Congregational Corner: The hidden life of the transitional pastor
By Rev. Jordan B. Davis (M.Div.‘14)
I don’t know if anyone has ever actually written about the non-professional side of interim or transitional ministry – the side that stays well hidden, out of sight and out of mind, from the majority of the world. I don’t know if anyone will ever read what I am writing now. But it is one of those hidden nights – one of those nights when I can’t sleep because of the nature of this fleeting call.
I entered this position knowing the nature of it – I had even been through training for this, but no one can train you for the day that the good-for-now, transitional job becomes the dream job and renews a passion that had been packed away in a tidy little box and hidden in the back of the closet. No course can teach you what to do when the one thing you want is likely the one thing you can’t have in that field of ministry.
I truly admire interim pastors who make a career out of going from one church to another and helping congregations work through loss, grief, discernment, and rebuilding. Only five months into my first transitional position, I know this isn’t for me.
I guess I need to first explain a bit –
My position is transitional. It is interim. It is a filler for two parties – I needed a job as my contract ran out with my previous position and could not be renewed. The church needed someone at the desk and in the classroom until they could conduct a full search for an installed pastor. After interviewing one another (and after they interviewed a few others), we agreed that it was a good fit for the time being. “Transitional” is a fancy word for “interim who can reapply and possibly stay,” but at the same time after a year, neither party would be caught off guard if it is decided that it is not a good fit and the contract isn’t renewed.
Makes sense, right?
Until one party falls head over heels in love with the other. A weird way to describe it, but an appropriate one I think.
I knew I would enjoy the position. It was something I knew I was good at and even better, I would be serving with some fantastic, much more experienced pastors. It made sense.
The first few weeks were beyond rough. Among other struggles, I barely slept and lost all sense of personal life and boundaries as I tried to dig myself out of the chaos I had jumped into (fall in youth ministry is anything but slow and peaceful – if you ever take a youth ministry job, start in December.) I sat down at my desk no later than 8:30 a.m. and left around 5 p.m. on a good day, eating lunch at the desk as I kept working. My days off were spent problem solving from my couch at home. I had it under control though. I had to.
I was also trying to figure out my next step beyond this position. A side-line life I had lived since the beginning of time, it seemed. What college will I go to? What seminary will I go to? Where will I work after graduation? Where will I work when this contract runs out? Where will I go when they find an installed pastor? Every day marking one more drop of sand in the hour glass.
So, I worked until I had nothing left to give at the church and then went home to run a few job searches, update my PIF, and pray that something – anything- would show up.
I took my middle schoolers on a retreat. I took my confirmation class on a retreat. I got my first hug and a “thanks” from a youth. I served communion to a young adult who hadn’t stepped foot in the sanctuary in years. The tireless days were filled with joy and excitement. I began to welcome the interruptions in the office rather than dreading them. I felt myself sliding down a slippery slope and couldn’t find anything to grab onto.
In a position where my job was to get in, help to process and move forward, and get out… I just wanted to stay.
Every part of me ached to be there. Every thought was about five years down the road. Every discussion was closely filtered as I tried to remember my job… as I tried to remember they could still say “goodbye” in only a matter of months.
I struggled as I applied and interviewed for other jobs.
Every conversation was dissected as I looked for signs that I might be able to stay.
This was my dream. These were my people. This was absolutely my call from God. The one I didn’t want to hear, but the one that renewed a deep passion I had hidden away as I tried to “grow up” and move on to “real” ministry.
I went to a conference for my own continuing education. That is where I am while I write this, actually. I came to network and learn better ways to do my job overall – tools I can take to my next congregation (that I don’t want). I bought resources, I signed up for emails, and I got memberships for my congregation in different groups. In the middle of conversations, I found myself beginning to filter again – “I will add this to my resource binder for the next person in this position.” My heart broke. My fears built. The stress began to shut me down. It kept me up at night.
While I was away, my husband attended a young adult event without me. I realized he has found a home. That group is giving him a space that I have longed for him to find. He called me and excitedly told me about what I missed. My heart broke as I prayed we could stay, as I wondered what he would do if we had to leave.
Nothing could have prepared me for when the interim and transitional call became the one and only call that I wanted to accept. Nothing could have prepared me for the tears shed as I wonder if I have any shot at staying. Nothing could have prepared me for how hard it would be to minister to the individuals on the search committee – individuals I have grown to love, individuals I want to be friends with, individuals who I filter myself around and look too deep into what they say to me.
In the office, I smile and do my job. I do it well, too. I tow the party line and joyfully say, “We will have to see what happens!” when someone asks about who will fill the position and if I applied. In the office, I focus on the next hour, the next day, the next week. I don’t talk about the next year – or I at least try not to. I am not supposed to. I prepare a resource binder for the next person to sit in that chair and look over at empty shelves in the bookcase (because why move books in if you are only around for a year?). I set goals with the ministry team for the next transition phase.
At home, at night when I can’t sleep, I pray to God that I can stay. I pray for the individuals I am working with. I cry into the pillow, pleading that this is the last job search – that it is all a formality. My husband, God bless him, does everything he can to keep me sane. He listens to the same monologue about this job search every day – just like he has almost every day since we started dating while I was in seminary. I know it grates on his last nerve. I know he can’t stand to hear “what if” anymore. I know he is worn out with all of the “just in case” planning – for that day when I find out that there is no next step, no job to go to.
We lament the dreams put on hold until a decision is finally made. We wonder if it really was smart to buy a home instead of renting another apartment. We plan vacations, wondering if that will be the last one until another job is found. We avoid vacations because I can’t risk taking too much time away when I need references for other jobs. We wonder when we should extend the geographic area for the job search, risking the loss of his job in the process.
Every bit of it, though, is worth it.
Every step of the way, no matter how hard, is worth it.
I have never understood the “Footprints in the Sand” poem more as I look behind me at so many times when Christ has truly carried me.
When you hear that call though, when you feel that tug on your life so hard that you almost can’t breathe, you do what you have to do. You even stay awake, knowing it was a long day and is leading into another, because you can’t sleep until you write your thoughts down. You write because you can’t tell anyone. You are only transitional. You shouldn’t have these thoughts.
Transitional and interim ministry is so much harder than they told me. There was no class on how to do cope when you become attached. Maybe it would be easier if I knew I couldn’t stay.
Maybe it wouldn’t make a difference. Who knows?
If you have a transitional or interim pastor, take a minute to look them in the eye and look beyond the facade, the protective wall that is put up. Thank them for what they are doing. Take a moment to recognize, out loud, the difficulty of the position and how much it means to the congregation. Those moments might be what save my sanity some days (after causing that wall to crumble a bit first).
Interim and transitional ministry means there is no home, and there is no future. Everything has a deadline, and as my sister said jokingly one day “so, you expire on August 21.”
Ministry in general is an all encompassing, life altering, heart changing, and heart breaking call. No pastor knows what to expect, but some at least can expect more than others.
I don’t know if I will choose to do a transitional or interim call again. I don’t know if I am really cut out for it. I give thanks for those who are! God might have other plans for me, but if I have any say… I am done with this type of ministry and staying right where I am.
I don’t know where I am going from here though and that scares the mess out of me. I pray that I can stay, but I plan to leave.
Because at the end of the year, there will be no hard feelings if either party decides it isn’t a good fit.
UPDATE: A few months after this was written, the search committee at Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church offered the installed associate pastor position and I accepted! I now live my life strengthening relationships and setting five-year goals for the ministries I work with.