Sunday, March 07, 2010

Interim Ministers: The FAQ

I wrote this for my church's facebook discussion group, but I'd like to get lots of educated and thoughtful eyes on it before I wave it around as correct. Please critique and comment, though I'm not crediting my blog readers in the final version as I like to maintain the delusion that at least two or three people at my church don't know I'm Chalicechick. And I'm anonymizing my church for the two or three blog readers who don't know where I go to church.

Blogging's no fun if you take all the mystery out of it.

What is this?
It's a list of questions people may have about the interim process and the best answers I could find for those questions. I attended the “meet with somebody from the interim search committee” thing after church this week, so I started with questions that were asked there and just sort of followed them out logically.

Why are you qualified to write this?
Formally, I'm not, but I have listened to people's concerns and I talked to a UU minister or two about it. The minister buddy or buddies is/are in no way affiliated with this church and I'm not on the board or any search committee. I consider that independence from the process a qualification of sorts. Also, I'm an employment law nerd, though ministerial employment hasn't come up in any of my classes.

Where are you getting your information?
Some from the UUA website, some from other ministers, all heavily interpreted by me. Assume that answers about facts are formally researched and answers about reasons why we do things are educated conjecture. Some of my research comes from the UUA's handbook on transitional ministry, which is on the UUA website here:

Feel free to argue with me in the comments. If I'm wrong about something I will fix it and any errors are mine, not my friends'.

What's an interim minister and why do we need one?
When a minister leaves a church it is like an (ideally amicable) divorce or breakup. Many people who get divorced feel a sudden need to find someone new and get immediately married again. More to the point, their view of what a marriage is like, what roles a spouse plays in the marriage and the faults their spouse has that they want to avoid are all intertwined with who the ex-spouse was and what he/she was like.

An interim minister who will just be there for a year or two gives the congregation an experience with a different sort of minister and enforces a period of breathing space and self-examination. It will give us a chance to get a bit of perspective on what sort of permanent minister we want. After all, our current minister's style of ministry seems to work fine here, but his style is not the only style, so letting the church see someone with a different style might have us finding a style of ministry we like even more.

If we love the interim minister can we hire him/her?
It is against the UUA's rules to do that. Technically it is possible to flout those rules, but the UUA really frowns on it. If we did that, the minister we chose would have a lot of trouble finding another job after he/she left or church and frankly we would look like jerks who don't think the rules apply to us in the eyes of other churches.

Why does the UUA have rules against hiring an interim minister permanently?
Primarily because being an interim minister is not supposed to be a two-year job interview. For one thing, a lot of churches lose ministers in the first place because there's something wrong with them. My impression is that this isn't true in our case, but, for example, a church could be effectively run by an inner circle that lets no one else have any power and decides whether a minister goes or stays. A good interim minister could come in, shake things up and make the church's leadership more inclusive, take the heat for all those changes and then leave, allowing the new settled minister to proceed forward with a church that is better run without having to take the blame for being the one who shook things up.

Conversely, if the interim minister wants to BECOME the settled minister, making those changes, even if they are needed, is not in the job candidate's best interest. If the interim really wants the job, the interim will spend all their energy keeping the “inner circle” happy since that's the easiest way to get the job.

But I don't think the problems have to be as huge as domination by a few people for a good interim to be helpful and I think a good interim will give our church, which does run fine, a little tune up so it will run even more smoothly.

Wouldn't it make more sense to have a process more like tenure, where a minister would “try out” for two years then be “really” installed?
For a variety of reasons, including those above, that's not how the UUA rolls. Keep in mind that not all ministers leave under the happy circumstances or minister is leaving under. Ministers die, some churches fire ministers (which always leads to lots of drama), etc, etc, and soforth. Big groups of people are not necessarily more rational than individuals and shouldn't make a choice as important as a settled minister when they are still reeling from a shock.

Further, interim ministers move every few years by choice or they would have a different job. If we hire a regular settled minister, have him/her move to our area, have his/her spouse get a new job and his/her kids change schools, then we better have a damn good reason to, two years in say "Actually, we think we can do better, you're fired."

