outside of the church), people who, for some reason, “adopt us” and love us far beyond what we deserve. We have experienced lavish hospitality, heard amazing salvation testimonies and powerful stories of God’s grace in the tough lives of now-tender people. For some reason, some of God’s most delightful children think of us as “missionaries who’ve sacrificed a lot” – though we don’t see it that way at all. In every town we get to know a few people who become friends for life. We are blessed and changed by every one of them.
* A post-graduate education. I don’t mean any disrespect for long-term pastoring; I learned a lot in that role as well. But there’s something about the ever-changing landscape of interim pastoring that intensifies the transformational experience of being a pastor. You can’t get stale doing this. You are challenged constantly by diverse individuals, doctrines, sub-cultures and problems. Every town is different and every church is different. In each town I meet pastor colleagues, church board members and some of those characters I mentioned above, who introduce me to new authors, new music and new methods that enrich my life. Each church is an intense new post-graduate course.
* Sights worth seeing. Each stop along our winding trail has enabled us to enjoy a cornucopia of attractions and wonders we would never have seen had we “stayed home.” We believe in taking full advantage of our days off: we leave the house for the whole day and try to go see something we haven’t seen before. Our time in Benson, Arizona enabled us to see: free rodeos, the sights, sounds and tastes of Tucson, multiple mountain ranges, Tombstone and Bisbee, the Chiricahua National Monument. Living in Kingman, Arizona allowed us to get to the Grand Canyon twice, the Hoover Dam (many times), mining ghost towns and more. Hastings, Minnesota put us in proximity to “The Great River Road” up and down both sides of the Mississippi and the museums, parks and restaurants of the Twin Cities. Here in Waushara County, Wisconsin, we’re situated on a beautiful little lake in a pine woods full of deer. We’re in the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World” and our rented house has four boats. I could go on and on but I bet you get the picture.
* Fresh starts. Before I resigned from my long, long-term pastorate and began interim pastoring, I was encouraged with an observation I heard regarding the military: “A benefit of being in the army is that when you get re-assigned it gives you the chance to cut your losses, learn from your mistakes and get a fresh start.” Most of us know that most churches need long pastorates from godly, committed, long-term pastors. But there’s also a place for those of us whose mission is short-term (in the metaphor of I Corinthians 3:10-15 we would be remodelers) and we have the blessing of getting multiple fresh starts. This allows “finishers” like me – those who like to finish a task as opposed to “processors” who don’t care whether they complete a task or not – to finish the interim process, and in doing it again and again, get better and better at it.
* Finally, I have to say a word about flexibility. By temperament I know I could easily get set it my ways. I’m reaching the age where this is a greater and greater temptation. The type of ministry I’m doing simply won’t allow for inflexibility. I (“we,” actually) have to flex – or break and I appreciate the challenge.
Is this a hard ministry? In some respects, yes, of course. But any kind of pastoring (I concluded a few years ago) is hard. And as with any kind of pastoral ministry, there is joy in the journey; there are fringe benefits and delightful surprises from our delightful God.