How Do We Start Again?:  Reconsidering Pastoral Ethics in the ELCA from the Vantage Point of Interim Ministry

[1] As a pastor in the LCA ordained in 1981 now serving in the ELCA, I experienced the embodied pastoral ethics of Vison and Expectations as being too weighted in scope and emphasis on sexual ethics so that all other ethical considerations were overwhelmed.  Today, with the demise of Vision and Expectations, there remains a need for deliberation and consideration of pastoral ethics, especially in regard to proper boundaries for the pastoral leader in the church community.  In this article, I reflect on how the practice of interim/transitional ministry offers a unique lens for framing pastoral ethics for all clergy. By examining the role of the transitional pastor, as defined by the discipline and practice of intentional interim ministry for the period of a pastoral vacancy, I believe we can begin to see the need and grounding for the setting of ethical boundaries.[1]

[2] While not everywhere defined nor exercised uniformly, the practice of transitional ministry[2] is a ministry specialty with guidelines and best practices.  Admittedly, this window is narrow:  The model I lift before you, of the Interim Ministry Network (IMN)[3], the model of my own training and experience, an outgrowth of the former Alban Institute, is interdenominational and interfaith. Thus, it does not, nor cannot, set out the theological heart that rightly belongs to each tradition.  Nor would these reflections form the whole of a pastoral ethics.  As a Lutheran Christian, I would begin with Jesus, with baptism, and foundations rooted in scripture.  The Lutheran foundations are not directly addressed in this article, yet, importantly, they are not incompatible with what I propose here.

[3] A discussion of the role of the transitional pastor, as defined by the discipline and practice of intentional interim ministry, shows us several imperatives we ought to include in pastoral ethics:

  1. Remember that the mission belongs to the congregation, not the pastor.
  2. Thus, as the pastor or other rostered leader, during your service in a ministry, remember that you are transitory, but the Word of God is eternal.
  3. Be responsible for the decisions you make – for example, about your use of time in your ministry, about your ministry priorities, about your recommendations to leaders; and be accountable for them.
  4. Be subject to the regular annual evaluation of a small team of respected leaders, for the sake of your ministry and for the ministry of the congregation. Learn to hear what you do not do well and allow the ministry to build other strengths beside yours to balance areas where you do not bring strength.
  5. When you leave, disentangle yourself both from the congregation and the community in which you have served to make space for a leader in the role you once held.

[4] The training materials of IMN set forth a congregation’s areas of work in broad outline in Five Focus Points that are adapted within each denominational or faith setting – areas for clergy, leaders and people to reflect on together.[4]  While assisting the congregation with their work as defined by the Focus Points, the interim pastor’s work is guided by an outline of Five Process Tasks, here paraphrased:

  1. Becoming Part of the Congregation[5]
  2. Discerning the Dynamics of the Congregation and Issues that Need to be Addressed during the Interim Time
  3. Assuming Responsibility and Establishing Priorities for the Pastor’s own work and for the Shared Work with Leaders in the Interim Time
  4. Connecting the Congregation and the Denomination
  5. Evaluating, Exiting Well and Adjusting to a new Future

[5] Notice that the first two charges to the Interim Pastor are “Becoming Part of the Congregation.” and “Discerning the Dynamics of the Congregation.”  The focus is on becoming part of the congregation as it is and to understand it.  Together, these two directives articulate an essential question for the leader in Interim Ministry:  How can we assist a congregation and its leaders, unique people of God, in this time and place, to grapple with who God in Christ calls them to be in this next phase of their life together?  Ethically, pastors are asked to put the mission of the congregation first.

[6] This is not often the question people in the congregation perceive as most pressing for the work of an interim time!  In words and worries, they ask, “Will we have enough money?  When are we going to get a pastor?!?  We’re going to be able to keep the Associate, aren’t we?  When are we going to fix the potholes in the parking lot?”   These questions are not unimportant, but neither are they primary.  The congregation’s mission, the work God calls them to do, is primary.

[7] If a congregation seeks to fill the pastoral vacancy first, without reckoning with the nature of their mission, of what the pastor partners with the congregation to lead for, it is as though the congregation is asking the pastor to bring whatever mission emphasis he or she wants to bring.  But the congregation’s mission is primary. One congregation gathers its people to feed hungry neighbors; another centers itself around a daycare center for its town’s low income families; a downtown congregation is known for mid-day music events that gather in workers from nearby offices to be lifted mid-day on the transcendent mercies of God.  All of them seek to be faithful to the One who was born among them and calls them forth.

