In this series of interviews, called Industry Insiders, we talk with individuals from various industries to get some insight into their respective fields. Laurel Schumacher is the Chief Operating Officer at VitalChurch Ministry, a nonprofit organization that provides interim pastors and other resources to Christian churches during times of transition or crisis.
Tell us about interim pastors—what they do and why a church might need one.
Interim pastors fill a temporary leadership void in a church. Churches find themselves in need of an interim pastor for any number of reasons, including pastoral retirement, dismissal, reassignment, or relocation. Some interim pastors work in churches to merely fill the Sunday void. At VitalChurch we call our pastors “Intentional Interim Pastors” because when they enter a church, they proceed with intentionality; they lead the church to listen to the call God has on that specific church in that specific time. They are also there as change agents to walk alongside the church as it seeks to address the issues impacting their ministry through agreed upon recommendations or ministry outcomes.
How does your organization differ from others that provide interim pastors for churches?
One of the defining features of our ministry is our diagnostic assessment. Before we place an interim pastor in a church, we conduct a diagnostic assessment on the church. This includes an online survey and often also includes individual input sessions with people from the church.
With the information we gather, our diagnostic division prepares a report for the church. The report generally identifies 3-5 core issues that the church needs to pay attention to in this season, as well as several recommendations for each issue. The recommendations in the report essentially become the agreed upon initiatives that the interim pastor and the church leadership seek to tackle together during the pastor’s time there.
Another defining feature of VitalChurch is that we are pastors, not consultants or chaplains. We go in to help churches address the root issues, or the systemic issues, rather than just deal with the symptoms. We are change agents whose sole purpose when we go to churches is to find out what God is saying to this church. Many interim pastor organizations put pastors in place to manage the status quo, where our passion is to challenge the status quo and address the issues that the status quo has not addressed.
What are some of the things you wish people would understand before they called you for help?
We love the local church! Many of our team members have been hurt by the church, and in spite of that, or maybe because of that, they are called to this ministry. We absolutely love to be used by God to serve His churches.
One of the things we see often is that churches wait a bit too long before they call us! If you think your church needs help, reach out! Recognize it is in these transition periods where, if properly leaned into, the greatest growth can be accomplished. It’s where God does his best work. People are often afraid of these transitions or difficult seasons, when they should be embraced. Many churches end up in crisis because of long-standing issues that have not been dealt with. Ignoring them does not make them disappear!
We are not for every church. I know that sounds funny, but because we don’t just deal with the surface issues, not all churches are ready for our help or willing to put in the work. We ask people to really go deep with God and each other; and to seek and follow the call God has on their church’s future. We also speak hard truths, and that can be difficult. It takes courage to hear and respond, but it is so worth it.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your organization? Did VitalChurch see an increased or decreased demand for its services?
In some ways our ministry was well prepared for the pandemic, as our team has worked remotely since our organization’s inception. We’ve been meeting via video conferencing internally and with the churches we serve for years! Our pastors do generally spend two weeks at home and two weeks at the churches they serve, and that changed a bit due to travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders.
Our pastors have done a terrific job of creatively engaging their churches through COVID and have adapted our processes to work as effectively as they did pre-COVID.
The biggest change we’ve made is moving many of our diagnostics assessments online that previously would have been onsite. Our team now meets with people from the churches online and then we then gather together on Zoom to discuss. We also moved our annual interim pastor training online this year.
Our work slowed down a bit, and now we are seeing a significant increase in churches needing our type of services. I’ve heard 2021 referenced as a year of great turnover, as people who didn’t leave work in 2020 are now finding new positions, or people who were putting off retiring realize they are actually ready. I also think that the pandemic really brought to light many of the issues churches had, and has forced them to face the reality of those issues and seek help. We are ready to help as God guides and directs.
What are the greatest challenges in your industry?
I think one of the most difficult aspects of interim ministry is that it is short term by nature. When our pastors go into churches, the church really becomes their church; they are not an outsider looking in. They build deep relationships with people in the churches they serve, as you would when you walk with any friend through a difficult season. Our pastors painstakingly bring the church to a place of health, and then they have to leave to help another church.
What is the best possible outcome for a church using an interim pastor from VitalChurch?
The best possible outcome is for us to leave the church with a deep understanding of their God-directed values, vision, and mission; for a new pastor who shares the values, vision, and mission of the church to be in place; for the leaders to be equipped and leading well; and for the church to be a healthy and safe place where people can meet God, grow in relationship with each other, serve, and offer the gospel to those in their communities.
What changes do you see on the horizon for your organization?
We are an organization that helps other organizations in transition, and we are seeking to model and practice good transitions. Our executive director is retiring, and we are moving our leadership model to an executive team approach. One of our partners who has interim pastor and executive director experience is stepping into the role of executive director for the short term to give stability to this transition before we put a new executive director in place.
We are in a phase of growth, as the needs of churches in leadership transition continue to increase. We are looking to grow our team of interim pastors, as well as grow our diagnostic division, so that we can serve more churches!