Intentional Interims help churches begin road to healing

When a person is ill, they turn to a physician, a professional suited to determine the ailment and the best course of action to overcome it.

But when churches are sick, there's often a sense of doom or hopelessness.

That doesn't have to be the case, according to Micheal Summers, director of church services at Wayland Baptist University. Rather than simply struggling to exist and hoping problems will disappear, these congregations can call on the resources at Wayland to help mend the hurts and prepare for the future.

One of the biggest ways the university does this by making several of its staff, including Summers, available to serve as intentional interims for churches with pulpit vacancies. Wayland also helps serve as a host site for interim training in cooperation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, such as a three-day training session held during spring break on the Plainview campus.

The services an intentional interim provides are unique and, sometimes, immeasurably valuable to hurting churches with a history of poor health, Summers said.

"Instead of being a traditional interim that is there only to preach or provide pastoral care, the intentional interim is there to help prepare the church in such a way that the new pastor can move in easily," Summers said, pointing out that these interims come in with an understanding that they cannot be called to fill the vacancy. "It's a John the Baptist ministry, preparing the way for the one to follow."

The intentional interim, then, serves more as a facilitator to help the church work through issues they may need to address before bringing in a new pastor or other staff member.

"They help examine church history and decision-making processes, clarify the church identity, look at denominational links and any needs for the future. They look at the church's bylaws, committees and personnel situations and field questions that members have had but never felt welcome to ask," Summers said. "The interim should have no other agenda but to help that church become what God wants it to be. They guide members through that self-examination process."

"It really is a process, not a program, and it can be done for any church on any time schedule."

Typically, the process takes a minimum of 4-6 months, Summers said, though some churches need longer to sort through all the facets of ministry and come to a place of readiness for a new pastor.

Summers said the process uses materials from the National Center for Congregational Health, a non-denominational organization, and points out that the process can be valuable for churches of all sizes and denominations. He said the same process can also be helpful for churches filling other staff vacancies. In either case, his experiences have been successful.

Summers served as an intentional interim youth minister for College Heights Baptist Church in Plainview, the first time such a role had been filled. During that process, he was able to help the church discover its vision for the youth ministry and create a new mission statement.

"His job was to help us find out what we wanted in the program, what were our goals, our direction. He had to help us understand how youth ministry was changing," said Dr. Jim Todd, chairman of Wayland's Division of Education, who served as the search committee chairman for College Heights. "He worked with the pastor and music minister to see how the whole program fits together, too."

Though Todd was no stranger to the search committee, he said this experience was different because of the self-examination involved. In the end, he felt the process helped the church prepare for their new youth minister.

"This worked better because it gave us time to focus on what we really wanted our youth program to do. He helped us expand our vision of ministry, and that's the purpose of interim ministry," Todd said. "Too often in churches we just do what we've always done."

Those new revelations also were beneficial to the man they eventually hired for the job, Wayland graduate Efrain Gonzalez. He celebrates his one-year anniversary with the church this month.

"The church gave me a transition statement and that helped me know what they wanted the youth to be and how I should be involved in the rest of the church. It helped give me an idea of what direction the church was looking for," Gonzalez said. "It gave me a foundation and a platform to spring from. I wasn't just dropped in here and told to go; I was given help and leadership in the way they wanted me to go."