Intentional Interim Pastors Serve Critical Need for Churches in Transition
With a desire to serve churches in transition, intentional interim pastors are helping congregations maintain health and growth while they search for permanent leadership.AG Pastor David C. Ristow will be out of a job in a month or two, but he’s not upset about it. That’s because the Snohomish, Washington, resident leaves every church he serves after helping them through a transition.
Since 2007, the Northwest University graduate has been an intentional interim pastor for churches in the Northwest Ministry Network. It’s a position he sensed God calling him to despite uncertain income and the difficulty of leaving behind close relationships.
“When I started this, I made two commitments,” says Ristow, 77, a youth and Christian education pastor before taking his first senior pastorate 35 years ago. “I’m not going to negotiate for a salary; I tell churches I trust them to do the right thing. And, I was not going to seek a position anywhere. I’m on my 13th since 2007. I’m not so super good; I’ve just done it a lot.”
After lining up a pair of Zoom interviews late in 2023, Ristow expects a candidate to soon be hired at the church where he began serving last March. At one time averaging 350 in Sunday attendance, it had declined to 45 by the time he arrived. Not only did it start growing again, in the fall members agreed to launch a new ministry to reach out to low-income families. It requires two van drivers to pick people up on Sunday mornings and others to serve breakfast.
“One couple involved with this said they will pay for the first six months of breakfast,” Ristow says. “They had done some things before to reach out, but when they went through trouble they lost the vision. I tried to instill in them a desire to dream and use their skills.”
Ristow got involved in intentional interims after learning about another pastor who was involved with the Titus Task Force, a group based in Bakersfield, California. Its founder, George O. Fraser, self-published a book about his approach in 2011.
In addition to attending a couple Titus conferences, Ristow learned about a manual on transitional ministry published by the Ohio Ministry Network, which he used as a template for his work. Eventually, he put together a manual specifically about intentional interims and has led seminars on the topic.
Typically, Ristow and his wife, Karla, and another couple start their work by meeting with all church attenders. They schedule anywhere from two to six people at a time for 45 minutes to ask three questions: 1) What do you want to preserve? 2) What do you want to avoid? 3) What do you want to achieve?
Not only do the questions reveal some of the sacred cows and hurt feelings that have never been resolved, they help break down barriers and forge relationships that are key to rebuilding a ministry.
“We have a congregational meeting and a Communion time,” Ristow says. “The last one went for two hours. I said, ‘You’ve got to get this right. Let’s use this as a time for healing and restoration.’”
The practice of intentional interims is spreading across the nation. The Southern Missouri Ministry Network adopted a program eight years ago at the urging of a now semi-retired pastor, Bob Strand.
Strand helped develop the training and served as interim pastor ministries coordinator until 2021, when one-time interim Pastor David E. Satterfield, 80, took the reins.
Superintendent Don E. Miller, 63, said the more they considered the idea, the more network leaders realized the need. Among its 350 churches, there will be two to three dozen openings during a year.
“We had a number of open churches and any time you have an opening and no leadership in place, you’re inviting problems,” Miller says. “We want to see our churches move forward. A transitional moment is a chance to change the trajectory of that church.
“I’ve watched churches that in the natural should have declined, but because we had a quality interim they not only stayed around but they grew. This person sets the atmosphere and the tone for the new pastor to walk in the door.”
Satterfield says there are numerous values to an intentional interim, such as providing experienced leadership, removing pressure on leaders to quickly find a new pastor, and providing congregations with a sense of security during the transition.
“It not only breaks the tension going on in the church, it starts building better relationships and opens doors to some of the problems that have never been resolved,” Satterfield says. “When it was announced I was going to become coordinator, (former AG General Secretary) James Bradford told me, ‘This is great. Transitions are the most critical time in the life of a church.’”
In Washington, Ristow enjoys helping churches that have experienced continuing conflict or had overbearing pastors to resolve past issues and build for the future. He recalls one church that had dwindled to 100 in 2012 but today is at 400. Another that had declined from 600 to 130 has rebounded to 450.
“The most rewarding thing is to see a church that was really large but going downhill and the people have no hope; they think it is going to end up closing,” Ristow says. “But I tell them, ‘God is in the business of restoration.’”