How long will we have an interim minister for?
Two years. Most churches do either one or two years. Since our current minister was there for so long, getting perspective will likely be a longer process, so our church's selection to take two years really makes more sense.

What if we still haven't found the right person after two years?
Then we get a different interim minister. I think that's what our RE minister did during her leave of abscence, serving in the church in the city where her grandchildren live for the third year while the church finalized their search. I hear really great things about the minister where she spent that year, so clearly it worked out for the best.

Do you think our well-known former minister could come back? How about the interim from the RE minister's leave of abscence? That really good intern we had?
Again, the UUA rules generally support getting in somebody new. Also, the interim and the intern have other jobs now and my guess is that he well-known former minister likes being retired or he would have another job because he's pretty well-loved in the denomination.

How do we chose an interim minister?
There's an interim minister committee that has already been selected. The UUA will look at the list of interim ministers, poll the interim ministers about who wants go where and provide the our interim minister committee with a list of three names. If the committee likes none of those people the UUA will provide more. They will be guided through the process and make their selection. Then the board votes. (This is a simplified version, a less simplified version is available on request.)

Are those our only options?
Nope, though they would be a logical choice. I heard today that the guy the church had between our minister and his predecessor wasn't an AIM and he was really good. That said, the UUA doesn't make up rules and processes just to be amusing. They have a pretty good idea what works long-term on a congregational and denomination-wide level and we should probably trust the process unless we have a really good reason not to.

Will the congregation get to see several of the interim minister candidates?
Nope. Just the person that the board hires.

Mostly to keep the process simple. I will confess that I have polity concerns about that one, though. As I mentioned above, the interim minister sometimes needs to kick butt and take names, and it isn't like the board would be inclined to chose the best person to do that. That said, my impression is that most individual members of our church pretty much trust the board and go along with whatever the board tells them, so it is likely that a congregational vote would be a rubber stamp. And my guess is the ministers who are best at fixing up dysfunctional churches are pretty good at sneaking past dysfunctional boards.

How does one get on the committee to pick the interim minister?
The board has already selected them. If they didn't select you, that ship has sailed.

How does one get on the committee to pick the settled minister?
After the interim is settled, there will likely be a special congregational meeting to vote on the search committee.

Get somebody to nominate you at the congregational meeting. There will be a slate of candidates put forth by a nominating committe there, but nominations from the floor are allowed under our bylaws. You can also nominate yourself beforehand, but the slate of candidates at the meeting will have been cut down anyway, so you might as well just nominate yourself at the meeting. Getting cut would be an embarassment after all.

What makes a good candidate for the search committee for a settled minister?

I'm going to let a passage from the UUA's Settlement Handbook field that one:

· Known and respected by others in the congregation
· More strongly committed to the congregation as a whole than to any subgroup
· Well informed about the demands and time requirements of search committee membership. Members should promise to attend every meeting, and to give about
250-400 hours over the coming year
· Balanced by sex, age, interests, and tenure of membership to reflect the diversity of the congregation. Major areas of church life such as religious education, social action, property management, finance, and music should be represented by participants, not partisans
· Balanced by attributes: organizational ability, broad theological awareness, computer
· Not paid members of the church staff
· Pledged to conduct a search that is fair and nondiscriminatory with respect to race, color, disability, sex, sexual orientation, age, and national origin
· Committed to maintain confidentiality and to seek consensus
· Capable of both self-assertion and compromise
· Not prone to extreme reactions to ministers. The previous ministers’ strongest
supporters or opponents are rarely the best choice
· Well suited to teamwork: a search committee is no place for Lone Rangers!

It is easier to field such a committee by actively recruiting volunteers than by passively accepting them. And of course, nothing will testify to a congregation’s commitment to diversity more clearly than a committee constituted of diverse souls themselves committed to increased congregational diversity. A seat on the committee is not the way to get a newcomer more involved, or to appease a chronic malcontent. Alternate and ex-officio membership are discouraged; each search committee member should participate fully. If one or two members must resign after the committee has begun it is usually best not to replace them. During the search, members should be released from other major duties in the congregation. One member(normally the chair) should be assigned as a board liaison, but should not be a board member.

