Billings pastors Tom Hall, Joel Westby and Aline Russell enjoy getting together once a month to chat.
None of the three recent acquaintances will be in town for more than a year or two, and they come from different faiths.
What they have in common is that their pulpit is temporary. They are intentional interim pastors, specially trained to work with churches that are between pastors, to lead the congregations through a series of steps, and possibly some healing, on their way to calling a permanent minister.
“An interim comes in for a limited amount of time and hits the ground running to learn as much as he can about the church within a short period of time and then shares these observations and suggestions for areas to work on and areas where they are doing well,” Hall said.
Not for all churches
Not all churches require interim pastors, or can afford them. Some congregations, especially smaller ones, rely on full- or part-time "supply" pastors who keep the church going until a minister can be recruited.
The United Church of Christ has developed another category of pastor, a designated pastor, said the Rev. Dr. Marc Stewart, conference minister for the UCC’s Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference.
Stewart may try to match a minister looking for a post with a congregation in need of a pastor. The minister signs a contract for a specific length of time, to see if the two parties are compatible.
The church can extend the contract, ask the pastor to stay on permanently, or decide the pastor isn’t the best fit.
“It’s trying out a relationship, seeing if it is constructive, if it’s a good fit,” he said.
Larger churches, especially those grieving the loss of a longtime pastor to retirement or that have been through turmoil, are more likely to benefit from a trained interim pastor.
Hall, 68, who is based in Brighton, Colo., has been in ministry for more than 40 years with the United Christ of Christ. He arrived in Billings in June to lead First Congregational United Church of Christ in Billings.
At the end of October, Westby finished 18 months at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, and the newly called pastor, the Rev. Steven Loy, from Las Cruces, N.M., takes over Dec. 1.
Russell, from Alton, Mo., began a one-year contract in August at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. That could be extended another year if need be.
What none of the three can do is take the pastor's job permanently. There’s a reason for that.
Sometimes interim pastors have to ask hard questions, particularly if a congregation has struggled. The interim has skills and training to help parishioners start on a road to spiritual and emotional health, or at least help define its identity and mission focus.
Hall jokingly likens the work he does to the character Paladin in the 1960s TV western “Have Gun — Will Travel.” A gentleman gunslinger, Paladin “went around working with people and situations and events,” Hall said.
“That’s how I see myself — without the gun,” he said.
Hall trained as an interim pastor in the Interim Ministry Network through the United Church of Christ. Both he and Westby previously served as full-time permanent pastors. Westby, who spent 25 years as a parish pastor in North Dakota, said he loved “just about everything” about being a pastor.
“You’re with people in their worst times and in their best times and everything in between,” he said. “I like being part of a community that’s centered in the Word and in Christ. I enjoyed doing that.”
Westby had gained some skills in mediation training and family systems theory that he wanted to use.
“And our kids were grown and out of the house, so we were at a place where we could really consider that without affecting them,” said Westby, who is in his mid-50s.
He received his interim ministry training through the National Association of Lutheran Interim Pastors. That included intensive sessions, reading, reflection and interaction with a partner.
Good Shepherd is Westby's second interim assignment. He spent 17 months at a Lutheran church in Missoula. His assignments come from Bishop Jessica Crist of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Montana Synod.
Russell, 65, a seminary graduate and ordained minister, specialized in pastoral counseling, working for 23 years in two offices in St. Louis and Alton. She felt drawn to parish work and decided to take the training for interim ministry, offered by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Montreat, N.C.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “This is a fantastic congregation. They have so many strengths and some really incredibly talented and committed people.”
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St. Andrew’s longtime pastor left a year ago in September, and a series of supply ministers have filled the pulpit since then. Russell hopes to help the congregation develop a vision for the future. The church, which draws 35 to 55 people on a weekend, is aging.
“That’s one of the issues, looking into the future, because they’re losing people through death or disability,” Russell said. “That’s a concern to everybody, what to do about that.”
Russell has started meeting with church members one on one. Her next step is to meet with the church as a whole. At an annual dinner that celebrates the close of the stewardship campaign, Russell plans to give members a chance to talk about what characterizes the church as it is and where it wants to head in the future.
“The reason I chose the celebration dinner is because I thought we would have a good number of the members there, at least the more active ones, to have that discussion,” she said.
Hall has started by focusing on First Congregational’s history and identity. The church was instrumental in starting the Prairie Tower Apartments retirement community and Community Day Care. Members also stood up for the city’s Jewish population during the “Not In Our Town” campaign and started a new church plant, Mayflower Congregational.
“But as the phrase often is, 'What have you done lately?’ ” Hall said. “You can’t rest on your laurels.”
With the downtown’s changing demographics, it makes sense for First Congregational to take a look at how it might refocus its efforts. The church draws 130 to 170 on Sundays.
“I think it has great potential. We’re right close to downtown, and downtown is being renovated,” Hall said. “It’s the question of ministries, which might change.”
When he comes to a church as an interim, Hall writes a review of the church, including his personal observations and suggestions. He also does a mock interview with the search committee given the task of finding the candidate it will recommend to the church. The idea is to help committee members rehearse answers to questions they will likely be asked by pastor candidates.
Westby, who has just successfully helped Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd find its next pastor, said he deals particularly with the church’s lay leadership and the staff. That includes leadership development, as well as strengthening the church’s ties to the ELCA and working through any issues that come up.
“I also find myself dealing with processes and policy, just to make sure if there’s a need to clean those up, strengthen those,” he said.
He leads worship on weekends at the church that draws about 300 people. And, following the advice of one of his interim ministry trainers, Westby found something he especially enjoyed doing. He created a class focused on compassionate communication. Since January, he and about a dozen people have met for the bi-weekly class.
“It’s been a delight,” he said. “I look forward to it even when I have a busy week because it’s just been fulfilling in so many ways.”
Westby said there is much that he enjoys about his work as an interim pastor.
“I feel like I’m using my gifts and skills to a fuller extent than maybe what I would do in a regular call,” he said.
A special breed
Some churches balk at the idea of an interim, preferring to move toward hiring a permanent pastor, said Crist, the ELCA bishop.
“They see an interim pastor as just treading water,” Crist said. “I liken it to cleansing your palate between courses.”
An interim pastors can give a church time “and an outside person to ask the right questions and get to the right answer,” she said. “An interim can point out blind spots.”
George Goodrich, co-general presbyter for the Presbytery of Yellowstone, sees trained interim pastors as a special breed.
“It takes somebody who’s pretty secure in him or herself and his or her faith,” he said. “It takes someone who can take the heat, if there’s heat to be taken.”
It’s important that an interim pastor be well-trained, Goodrich said. Otherwise, they can be expensive placeholders who don't help the church.
"A gifted interim can be very positive," he said. "An interim can slow the train down enough to let the people gain a sense of themselves as a body of Christ in transition."
With a new pastor in place at Good Shepherd, Westby has a sense of peace moving on. He'll take a couple of months off before he heads to another assignment.
He's glad that he was able to help the Lutheran church make a smooth transition. But he’s quick to give credit where credit is due.
“They did the work, I helped,” he said of the church members. “If they hadn’t done the work, it wouldn’t have mattered if I was doing backflips.”