January 2010

Interim rectorship: Shalts and shalt nots

Thou shalt…be a big booster of the work of the Profile Committee. This is such a vital step in the process toward finding the person God is preparing to call into a new ministry. Without the widest participation of the congregation in the initial process, mistakes are more likely to happen.

Thou shalt…encourage more lay leadership. All too often, the last rector might have simply found it easier to “do it him/herself.” You do the new rector a big favor if you can move the congregation away from that thinking. It is their church, not the rector’s. They need to “own” it.

Thou shalt…offer the congregation a new model of ministry that is different from the past, without denigrating that past. The new rector will be yet a third model, so you are preparing the way for him/her to live within his/her predilections.

Thou shalt…be a teacher, reintroducing the congregation to what it means to be an Episcopalian, a Christian, a part of a spiritual community. There is no better time to go back to the basics, no matter how strong the adult Christian education program has been.

Thou shalt…be a clear supporter of the bishop and diocesan staff. An interim period is prime time for renewing relationships and you can broker a healthful spirit. Also, being a cheerleader for the wider Episcopal Church is a good thing at this time.

Thou shalt…do all in your power to create a solid financial ground upon which a new rector can build institutional health. It is not onerous to encourage a retrenching of some programs, so the new rector can build afresh.

Thou shalt…be responsive to the Discernment Committee, but not nosey. You can answer questions of procedure,
process and church etiquette, but their work is none of your business, even if they try to co-opt you.

Thou shalt…let the senior warden chair vestry meetings. It signals your lack of authority.

Thou shalt…expect to be paid about the same as the last rector or the new rector, whichever is more. This may mean the reconfiguring of the salary package to fulfill your requirements.

Thou shalt…claim no honors. The interim period is not about you. It is about re-creation of the life and spirit of the congregation. Lavish praise on those who have earned it and be pleased with your modesty.

Thou shalt…honor the fundamentals of ministry: stewardship, worship, adult and children’s education, evangelism, outreach and pastoral care. That is a full enough plate.

Thou shalt…be hope-filled. Many congregations have a rather low corporate self-esteem. They cannot imagine that anyone “good” will want to come to their church as rector. They simply cannot see the treasure they hold in their hands. They need to be honestly and appropriately reassured that they are the body of Christ and, therefore, of great value.

Thou shalt not…promote or run down any candidate. Churches are small communities. If you hear rumors, keep them to yourself, or, express yourself to the diocesan deployment officer or bishop. You really might learn something that someone needs to know, but it is not your job to interfere.

Thou shalt not…promote yourself as a candidate for rector, no matter how much you are appreciated. Many will love you but, there is a whole “other side” out there that will not be happy that you are a candidate. Among other things, they will know you tried to manipulate the process. After you have done your job with integrity, leave.

Thou shalt not…trash the old rector. Probably, that person tried as hard as he/she could. Being a rector is not an easy job. Criticism is easy to generate and hard to bury. Restoring affection for the old rector can be a blessing to the life of the church.

Thou shalt not…be an enabler. On the other hand, maybe the rector was a disaster and committed serious breaches of professional standards. You must be pastorally sensitive with those who are wounded. But, where the rector is concerned, that is the bishop’s problem. Not yours. Your job is to be a healer of the congregation and move forward.

Thou shalt not…dismiss any staff member without due process. Yes, they serve “at the pleasure of the rector,” but you are not the rector. You are the interim. You may think that is a “tradition.” It isn’t. Yet, perhaps some staff members may have to leave. Be sure you know what you are doing and be surrounded by skilled personnel people.

After some forty years in parish ministry, the Rev. Jim Sell was the interim rector for Trinity Church, Princeton, when this article was prepared.

This article is part of the January 2010 Vestry Papers issue on Transition