[8] Tending to and caring for, the congregation’s mission is an interim pastor’s primary focus and responsibility.  In that, they model an ethical pastoral core appropriate also for ministries beyond the time of transition.  While many settled rostered leaders readily identify with this dimension of their ministries, there is a transience like an interim time in even the longest settled pastoral call, in the most tradition-bound ministry.  No pastoral call is permanent.

[9] Pastors are so important in our tradition.  A leader may appear powerful in congregation and community and be a joy and gift to the Church.  But the promises of the rostered leader’s installation service to equip the people for ministry [Ephesians 4:12] and to point others to Christ can get lost among a leader’s personal needs.  When a leadership vacuum appears at the beginning of the interim time instead of simply the usual grief of parting after a tenure together as pastor and people, interim pastors observe that power has shifted away from the congregation’s mission to a focus on the (former) pastor.  That signals a need for additional work together during transition on discerning their mission.

[10] It also alerts the interim pastor to be attentive to the possibility that other pastoral boundaries might have been breached or been misunderstood by leaders and laity.  Boundary violations often accompany ministry situations where the focus has shifted from the congregation’s mission to the role or leadership of the rostered leader.  Boundary violations can include sexual boundary crossings – affairs or inappropriate physical or emotional relationships with other staff or with people in the congregation.  Often the violations are not intimate; although, they can be just as harmful.  Inappropriate handling of money is one type of violation.  It can include simply being part of financial decisions outside of the usual financial controls or best practices in relation to the financial handling of accounts or a pastoral handling of decisions that more rightly belong to other officers or leaders.

[11] Another boundary violation is represented in the assertion of personal privilege over pastoral role.  This is most obvious when a rostered leader is no longer in the particular pastoral role as a leader within the mission of that congregation, yet still is requested and accepts the clergy role in such activities like baptisms, weddings, and funerals. When a family calls a former pastor instead of the pastor who is currently in place to do the funeral or wedding of a loved one, the family asserts the pastor’s individual importance over and above the congregation’s ongoing life.  These are such tender moments in a family’s life.  Who can blame them for wanting the one who knew their loved one so well, whether to prepare for marriage or to remember the one who died?

[12] Certainly, when the pastor who receives such a call notifies the church office and current pastor of the pastoral need, they honor the congregation’s ministry.  But when they continue to be involved without the request of the called pastor nor the request of the council, they assert their personal privileges over and against the mission of the congregation.  For this reason, most synods and bishops provide guidance for rostered leaders when they vacate a ministry for the sake of the ministries they once served.

[13] While not often discussed from this perspective, long-term pastorates are subtly destructive of congregational health for exactly this reason:  over time, the center of power shifts to the pastor, away from the congregation’s mission, often without awareness within the leadership.  The difficulty is exacerbated if that pastor is the one who helped to develop the mission of the congregation, engaged in a significant building program with them, and/or grew them to their current significantly larger size.

[14] Pastoral ethics are about the congregation’s welfare, and the welfare of those within it.  Boundaries are set to protect them.  In many ways the interim period between pastoral leaders is a boundary in which the welfare of the congregation can be lifted up again into focus, for reconsideration.  Together, leaders and laity who care about their congregation’s life mend, reshape and redirect its future, in their faithful response to God’s love in Jesus.  It’s a new beginning, starting out again in some new ways, but consonant with their past.

[15] There are congregations that treat rostered leaders poorly, sometimes repeatedly over long periods of time.  In those cases, synodical or other support is often required to work with leaders to break the pattern.  Bishop’s offices ought also to set boundaries, use behavior covenants, and refuse to offer candidates until certain standards are met. In these cases, use of a highly trained Intentional Interim Pastor, one capable of working amidst conflict, can also move the congregation, though this is painstaking and difficult work.

[16] Importantly, the transition pastor is charged with attending to his or her own focus, to prioritize decision-making about the direction of the interim work and assume responsibility for those decisions.  Often these decisions are made in consultation with leaders, the council and transition team. But the interim pastor guides the decisions. This interim period and leadership offers the congregation an intensive reflection and planning time where certain kinds of change are possible that are not easy in other times, change that makes possible a great impact on the life of the ministry’s mission.

