The Interim Leader’s Tasks within a Congregation:  Leaving Well

This week, we conclude our exploration of the tasks of interim religious leaders and the congregations they serve, as they go through the interim period.  We’ve had five weeks of focus on the work of the congregation during the interim period:  an examination of the congregation’s Heritage (coming to terms with history), Mission (developing a unique identity), Leadership (and changes during the interim period), Linkage (the ways in which we renew and deepen connections to our faith and denomination) and Vitality (how to ensure ongoing health in the church.)  More recently we’ve looked at the work of the interim leader during the same interim period.  That work begins with Joining the System, followed by the study and analysis of what’s going on in the church – working to figure out the church’s behavior and unique identity, and the relationship the congregation has with the UUA.  It continues with the work we’ve done and the responsibilities involved in such work.  Finally, our exploration concludes with the end-game: leaving well.

We have identified the ways in which the interim leader needs to be able to join the system and work within it as both colleague and leader. The intent and hope is that during the time the interim leader is serving, there will be milestones achieved and that the congregation will move forward to a place where a new, settled leader can be successfully brought into the system.

As the illustration below shows, the roller coaster of change is a way of describing what the congregation’s experience may have felt like for some of you during this 22-month interim period. The departure of the previous leader in a church is typically met with a variety of emotions — including shock, disappointment, a personal sense of loss, perhaps guilt, and for some, a bit of excitement at new opportunities opening up. As the transition time continues there may be disconnection, anxiety, sadness, the decision to either “take a vacation” or “stick with it,” and – for those in the latter category – dedication to focusing on new opportunities and learning.  

During this time there are increased chances to try things in new ways, experiment, evaluate what has been of value and what might be put to rest, and with this, the chance to shape a fresh vision and create new ways of doing things.  It is the time when the ‘excitement dream’ that many can’t grab hold of easily actually appears: ‘what if’ can become “let’s try it” and perhaps, “here’s a new way that works.” That transition frequently helps to support new attachments, a recommitment to the church and the faith formation program that has been evolving, and for many, a time of bright opportunities.

The fact that Follen has been going through this leadership transition at the same time as it’s been dreaming of, funding and realizing the results of a hoped-for building campaign; that it’s experiencing leadership transition not only in the area of faith formation but also music and community engagement, means that there is a whole lot going on, on many fronts.  

While it is true, from a church growth and change perspective, that ‘productive disequilibrium’ is the space in which true growth and change occurs, it’s also true that an overload of those changes can shut things down.  And the Follen community – which values its traditions and that which is familiar and known (as so many do) – is being thrust into one heck of a change: extensive building change, new staff, and all the while, knowing that you may not even be able to find the books in the library, the snacks for the nursery space, or the Christmas tree lights for the next several months as they rest in storage pods.  It is a lot!

On the cusp of all this, I am now in the final two months of my tenure at Follen.  I implore you: do not rest. This is a time for putting plans in place for next year for your new settled Director of Faith Formation:  the RE Action Team and I have set curriculum for next year; we are actively seeking out the best possible leaders for Follen’s faith formation programs, working on a relocation plan for staffing and supplies for the coming months as demolition and building begins, and I am conducting program evaluations even as next year’s programs are put into place.  And I am beginning to say goodbyes: to those who have devoted so much to support these transitional years, to those who are shaping what is to come, to those who have been actively working on religious education and with those who have not loved all the change I’ve represented. All of you make up this church, and all of you hold the keys to its future.  

When I leave on June 30, I will do all I can to have prepared the way for the person who follows and the programs that will continue:  that is part of the interim’s charge as well. And in the months that will follow, when we meet again, let it be as old friends.

Faithfully yours,


Deborah Weiner
Interim Director of Religious Education