Over my ten years of ordained work, I have discerned a call to intentional interim ministry, or as I sometimes put it, “love ‘em and leave ‘em.” I take both halves of this formula – which sounds strangely like the storyline for an old-school country song – very seriously. I am fully engaged with the churches I serve while I’m with them, but I begin thinking about the way I want to leave the joint from my first day of employment. Where does this congregation need to be spiritually and emotionally in 1-2 years to live into its God-guided future? What can I do to provide the breathing space, promote the healing, and encourage the identity work required to get to that point? My goal is to bring the members to the cusp of their collective potential so that the succeeding minister can love ‘em and not leave ‘em, at least not anytime soon.
My departure preparations, then, focus not just on the church but also on the settled-minister-to-be, even though there’s no face or name to put with that title for most of my tenure. I try to put myself in her boots and imagine the tools she’ll need to get off to the best possible start. In the interim call I wrapped up last week, I set and staffed fall ministries with the incoming minister’s blessing so that she could concentrate on getting acclimated, spent months creating a flash drive of notes and files, battled decades-old office dust with my trusty can of Pledge, and put together a minister’s survival kit. In addition to popcorn, chocolate, bubbles, and a coupon book for local restaurants and attractions, the kit included a document titled “Top 12 Essential Sayings for Ministers,” which I composed drawing on the wisdom of others and my own experience:
Top 12 Essential Sayings for Ministers
12. That sounds like a great idea! I encourage you to take the ball and run with it.
Empower those with passion. They might look confused or disappointed that you didn’t add their suggestion to the top of your to-do list – that’s ok – or they might have just gotten the permission they needed to be a member in ministry.
11. Thank you for sharing your conflicts with [name] with me. Let’s think together about how you might address them with [name].
Develop an aversion to geometry – particularly triangles.
10. That is not an appropriate question/comment. My appearance/family/financial situation is off limits.
Ah, life in the fishbowl. Gently remind (generally) well-intended people that if they wouldn’t say it to the other professionals who provide care to them, they shouldn’t say it to you either.
9. [When grabbed on Sunday mornings] I appreciate this information. Could you call or email me this week to remind me? What you have told me is important, and often I don’t retain what I’m told in passing on Sunday mornings because there is so much going on.
Sunday mornings are your best opportunity to interface with the largest number of church members, which means you’re bombarded by information about pastoral care needs and ideas for new ministries. But you’ll also need all the brain cells at your disposal for the five-hour sprint, so put the onus back on others to remind you later about what they want you to recall.
8. I do not give weight to anonymous complaints, but I would be happy to talk face-to-face with anyone who has a concern.
Emphasize this early and often, and get your leadership on board so that they can encourage others to put on their big girl/boy pants and confront issues directly.
7. I could use your experience/expert help with [task].
Even the most broad-based seminary curricula don’t include construction, marketing, or tech support. Give folks a chance to lead by asking them to share their talents in God’s service.
6. I’d love to meet/attend your event on [day], but I take that day for self-care so that I will be fully ready to minister with you and others the rest of the week.
This one is tricky, and there are exceptions. Learn what yours are, and flex the time out elsewhere when you exercise them.
5. Let’s bring [colleagues/trusted lay leaders] in on this situation to help us think it through.
Lone rangers are prone to mistakes and have no one to back them up when the crap hits the fan.
4. Thank you for your email. Since the situation you name is both important and has some nuance and complexity to it, I think it would be most helpful to continue the conversation in person. When can you meet?
There is a time for email conversations, especially when you need documentation of your steps and others’ words. But real quagmires are often exacerbated by the limitations of text, the option to hit “forward,” and the lag time in responses.
3. The [rule/policy in question] is in place to ensure the safety and welcome of everyone in our community. This [rule/policy] applies to everyone equally, and I enforce it because I care about you/your child.
In a world full of excuses, exceptions, and entitlements, showing fairness and putting a person’s well-being over your need to be liked is uncomfortable but prophetic and pastoral.
2. When I am on vacation, my phone will be off and I will not be checking email. You may contact the church if you need immediate help.
Remind your people – and yourself – that you are not indispensable. The church will still stand and time will march on if you take a week or two to rest your body and feed your mind.
1. Thank you!
Say this sincerely, often, and in a variety of ways.
I thought the above statements might be instructive for someone new to ordained ministry (as my successor is), but I’ve realized that they need a permanent place on my own desk to boost intestinal fortitude. I offer them to you as well, because whether or not I know your face or name yet, we are all partners in the sometimes delicate, sometimes raucous, always exhilarating square dance called ministry. I pray that these essential sayings will provide us with the courage to remember and honor our limits so that we can model how to do the same for the people in our care. And along the way may we learn to rely more fully on the presence and grace of God, the One who loves us and never leaves us.