[17] The Ministry Site Profile (MSP), the call process document used by congregations in the ELCA, frames one of its questions about the congregation’s future in this way, asking leaders to think strategically for the next phase of its ministry:  “In light of the way you have described your ministry context in this MSP, what are the top three mission priorities which, if accomplished, hold the most promise for the continued development of this ministry?”[6]  Interim pastors are asked to frame their work in a similar way:  focusing intentionally and taking responsibility for their decisions, no matter how the decisions turn out.  Then they are required to be evaluated at the end of every interim placement, and to model clear boundaries with the pastor who will follow them. This is a helpful guideline for pastors that are far longer in term than an interim pastor, but still necessarily temporary and transitional.

[18] My most recent interim placement had gone especially well, even given the demands of the pandemic and hard things in my personal life unrelated to the life of the congregation.  When it came time to mark our parting in worship, I knew the parting would be hard for many of us, though it was past time for my departure and there was lots of excitement about the new pastor and the church’s new, stronger future possibilities.  I wanted to strengthen the acknowledgement of the difficulty of saying goodbye in our synod’s standard interim rite of our parting, about how hard it is to part as pastor and people.  We feel it on both sides.  Yet in spite of the feelings of sadness and loss, it’s important that those feelings not predominate.  After all, the feelings were difficult because all had gone so well, and we chose to separate willingly for the sake of the health and strength of the ministry for which we had worked so hard to create a new and stronger future.

[19] In a congregation that had a history of its former pastors being involved, often to the detriment of the present-day ministry, the closing rite was, and could be direct, in describing the dual burden that a continuing relationship puts on both former pastor and congregation.  The Litany in an Interim Pastor’s Farewell and Godspeed includes the usual giving back of the symbols of the office of ministry, as often happens at the end of a pastoral call.  Here is a section of my adaption of the usual interim farewell to articulate a clearer pastoral boundary out loud.

[20] After being led through a series of thanksgivings for the pastor’s particular strengths, for which the congregation thanks God, the people gathered are asked, “Do you the members and friends of ___ release this Pastor (by name) from her duties as Pastor of ___, from continuing ministry in this place.”

We do, with the help of God.

“Do you offer your encouragement to her as she goes?”

We do, with the help of God.

Then the Pastor is asked, “Will you, Pastor ___, release this congregation and its people from turning to you or depending upon you?

 I will, with the help of God.

Do you offer your encouragement for the continued ministry here at ___, without you?

I will, with the help of God.

[21] Can we let go and let God?  Through the rite, pastor and people speak the affirmation out loud.  We, who have built and nurtured a ministry together, who have sharpened it together for a new era, have finished our work.  Now we let go of it doing it together… in order that a new leader might come to carry it forward in new ways.  We return it to God and to each other for the next phase of ministry.

[22] My insights for this article were born in the frequent comings and goings of a pastor now doing intentional interim work, but I have also served two settled calls, one lasting 24 years.  The need for a boundary after departure from a role in ministry exists no matter where or how long the service; thus, this kind of clarity in liturgy could serve well in many settings.  There can be difficulties that need the support of the arriving pastor even following a brief interim time.

[23] In my experience, pastors who cross boundaries inappropriately do not do so because they want to hurt people or to cause division in the life of the congregation in the next pastor’s tenure.  It’s more subtle and pernicious than that.  Unless confronted with physical evidence, say of embezzlement or of an extramarital affair, many leaders don’t acknowledge or even understand that they are crossing boundaries. They don’t believe that the rules for pastoral etiquette after leaving a call apply to them, or to this relationship of these people that they are so fond of.  Speaking the boundary out loud together, within the whole assembly, agreeing together, with the help of God, not to look to the other for help and support, acknowledges the parting as a real parting, a getting ready for the church’s next phase of its God-given mission without the presence of each other.  It announces that there is grief as we part, but not only grief. It announces there is satisfaction at what has been accomplished, relief, anticipation, excitement, regret, disappointment, anger, and a host of emotions, within and among us.  It announces, in all of this, that God in Christ is with us, sustaining us, and calling us forward.

