by Jennifer Hackbarth
I transitioned from a long-term congregational call to interim ministry in the winter of 2022. Over the past year and a half, I’ve served three congregations as an associate interim pastor. Going from a thirteen-year call to jumping between congregations every six months has taught me how fun transition can be and the many ways it continues to challenge me.
I learned there’s no time to paint the pastor’s office before the interim starts. The walls still have holes where the previous pastor hung photos and pictures, the shelves are dusty and faded where books were displayed, and there often isn’t a computer ready for me to use.
I begin my interim positions in the chaos of transition. When I arrive on my first day in the office, people often apologize because they wish they could welcome me like they would a newly settled pastor. Others are so distracted and overwhelmed by the transition tasks that they don’t have time to integrate me into the congregation intentionally. No one tries to show their best side because they’re too busy surviving. There’s no pretense because there’s work to be done.
Times of transition show us our limits, yet they also open us up to newness. What worked before may not work now, and we’re forced to look at different options. The transition may soften our hard edges and rigid expectations and encourage flexible thinking. It forces us to see the previously hidden holes in our walls and dust on our bookshelves.
In his book Managing Transitions, William Bridges distinguishes between change and transition. He writes, “Change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological.” Change is what happens; transition is the adjustments we make in response to the change. Do we let go of our old world and engage with a new world, or do we end up doing the same things in a different setting?
My role as an interim pastor is to give congregations space to imagine a new future instead of recreating the past. When a new pastor is constantly compared to a previous pastor, the likelihood of a successful call is limited. The congregation needs time to reevaluate its mission and connect with a leader who will bring them into a new future—even (and especially) if it looks different than the past.
Scripture is full of stories of transition. The flood forces Noah onto the ark, and when the water recedes, he faces a different world. Joseph moves from the favored son to enslavement to leadership in Egypt. Joseph and Mary are startled by the news of her pregnancy and shift their lives to accommodate Jesus’ birth.
One of the most famous stories of transition in the Bible is that of Moses, who God calls to lead his people out of oppression into freedom. As the Red Sea closes in over the Egyptians, the finality of the change settles into the hearts of the Israelites. There is only forward movement. They leave Egypt quickly, yet it takes some 40 years in the wilderness for the Israelites to adjust to the transition and live into their identity as a free community. They grumble to God about missing Egypt and its food. They lose trust in God and worship idols. They disobey God’s commands. When they finally reach the promised land, Moses dies before entering it, and Joshua takes over leadership, signaling a new beginning. The transition is arduous, long, painful, and involves loss and grief.
Times of transition bring out the parts of ourselves we’d rather hide. We get anxious, rigid, weary, impatient and hopeless. We cling to old ideas. Yet transition also breaks down our barriers and exposes our vulnerabilities, which opens us up to curiosity. We start to look at the holes in the walls and wonder how they got there and how to best fix them—or if that wall needs to be torn down rather than re-painted.
It’s tough to sit in the discomfort and disorientation of in-between times. Yet these times are also filled with possibility. Transition exposes how much we thought we knew and how little we actually knew. In the unknowing, we leave space for God to act, and we pay attention to the ways God is already acting.
I’ve created a new ritual for myself when I begin a new interim position. Because my time in a congregation is temporary, I don’t bring many personal books or pictures into the office. Instead, on my first day, I fill a bucket with soapy water and a rag and bring it into the office I will use. I wash the empty shelves and inside the desk drawers. I wipe off the windowsills and the furniture. Usually, it’s been a long time since the office has been empty enough for a deep cleaning. It begins my time with a sense of opportunity and goodness, even as the congregation may be reeling from recent changes. The previous pastor’s empty office—a marker of grief for many—becomes a place of openness. I leave shelves bare so people can begin imagining what may fill them in the future. In the months to come, we sit together in the quiet space, praying for God’s guidance and watching for God’s action.
1. How do you typically respond when you’re challenged by times transition? Have you ever been surprised by your actions in response to change?
2. When has transition opened up something unexpected or new in your life?
3. What has God shown you through times of transition?
Loving God, open our hearts to what you may teach us through times of change. Grant us your wisdom as we struggle with not knowing. Help us to see the ways you are already acting in this world. Amen.
Jennifer Hackbarth is the pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in White Bear Lake, Minn. She enjoys cooking, reading, travel and spending time with her husband and two kids. You may find her reflections on faith and daily life at www.narratinggrace.wordpress.com.