Anyway, if that's you, you should nominate yourself.


Jess said...

You might add under "What's an interim and why do we need one" that if you hire an accredited Interim, you're getting someone who has gone through UUA training on the particulars of helping a congregation transition between settled ministers, which is not the same as being a settled minister. Interim work is very different than settled ministry, in that the Interim's job is to lead the congregation through a period of discernment over who they really want to be, what may be standing in the way, and what kind of skills or characteristics would be ideal in their next settled minister to get them to where they want to go.

Some additional observations:

An interim can help a congregation identify those things in the existing dynamic of the church that might be hindrances toward settling a new minister, particularly after a long ministry. An example would be outdated governance and policy documents, indicating that a congregation has gotten lax about keeping things up to date because "everyone knows how we do things here." Another would be symptoms of boundary issues between lay leaders and expectations of a minister, like a reluctance to change the locks (or even install some) on the minister's office or an assumption that the space will be shared with lay leaders, or meetings scheduled at inconvenient times for a minister with a family like Saturday mornings --sometimes boundaries can get blurred with familiarity. (And those are real life examples.)

An interim is someone who can look at your congregation from the outside and tell you things about yourself that you can never see from inside a system, both good and bad. A settled minister works to get into the system, but an interim is ideally situated to make sure the system is healthy first.

On the lines of having someone come in as an extended candidate for two years -- there have been churches that have done that, but usually for an Associate position. It's called "Hire-to-call," because the minister is hired first, and then the congregation votes later on whether or not to call him or her. I've seen people go through that process both successfully and unsuccessfully. Generally, it sucks to be a minister on a two-year job interview because rather than being open to the congregation and to taking risks in your ministry, you're constantly on your guard to make sure everyone likes you enough to vote for you at the end of the road. Not the best way to get honest and effective ministry from someone, that's for sure. I believe the UUA is unofficially discouraging the practice at this point.

Tom said...

The official rules are a lot less restrictive than the recommendations of the settlement handbook. In particular, the UUA recognizes the right of congregations to call whomever they like with no restrictions. This is a big issue for a lot of people.

As I understand it, people applying for interim minster positions through the UUA system promise not to accept a settled ministry at a congregation that hires them as an interim. If they violate that pledge, the UUA might not help them find future jobs. But the congregation that hires them will not be sanctioned. Nor will the UUMA disfellowship them.

I think the UUA's recommendations make a lot of sense. But the UUA has a lot fewer "rules" than your post implies. They have a lot of thoughtful recommendations based on past experience.

Chalicechick said...


I at least thought I had said what you're telling me to say (and indeed mentioned that our church had an interim minister before who wasn't an AIM but who was really good).

I know I didn't say what you're telling me not to say (I didn't say that a church who hired their interim would face UUMA sanctions, I said they would look like jerks who think the rules don't apply to them to other churches. Having been at a church a few churches over from one that did that, I certainly heard the interim-hiring church talked about that way.)

What term would you use other than "rules?". Given that rules are stronger than suggestions but can be flouted, I thought it was a decent term but I'm happy to consider alternatives.

Thanks, Jess. More detail is good.

hsofia said...

"For one thing, a lot of churches lose ministers in the first place because there's something wrong with them."

I'm not sure I agree with this. But I don't have statistics. When I was viewing interviews of long-time UU ministers, several of them brought up the dangers of staying "too long" with a congregation. I'm not sure I understand all the reasons why, and clearly this is not a universally held view. But I think the sentence above (which I think is saying something is wrong with the churches, not the ministers, am I right?) is at the very least unclear.

ogre said...

Personal experience here: that 250-400 hours is not entirely reliable. 250 hours might be legit for a member of the committee who carries the bare minimum load.For those members who chair/co-chair, take on major responsibility for the research and writing work to create a really kick-ass, accurate, honest and attractive packet (which *is* what you want) to send to prospective ministers... 400 isn't enough. My beloved's opinion is that I averaged at *least 10 hours a week* for the whole period (which would be 400 hours). But that's at least.