[24] Interim pastorates are shorter than the usual settled pastorates, yet the work with leaders is often intense.  With these leaders, and with members of the congregation who have experienced pastoral care crises and unexpected deaths in their families during the interim time, pastoral connections with an interim pastor can be every bit as strong at the leave-taking as for settled pastors.  Especially where our work was successful and satisfying, I knew I would miss the pattern of our work, staying connected by texts, and the many small ways we stayed in touch.  The reciprocal pattern of the litany – of learning how no longer to count on each other for that pattern and flow of ministry, which I found difficult, but also challenging and sustaining – this was the grief of parting for me.  Stepping out of that web of meaningful relationships and tasks, I had to resist reaching out to the ones I had worked with so closely.

[25] It helped me concretely to know that I was supporting the new pastor and the ministry I cared so much about as I practiced detaching – as I made the decision not to connect.  I learned to re-route, mentally, an impulse I might feel to touch base with the leaders whose connections I’d spent two years building in that ministry.  I found other places in my life to use that emotional energy.  For the sake of the ministry we loved working on together, I needed to stop being present to create space for a new pastor and the leaders who would move forward with her to create their own way forward.

[26] In my primary ministry, inner city work in communities more African American than white, I found new dimensions of myself:  a place where the oral musical gifts of our adult autistic son are seen as the gift of God that I also know them to be; a freedom to rest in the grace of God and move with the Spirt in worship, neither of which I received as a child in the all-white suburbs of my growing up; the wondrous pulse of walking city neighborhoods where people know each other.  Over the years, the fact that I am often in a racial/ethnic minority as a white person has forced me to examine myself more deeply to understand the privileges I bear by the color of my skin.  I see the effects of racism daily, for example, as friends who are with me in stores get followed as soon as they walk in the door or can’t get bank loans.

[27] My bishop’s office usually has me serve interim placements out of the city, in congregations with few or no people of color in their congregations.  It took me several placements to realize that my racial/ethnic and class sensitivity was one of the gifts I brought with me, even when leaders and members didn’t want to talk about it directly.  (I haven’t yet been placed in a congregation where people were open to talking about racism, though facilitating difficult conversations is one of my strengths.)

[28] Every pastor has unique strengths and skills.  Some are skills the congregations that receive us can imagine and desire; others come as a blessed surprise.  Some will help shape the ministry in the era to come.  Pastors are so important to the life of our congregations!  Yet, even so, the mission belongs to the congregation, who receives the gifts of each one who serves there, and compensates for the shortcomings, as well. Soli deo gloria.


[1] It would be simpler for the reader if interim ministry, even in the ELCA, had only one training organization; one generally accepted model among synods for handling pastoral transitions when and where Intentional Interim Pastors were employed; one set of expectations for their work with congregations.  It does not.

[2] In this context, I am using intentional interim pastor, interim pastor and transitional pastor interchangeably.

[3]; 410-719-0777.

[4] These include: their Heritage; a consideration of the Leadership needs across the ministry; clarify the ministry’s current sense of Mission; discover the resources they need to accomplish the mission, within and without, including Connections to the denomination; and prepare for the Future with appropriate paperwork (Ministry Site Profile in the ELCA setting) and job descriptions. Focus Points and Process Tasks are still part of the current IMN training.  The discussion in this article was based on a 2014 training and its training manual Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry: The Work of the Congregation, Appendix, page 3.   

[5] The training of IMN is based on systems dynamics as developed by Murray Bowen and applied to congregations by Edwin Friedman.  The training manual  calls the transition pastor’s work the Five Process Tasks: Joining the System, not standing apart from them, but becoming part of them; Analyzing the System, discerning its dynamics, which also assumes the role of the Transition Pastor as a Participant Observer; Focusing, Assuming Responsibility and Establishing Priorities in the Pastor’s own work and in the Transition Process; Connecting the Congregation and the Denomination; Evaluating, Exiting Well and Adjusting to a New Future.  The material as presented here came from the manual, lecture notes from the 2014 training, and my adaptation and use with lay leaders in several congregations.  It was collated in Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry: The Work of the Leader (FTML), including an article written by David Sawyer in this manual on pages 20-24 in the Appendix of FTML.

[6] “Mission,” page 8 of the Ministry Site Profile, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Janet Peterman

Janet S. Peterman is an inner-city ELCA pastor living with her family in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. She has served the last 15 years of her ministry in seven (7) intentional ministry settings in 3 synods. She has reached the Professional Transition Specialist level of accreditation through the Interim Ministry Network (IMN), an interfaith community of transitional ministry practitioners developed to provide support and training for leaders who are leading during a time of transition. When not in active ministry, she gardens, bikes, hikes and takes joy in friends, family and photography.