I have new respect for interim pastors.
More often, these days, they’re called transitional pastors, but whatever we call them, I now see in a way I previously did not how valuable their work can be. As a church pastor I followed one or two really good ones.
Now that I am one – an interim pastor, that is – I have a new appreciation for the degree of difficulty involved in the work they are called to do. Anyone who is tempted to consider interim work as a cool gig for retirement, which I may well have been guilty of, should think again. It’s work. It’s like being a pastor, but different. It’s like being a pastor without the title or the sense of permanence that comes with it.
“My job is to love you and then to leave you.”
I heard an interim pastor say this one time at a church I attended soon after I retired. That line got a good laugh from the congregation, but I now recognize the wisdom in what she was saying. She was speaking the truth, which is what good interim pastors try to speak, even when they are not being particularly funny.
When I came to the Presbyterian church in Wheaton, Illinois, where I served the longest stretch in my career as a church pastor, I preached my candidating sermon and then afterward noticed (out of the corner of my eye) an older man sitting alone on the steps in front of the pulpit. He was slumped over and looked very tired. Poor guy. But at age 38 I had more important things to think about. I had just been elected pastor of a fine church, and at that moment I was feeling pretty good about it, pretty good about myself.
That older man, who was slumped over, nearly out of sight, turned out to be the interim pastor, the person who had served the church ably and well until I arrived, all fired up and ready to go. He was ready to go too – for a much-needed rest.
What I learned over the following months in that church is that the way had been prepared for my arrival. In the language of transitional ministry, “the table had been set.”
I eventually learned more about the interim pastor and was able to thank him personally for the work he had done, but on that first day – caught up in the excitement of a new call – I barely acknowledged his presence. To his credit, he made sure that he was not the center of attention that day, but he had done a fine job. And I will always be grateful.
I have always thought I could be that person too, and now here I am at a church which is about ready to welcome a new pastor.
The truth is, I enjoy doing once again those things that I have always enjoyed doing – being a preacher, for example. I had missed the hours of preparation as much as – probably more than – the delivery. I missed the study. Those hours used to shape my spiritual life in ways I missed when I retired, and now here I am once again exploring texts and deciding how they might be used to challenge or comfort or teach my congregation. My spiritual life has come alive again.
And then there are the deep personal relationships. I had missed those too. I was beginning to make new friends in retirement, yes, but it wasn’t the same. The stories I hear as a pastor are different from the stories I hear as a new member at the fitness center. As I listen to people tell their stories in my office or over coffee at the bakery near the church, I find myself affirming their hard decisions and feeling empathy with their struggles. I remember every day that this was the part of the work I always loved and looked forward to.
But my job is to love these people and then to leave them, as that wise interim pastor once said to her congregation in Holland, Michigan.
I am struggling with that, but I will do it. And I will feel good about it. After all, I have met the new pastor, and I see that he is fired up and ready to go, as I once was. This is as it should be. He will lead effectively and well. He will make mistakes too. I just hope they are not the bone-headed mistakes I made during my first year in Wheaton, but if they are, my hope is that the congregation will forgive him and grow to love him, as my congregation once grew to love me.
I plan to tell them this before I leave.