More than 80 percent of North American seminary presidents have been in their current positions for at least five years, according to the Association of Theological Schools. But every school and every board eventually faces the daunting task of recruiting new leadership. One option is to hire an interim president — an intentional move that gives trustees time to pause, reflect, renew, refocus, and reboot.
But "pause and reflect" need not mean "wait around." As inviting as that sounds, the most effective interim periods are carefully structured to achieve specific goals, giving trustees time to prepare constituents for change and build anticipation for the next chapter in the school's history. Without a plan, "time out" is merely time wasted, and the interim leader is reduced to a caretaker who oversees an institution that is treading water.
Before deciding whether an interim president is right for a theological school or other educational institution, trustees should consider the likely positive and negative aspects. There are significant potential positives:
Adequate time to conduct a thorough search. The board can solicit input from all stakeholders, and then they can advertise the president position or select a search firm to identify and interview strong candidates.
Insights as to what is not working. An interim president can guide the board and staff as they answer important questions: Does our institution have the right structure? Is the culture conducive to people functioning at their best? Do we have governance issues to address? With fresh eyes, the interim leader can review the school's existing vision, mission, and value statements, asking if they need to be updated. Making adjustments to these statements during the interim period may enhance the school's ability to attract top applicants for the permanent leadership position.
Innovation and objectivity. An interim president comes in with new ideas and an invitation to explore and experiment with different ways of thinking, doing, and being. Cultural changes can occur with a self-aware leader who can articulate and model a "new normal" for board and staff. It's unlikely the interim will initiate significant programmatic changes but the interim may be able to establish a review process to give the coming permanent president critical information about the effectiveness of the programs.
Confidence to make immediate shifts. A courageous but compassionate interim president will ask: Do you have the right people doing the right things? Bold conversations can lead to difficult but necessary changes. Part of the motivation to make speedy decisions is everyone's knowledge that little time is available before the permanent leader comes aboard.
Time to heal. Whenever a leader leaves, people need time to grieve. An interim period allows staff to adjust to the departure before they embrace a new leader.
If the positive aspects of an interim leader seem convincing, negative aspects also exist. In some situations, institutions need to identify their new leadership as quickly as possible. For example, if a president leaves in the middle of an initiative that has momentum, a trusted lieutenant might step in, short-term, to avoid unnecessary disruption in the life of the school.
But in general, that trusted lieutenant should not be a candidate for the permanent position. If the interim becomes attached to the job and starts to build support among the faculty and staff, a new president hired from outside may encounter unexpected resentment and an institution deeply divided in its allegiances.
Interim periods can be almost magical. Interim leaders often enjoy unparalleled authority from a board consumed with other issues. Faculty and staff are open to change and don't feel threatened because they know the interim president won't be around for long. The magic dissipates when the interim bows out, the honeymoon ends, and reality sets in. The staff now must embrace a new leader with a different management style, a leader who is likely to be in place for many years to come.