Lee Shafer

Lee Shafer served as an interim priest at Grace Episcopal Church in Anniston before being named to the position permanently.

They are the gatekeepers guarding against a mass exodus. They are buffers between what was and what will be. They are temporary, short-term solutions. They have little administrative power, yet can be a saving grace for a congregation in turmoil.

They are interim pastors.

When one pastor leaves and before another is found, it’s the interim pastor who holds a congregation together during the transition.

"Interim means provisional or temporary or keep your fingers crossed," said Bob McClain, who served as an interim pastor when he was 17 years old before becoming the full-time pastor at Living by Faith Ministry in Oxford. "We use the term ‘interim pastor’ today because most churches vote their pastors in and out of office, and the deacons and elders know they need a leader until they can bring men in and try them out."

Whether they are retired preachers or "intentional interims" who specialize in serving churches, interim pastors undergo specialized training, especially conflict resolution, explained Monty Clendenin, who took the Presbyterian Church of America’s interim training after retiring as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville.

"They’re there to let the steam out of the church; to let things settle down for a year so that when the new guy comes along, they don’t take all that anger and frustration out on him," Clendenin said. "If they don’t get an interim to help resolve some of that conflict, they’ll run the next guy out on a rail."

Having an interim pastor can also be a blessing in disguise, because the congregation is forced to step in and serve the community.

"And that’s the way it should be," Clendenin said. "The congregation should be the church, not the pastor."

Life as an interim

Since 2011, Vic Minish has served as the appointed priest in charge at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Montgomery, a post similar to interim pastor. At the same time, Minish lives in Anniston and teaches at Faith Christian School.

In Montgomery, Minish administers the sacraments, preaches, visits nursing homes and performs pastoral counseling. He also advises the vestry until a full-time priest can be brought it. Yet he doesn’t feel fully embedded because of the nature of the job.

"The temporary and limiting aspect means knowing that your task is feeding the sheep until the new rector comes," Minish said. "It is caring for those that do not belong to you."

The congregation knows the interim won’t always be there, so there is a barrier to building intimate relationships.

"The good part is exercising the gifts you have been given," Minish said. "The difficulty is knowing you may not see the harvest of good things and won’t be able to repair any potential damage."

When Lee Shafer left Alabama in 1984, it was supposed to be for good. She kept that promise until her father, also an Episcopalian priest, convinced her to speak with the deployment officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, who was seeking "younger" and "energetic" interim priests.

With her children in college, Shafer thought it was a good way to "test the waters" and return to Alabama. She did just that in 2008, when she was called to serve as interim priest for Grace Episcopal Church in Anniston.

Shafer wanted to "shake folks out of their comfort zones." One of the first things she did was change the music for the Sanctus, a hymn that Grace had been performing the same way for 25 years.

"As the interim, I thought immediately that this tune needed to be changed. The reaction I got was ‘OK, fine’ – not at all what I expected," Shafer remembered. "Those sorts of interactions happened over and over again, until it became clear that we were meant to be."

Normally within the Episcopal Church, interims aren’t called as permanent rectors, but Shafer proved to be the exception to the rule.

"I spent months and months reminding the good folks of Grace that I could not be the rector for a long litany of reasons, the least of which was that this is not done in the Episcopal Church," Shafer said.

"Through a series of folks paying attention, including the bishop, who was willing to change my title from Interim to Priest in Charge, it all worked out for us all."

Contact Brett Buckner at brettbuckner@ymail.com.