The other thing that our nominating committee did that I think was brilliant was to offer not a list of candidates, who were the slate, for the search committee, but to offer a slate, voted for or against. They'd spent a great deal of time selecting members of the slate so that they WERE representative of people of different ages, ethnicity, experience, theology, politics, length of membership, participation in different areas of the congregation, etc., etc., etc. Yanking one of those people to replace them with someone who was 'popular' would have pulled a key part out of a carefully designed set. They simply said here's the slate, feel free to vote for it or against it, and if you vote it down, then we have a discussion to have about selecting the committee members. That, of course, was done with board support!

Oh, and I'd say that at some level and interim is somewhat like a therapist. They aren't there to keep things the way they are, they're there to help make things better--and to help the congregation learn/relearn the ability to be flexible, so that they'll be able to negotiate a new relationship with a new minister, without the ghost of the old one and the old ministerial/congregational relationship haunting everything.

Sometimes that means an interim refuses to do something beloved and customary. Just because it pisses people off... doesn't make it a bad thing.

kimc said...

I am under the impression that one of the jobs of interim ministers is to act as a lightening rod for the congregation's grief and anger, so that the new minister doesn't have to.
Generally, it sucks to be a minister on a two-year job interview because rather than being open to the congregation and to taking risks in your ministry, you're constantly on your guard to make sure everyone likes you enough to vote for you at the end of the road. Not the best way to get honest and effective ministry from someone, that's for sure.
That sounds a lot like our Federal Government.

Chalicechick said...

(((I'm not sure I agree with this. But I don't have statistics.)))

I don't either. But my impression is that a fair number of churches have crazy expectations of their ministers (as Jess touched on) or freak out every time the minister wants to make a change or fire the minister for stupid reasons or are unpleasant places to be a minister for other reasons. I don't think by any means all churches do things to chase their ministers away (indeed, I mentioned in what I wrote that our minister is leaving under good terms and that some ministers are at churches until the ministers die), but I'm pretty sure it happens.


Chalicechick said...

I'm pleased that most of the comments expand on things I've already addressed rather than indicating problems.

I will do a lot of thinking on what parts of what I've said need to be expanded. I want to be complete without it being too, too long.

But I'm reading the comments and thinking about them. Thanks to everybody who has contributed so far and keep the comments coming.

Unknown said...

Interestingly, our church currently has a "consulting" minister instead of an "interim". The big difference is that we are free to hire the consulting minister if we like him. He is not there really to help with the search and transition process to a new minister, but to work with the church on an ongoing basis.

I know that this is not the normal example, if there is such a thing, for a UU congregations, but it does provide that way of testing out a minister without making the full commitment. A lot of minister wouldn't go for that though, I would assume, because it is anyone's guess what will happen at the end of that 24 months.

BTW, this is the Unitarian Church in Charleston, SC.

TogetherBeth said...

Just a couple things. I have heard of rare instances where an interim stayed for a third year when the regular ministerial search failed.

Also, I was vice-chair of the board when my home congregation hired an interim. The Board was the Interim hiring committee. We didn't "meet" all of the candidates, but we did have phone interviews with all of them.

Because of congregational polity, congregations are free to completely ignore the UUA guidelines on any of these processes and I've heard of such cases, but it is not a good idea.

Overall, you've done a nice job.

Anonymous said...

Important for your board to notice that not all interims are created equal. Some are retired ministers who cannot afford to quit working, and they vary widely in their ability to do the interim job. Some are newly-fellowshipped clergy or others who are in search for settlement, but without extensive ministerial experience. Others are folks who love being interims, the questions, the reflecting, the transitioning. And there is a fourth group, the ministers who essentially are not settle-able due to personality flaws, but who nevertheless the denomination refuses to disqualify.

Any or all of these folks might have gone through the AIM process. It is vital to talk with other congregations who have experienced this minister recently in order to tell whether the individual's life journey, personality and personal situation will make her or him suitable for what you need.