The Freedom of an Interim Leader

Late last spring I wrote about 3 values for liminal times for congregations, based on my experience as an intentional interim pastor. I was trying to frame the stressful adaptation to the pandemic as an opportunity for congregations to learn and grow. Now emerging from the post-Christmas stupor, we are most certainly tired of stretching and growing, as the realization sinks in that a “return to the way things were” is unrealistic. Instead we must make a new way forward. More urgent than a pep talk for congregations is the need for church leaders to find an enduring center of self-understanding in the midst of criticism from multiple directions and adaptation fatigue. This conversation is aimed squarely at the pastors, deacons and staff who love their congregations, and intend not to leave during the pandemic: counter-intuitively, I invite you into the freedom of an interim leader.

You may indeed intend to stay in your current position beyond the dominion of this coronavirus and its variants, but for the sake of argument, what if you responded as if the future of the congregation is not wrapped up with your own?

What if you could step back enough to look at people’s behaviors alongside their congregation’s stated mission, and discern who they are actually equipped to become?

You would be taking the stance of an interim leader, and embracing the freedoms that can accompany it. It could very well be the leadership not only your congregation, but you need from yourself in this season.

The Freedom of Temporariness

An interim leader has freedom to be more attached to the image of God from Scripture and in front of her than she is the image of herself as a successful or popular leader. Certainly one does not actively try to displease people, but when they are unhappy with decisions made with a firm grasp of how God works among us, then it is actually okay if everyone is not pleased. Many comparisons and suggestions travel from the lips of parishioners to the ears of church leaders these days, including many reports on what other congregations are doing, whether or not we are equipped to try the same. Some people understand our decisions as driven by research, while others think decisions are political. A recent Barna study reported that 1 in 7 church-goers has left their congregation since March. It is difficult for the decision-makers not to take such exits – for whatever reason – personally. A leader who takes a stance of temporariness in the scheme of her congregation’s life (even if she is not intentionally an interim leader) might focus on the best ways to care for the most vulnerable, regardless of the consequences.

The Freedom of Not Taking it Personally

Church leaders have varying degrees of training in counseling, therapeutic practices or family systems theory. Yet even the memes and articles about the layers of emotions and motivations that must be behind and underneath all kinds of emotionally-fraught interactions tell a truth an interim leader can trust. The words and behaviors we experience from the people in our charge are rooted much deeper than what appears: in family systems, trauma, stress, influence of social media, and a dozen other causes. There must always be follow-up questions, or at the very least, the leader asking herself, “What is behind their actions?” We are not leading in ordinary times, so even those people we once knew to be forthright may be unaware of the layers beneath their actions. This includes ourselves. It behooves the leader to take a posture of curiosity and wonder as an analyst might: What is really going on here?

The Freedom to Risk Holding the Mirror

An effective interim leader is willing to risk holding up a mirror to the congregation, to show them what they cannot see for themselves. Particularly in times of stress we tend to revert back to our origins and behave in ways deeply engrained in us, even when we have worked hard to leave those patterns behind. So this in-between time could be particularly revealing about who the congregation is at its core, if leaders are not too overburdened to reflect what they observe. Such observations could lead to intentional changes and clarity of mission. But none of it comes into view without a leader willing to show and name some hard truths. Sometimes simply asking a question reveals that there are other ways of doing things than “what we have always done.” Other times, leaders must describe the impression an outsider receives when encountering our congregation’s practices. There is forgiveness for not being at our best in the midst of a pandemic. But we are perhaps at our most revealing, if only we could see it.

The Benefits of Being an Interim

The benefits of standing a bit apart from our congregations, in the posture of an interim, outweigh the risks at this point. This posture can lead to better alignment with our own theological authority, self-differentiation and understanding of others’ actions, and teaching others what we have learned through observation. When this era has passed many of us will be seeking new places for our leadership skills, but those who decide to stay will be leading a different congregation than was there before March 2020. We might as well reap some of the benefits of an interim leader’s attention.

Call to Action

Which of the “freedoms” of an interim leader could you see yourself trying on? Find a conversation partner to talk through one incident or interaction, holding your own reactions at arm’s length. What could it mean, if it is not about your leadership?

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

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