Transition & discernment: the role of interim moderators
When a Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) congregation is without a minister, the presbytery appoints an Interim Moderator to guide the church’s leadership through transition, generally to assist with the process of calling their next minister. However, at present nearly one-third of PCC congregations do not have their own minister and are not looking for one – creating unique challenges for Interim Moderators. A high number of full-time ministers also serve as Interim Moderators; demands on their time are significant.
Vocations connected with the Revs. Peter Bush and Amanda Currie to learn more about the value and the challenges of Interim Moderatorship.
What is your purpose in the interim moderator role?
PETER: There are two distinct kinds of Interim Moderator (IM) roles. The first is when the congregation is searching for a new minister. In that role, the IM helps the congregation’s Search Committee clarify what it is looking for, and commit to one another in that process. (It’s very important to resolve any conflict inside a Search Committee!) Then the IM seeks to ensure that candidates hear what the congregation really is like, and that the Search Committee hears what the candidate is really like. In a search process, the IM needs to be an advocate for both the congregation and the candidates – the servant of each side.
When the congregation is not searching for a new minister, the IM is a long-term consultant and facilitator/trainer, working with the congregation’s leadership team.
AMANDA: A significant part of IM work is helping congregations to discern the future of their mission and ministry. Could they consider taking the financial leap to call a minister full-time or part-time? Or how might their ministry remain vital, engaged, and missional without an ordained leader on the ground with them? Sadly, the decision to dissolve congregations and help them through the process of closing and using their resources for mission and ministry elsewhere has also become a common part of the role of the IM.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in this role?
PETER: The IM is not the pastor. Early on as an IM, I had thought I was the substitute pastor until the real one arrived. That was a mistake. The IM is an outsider – an outsider with enormous influence – but an outsider. In trying to become an insider, the IM loses their real strength of being the outside analyst. I like being the researcher/analyst who sees from an angle that no one else in the congregation has, because I am the outsider.
Not trying to be the pastor also helps with creating boundaries and managing time. This is a part-time role; it needs to be limited. I realize that in long-term Interim Moderatorships, the temptation to be sucked into being the pastor is high. This is also why training elders and others is essential. Although training people is intensive work at the start, it’s well worth it in the long run.
AMANDA: I have always considered denominational service to be an important part of my calling as a minister within the PCC – whether being an IM, serving on presbytery/synod/GA committees, being a clerk or moderator of a court, or helping out with presbytery visitations. New ministers starting out may want to be aware that if they are called to a very small presbytery, the amount of denominational service required will be significant.
All ministers within the PCC should also be aware that as Presbyterians, we are not just called to a single congregation where we can focus all our attention. We are connected to one another, responsible to one another, and hopefully we also benefit from the support and help of our colleagues and sister congregations. At this point in the church’s history, our small presbyteries are definitely struggling, and we need some creative ways to take the pressure off the few clergy who are carrying much of the load. I’m not sure what the solution may be, but I’m hopeful we can figure it out with creativity and care for one another.
In what ways did you feel prepared for this, and in what ways unprepared? What caught you by surprise?
PETER: I learned little about how to be a consultant in theological college. I also learned little about dealing with conflicted or highly anxious settings – which IMs frequently walk into. But in taking on the role of consultant, and living hard into that role, I have been surprised by how honest people will be with me.
I have also been surprised by how my words get remembered as a consultant and quoted. I have learned to be more careful in what I say as a consultant. I need to be disciplined in what I am seeking to accomplish.
AMANDA: I became an IM for the first time 16 days after I was inducted into my first ordained ministry position in Saskatoon. I’m sure that most presbyteries would have avoided giving this task to someone just ordained, but there were very few ministers to choose from, and the others already had IM responsibilities elsewhere. Fortunately, I was in a team ministry, so I had an experienced minister and mentor to ask when I had questions. I remember relying heavily on the PCC guidelines for interim moderators, as well as on my previous experience of the process as a search committee member, and then as a minister being called to a congregation in Saskatoon. I don’t remember discussing the role of IM during seminary. However, with those supports in place, it was manageable.
One thing that caught me by surprise just after I took on the role was the honorarium for IMs. The guidelines book indicated a typical formula, but the rate was set by each presbytery. In the case of Northern Saskatchewan, the presbytery’s policy was not to provide an honorarium for IMs. This certainly didn’t encourage retired ministers or other ministers without full-time calls to take on IM responsibilities. It gave me the sense that my work as an IM was a gift from my congregation (which was paying me as a full-time minister) to the congregation that needed an IM. Eventually, before I left that presbytery, I proposed a formula for providing honoraria to IMs. This may have helped to share the load a bit more broadly for a while, but now that presbytery is struggling to find anyone to fill the many IM positions that are needed.
What do you wish the rest of the church understood about this role?
PETER: Being a good IM is important. There are people who are good at this, and we should honour them in that and let them do that work. Not everyone is built for the consultant role.
I wish congregations with IMs would understand that the IM is not the pastor – and would allow that person to serve best by being the engaged and interested outsider who bring a new set of eyes to the life of the congregation.
AMANDA: When a small number of ordained ministers end up taking on IM roles for several other congregations, we are often stretched beyond our capacity. The congregations I have served have never grumbled about the impact of these extra responsibilities on their ministry, but it does have an impact.
Peter Bush (K’89, HDD’23) is minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Fergus (Ont.). Amanda Currie (K’03) is minister at First Presbyterian Church in Regina (Sask.). Both Peter and Amanda have served the national church in many capacities, including as moderator of the General Assembly (Peter in 2017; Amanda in 2019 and 2020 due to the pandemic).