The Rev. Charles Svendsen is a church doctor. He -- and a growing number of pastors like him -- fixes churches in trouble.
In the last 26 years, the Hollywood-born Presbyterian pastor has cared for 17 needy congregations from California to Maine, Scotland to New Zealand.
Svendsen has assisted churches where pastors were fired for misconduct, treasurers stole funds or incompetent staffers remained on the payroll too long. And he has helped thousands of parishioners make a new start after their ministers took another job, retired or died.
“We’re surgeons,” said Svendsen, 55, whose assignment since June has been Brentwood Presbyterian Church, which has been trying for seven years to hire a permanent pastor.
“We’re going in there and operating on these [churches]. We don’t want to give them pain, but there is going to be pain in change.”
With so many congregations in transition or in trouble with finances or church governance, interim ministers like Svendsen are in demand.
Comprehensive statistics do not exist, but experts estimate there are several thousand trained interims working today. In some Protestant denominations, interim pastors, whose assignments average one to two years, make up 10% of the clergy pool.
To meet the need, two ecumenical organizations -- Interim Ministry Network in Baltimore and the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C. -- train interim pastors throughout the year. American Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and United Church of Christ have long had their own training and continuing-education programs for interim pastors.
This month, the Center for Congregational Health will offer a three-day program in Atlanta starting Monday, while the Interim Ministry Network will begin five days of training in Connecticut next week.
The specialty has become so indispensable to church operations that in 2003 the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kentucky began offering a doctorate in what is formally known as “intentional interim ministry.”
Regardless of how a vacancy occurs -- death, retirement, termination -- interim pastors come at a critical time in the life of a congregation. Svendsen says he comes “alongside” a congregation while it’s seeking God’s guidance and blessings for the future.
“Usually, members are mad, sad or glad -- and a combination of all three,” said the Rev. Peter Celum, a church and pastoral care specialist with the California Southern Baptist Convention who directs an interim pastor training program in Fresno.
At Brentwood, the church’s pastor of 18 years, the Rev. Charles Shields, resigned in 1999 after a five-year bout with cancer. He died a year later.
Since then, Brentwood has had two interim ministers, one pastor who didn’t stay long and a guest pastor. A permanent pastor is still needed, and last week Svendsen presided over a panel of church leaders trying to lay the groundwork for a search.
During the long transition, some members left because they couldn’t take the lingering uncertainty. But most, like businesswoman Marty Behrendt, have persevered.
“The church helped me raise my two kids,” said Behrendt, a single mother who became a member 24 years ago. With Svendsen on board, the church is in a new season and Behrendt and other members say they are hopeful.
“I thrive on problem-solving,” said Svendsen, believed to be the first pastor to do a doctoral dissertation on interim ministry. “I believe my best ministry is put forth at the point of a church’s greatest need.”
In addition to a pastor’s usual duties -- sermons, baptisms, weddings, burials and overseeing church operations -- interims must help guide congregations through a “process of discernment and preparation” for the future, said the Rev. Roger Nicholson, a United Church of Christ pastor in Pennsylvania who held 25 interim assignments until his retirement several years ago. He now runs a support group for interim pastors.
Nicholson, whose book, “Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry,” is considered the bible on the subject, says interims must be “a non-anxious presence in an anxious place.”
Svendsen recalled finding a “traumatized” congregation when he arrived at a 900-member church in New York three months after its 51-year-old pastor died. He quickly set up “grief groups” to help parishioners process their loss.
“Some were sad, others were angry,” he said. “Some were angry at God.”
Although interims often have to make hard decisions, they don’t have constituencies to please, unlike installed pastors. That frees them.
“You’re like a Teflon person -- nothing is going to stick because you’re going to be out the door in two years,” said Svendsen.
At two churches, he went after finance officers who embezzled, got them to resign and then set up plans to pay the money back -- nearly $5,000 in each case. “It wasn’t the amount but the principle of the thing,” he said.
At another church, he dismissed a much-loved but dysfunctional church secretary who had been on the staff 25 years.
Making tough decisions comes with the territory, said the Rev. Les Robinson, a United Church of Christ pastor who manages intentional interim ministry training at the Center for Congregational Health.
One of the hardest situations he faced as an interim was succeeding a pastor who had retired after 32 years but wouldn’t let go.
“At the end of the service, I’d be out in the narthex or the foyer and he’d be 6 feet away,” Robinson recalled. “Somebody would die and he would be there and already have the funeral arrangement set up before I even heard of the death.”
Robinson finally told church leaders that if they did not get their former pastor to leave, the next installed pastor wouldn’t last.
It is the interim’s job to resolve thorny issues so that the next pastor doesn’t have to.
“We’re not just doing maintenance -- holding down the fort, so to speak,” Nicholson said. “We’re trying to get the church toned up for the next person.”
But the job isn’t for everybody. The Rev. Jim Poorboy, a Southern Baptist pastor who in August started his seventh interim assignment at First Baptist Church in Grass Valley, Calif., said he couldn’t have switched to interim ministry 10 years ago had his wife, Vanessa, not been supportive.
In one four-year stretch, the Poorboys moved three times. “Some boxes never got unpacked,” Vanessa Poorboy said.
“It would drive me crazy,” said the Rev. Loren B. Mead, an Episcopal priest in Washington, D.C., who pioneered the training of interims. “But we’ve found that some people just flower in it.”
In 1974, Mead founded the Alban Institute, an ecumenical and interfaith research organization that supports congregations globally.
“When we started, we thought this would be something for pastors after they retired,” Mead said.
“But we have found that there are quite a few younger people who are quite good and are drawn to it. They don’t want long-term ministries. They like an opportunity to make a difference.”
A notable example is the Rev. Joan S. Gray, the head, or “moderator,” of the 2.4-million-member Presbyterian Church (USA). Gray, a specialist in conflict resolution and church governance, has made intentional interim ministry her life work, serving in seven churches in the Atlanta area.
Interim pastors have an uncanny knack of identifying what the Rev. Richard Bruesehoff calls “the neuralgic issues” affecting the health of a church. “They have the extraordinary ability to connect with congregations very quickly and accomplish what they need to do quickly,” said Bruesehoff, a top official with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a specialist in matching churches with interims.
As a temporary shepherd, Svendsen cannot maintain long-term relationships with people he has come to love.
But the rewarding thing for him, he said, would be this: after 30 years of ministry, to have served 20 congregations around the world.
In his dreams, thousands of congregants from all of his churches know one another.
“I think that’s a kind of a picture of heaven,” Svendsen said. “I think in heaven we are all going to know each other even though we come from different cultures, backgrounds and families.”