Interim ministers help ease transitions

Interim ministers help ease transitions

Donald E. Skinner


When the Revs. Janne and Rob Eller-Isaacs left the First Unitarian Church of Oakland after more than a decade of sharing the ministry there, it was hard for everyone. Their style of ministry was deeply embedded in everything the California congregation did.

Moving on after dissolving such durable ties with beloved ministers can be difficult for congregations. But every minister-led congregation eventually has to do it. For the Oakland church, the Rev. Robert Latham made the transition easier.

Latham, a veteran of a half century of ministry, is part of a corps of interim ministers who have been trained to come into UU congregations when a settled minister departs. Interim ministers serve a congregation for a year or two, easing the shift from the past to the future.

“He helped the congregation shake loose old patterns and opened up the possibility for a new form of ministry to take place,” said the Rev. Kathy Huff, who was called as Oakland’s next settled minister three years ago. “And he did it in ways that were both compassionate and challenging in all the right places.”

This fall, sixty-seven UU congregations are beginning a new church year with an interim minister in the pulpit. Not many years ago only a few, mostly larger, congregations used interim ministry. Now virtually all do.

The role of an interim is to help a congregation make changes between settled ministries, correct problems, and prepare the way for the next minister. “The interim is not a juggernaut who comes in and creates change wholesale,” said the Rev. John Weston, the UUA’s ministerial settlement director. “Neither is he or she a placeholder until the new settled minister arrives. The interim is more like a mirror, reflecting the congregation back to itself. When the congregation decides on changes it wishes to make, it consults with the minister on how to make them. And the interim points out things the congregation might not see about itself.”

Another task of interims is to help congregations recognize the need to pay ministers fairly. They often spend much time on stewardship issues. This year, the UUA settlement office is asking congregations to pay interim ministers not just at the level of the former minister, but at the fair compensation standards set by the UUA.

The Rev. Paul L’Herrou has served six interim ministries. “I really enjoy the challenge of coming into a congregation, being a diagnostician, feeling out what’s working well, what are the strengths that need to be built on,” he said. “It can be more intense than an ongoing ministry, but it has its rewards.”

L’Herrou just finished his second interim year at Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland, Maine. “I was afraid we’d go into a holding pattern and lose our forward momentum, but it actually accelerated it,” said Trudy McNulty, who was president during L’Herrou’s two years there.

With L’Herrou’s help, the congregation reduced the governing board from fifteen to nine members, initiated a program council, and developed a clearer identity. He also showed it another style of ministry. “It’s easy for a congregation to think it needs another minister just like the one that left or with opposite qualities,” he said. “An interim provides an experience with a different model of leadership.”

Latham worked with one congregation that had parted on bad terms with its minister.

“They needed to have their faith restored in the professional ministry,” he said. “You help them exorcise the ghosts, and help them affirm that there is a wide variety of ways to access the holy other than the ones they are used to.” He also helped the congregation correct problems arising from a small group of people controlling the congregation’s finances.

Interim ministers usually develop intense relationships with congregations, even though they’re brief. The Rev. Mary Hnottavange has spent thirteen years serving congregations undergoing transitions, including five interim ministries, using her previous training in institutional applications of family systems therapy. “I work very closely and intensely with a congregation, and then in the spring we part company,” she said. “The rewards for interims come from seeing the congregation face difficult issues and deal with them. And while members are usually immediately grateful, it is especially gratifying to receive the letters that come two years later.” Often once the next settled ministry is established, congregations recognize just how helpful the interim period was.

The changes at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, New Jersey, have been transforming, reflected the Rev. Chris Reed, who has been the religious educator there since 1990. Latham served two years as interim in Princeton, after its minister left in 2002. “So much of the work we did when Robert was here is paying off now,” president Sharon Copeland concurred. “I couldn’t be more pleased with the progress we’re making.”

Latham helped the congregation develop covenant groups, an effective committee on ministry, its worship associate program, and a pastoral associate program.

“We had already been doing shared ministry as a congregation,” Reed said, “but we didn’t know if we were doing it effectively. Robert showed us how much better we could be if we had a clear identity of ourselves and had effective ministries that carried out our mission. Those two years were incredible. We were a congregation of little cells with not enough tying us together. He gave us a new way of looking at ourselves.”

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