interim ministry

System or congregation?

[Note: a version of this article originally appeared at laurastephensreed.com.]

In many congregations there is a generation or two that pines for a bygone era, one in which Sunday School rooms were bursting at the seams and regular worship attendance meant coming to church every week. There is a movement in Christianity that pushes back on this nostalgia. It says that things were not as good as we remember. That the Church’s success then sowed the seeds for its current struggles now. That marginalization of religion allows us to be more prophetic. (After all, the church in Acts operated from the fringes.) That faith requires us to be nimble and to meet people where they are, not enshrine ways of doing ministry and make others come to us.

I agree with all of these arguments. That said, I don’t know that they address what I suspect is the real issue underlying nostalgia: in the mid-20th century, the church morphed from a community into a system. Communities are built on connection, on investing in our neighbors and our neighborhood, on drawing on one another’s gifts to make life work. Systems, by contrast, breed disconnection. They focus on areas of (sometimes manufactured) discontent and then propose solutions to that unhappiness – a product or service that we must purchase. The signs of this shift in the church include:

Congregation-shopping. If my needs aren't fully met at one church, I'll keep looking until I find the "perfect" (for now) church instead of pitching in to make my current faith home look more like my vision.

Outsized staffs. If laypeople aren't covering all the responsibilities, we'll pay more people to take on those tasks.

Siloed ministries. Noisy, questioning children and youth are shuffled off into their own classes and worship services, rarely to be heard or seen.

Inclination to hire experts to come in and tell us what to fix.  Someone else must know better than we do what changes we can make to become vibrant again.

Now, we don’t need to recreate the 1950s for a number of reasons. But looking for ways to move church culture from a systems focus back to a community mindset is a worthy endeavor. Some ways to do this include encouraging more interaction between church members and the community, not in a “we’re here to help you” kind of way but in mutually-beneficial relationship-building way. Looking for more opportunities to foster understanding, connection, and investment among generations within the church. And making a deep and wide exploration of the congregation’s collected gifts and considering what God might be inviting us to consider through this assessment. The transitional season between settled ministers is a great time to evaluate where the church acts like a system and where it embodies community, taking steps to shift more toward the latter.

The point of these efforts will not be to get more bodies in the pews or more dollars in the bank. After all, God told us to go forth to make disciples, not bring them in so that we can pad our attendance rosters and our budgets. But if we can transform a congregational system into authentic community, people eager to know and be known by others will undoubtedly be much more eager to join us.

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash.

Having trouble pinpointing your congregation's identity? Here's a way in.

I was recently coaching co-pastors who wanted to help their congregation name and claim its identity, but they weren’t sure how to help the church get its arms around such a big topic. During their tenure, they hadn’t yet picked up on a narrative that felt like it captured both the past and current character of the congregation.

The pastors mentioned that there had been some good conversation around All Saints’ Day, when church members were telling the stories of people who were key figures in the congregation’s history. In recounting the names, the pastors recognized that the departed were loved for the ways they welcomed others through the things they did and by their very presence. The theme of hospitality emerged - not mere friendliness, but a deep sense of embracing everyone who comes through the doors. The co-pastors realized that hospitality is still a lived value in their church today. This awareness created excitement around a through-line that not only resonated but could be built upon in a number of ways in the coming year.

During pastoral transitions it is important for congregations to learn to tell their stories in ways that are informative, accurate, and hopeful. A resonant identity gives newcomers a reason to return, members a way to assess which ministries to undertake, and - perhaps most importantly for the purposes of a pastoral search - the congregation a sense of what they need in a clergyperson. Just as in the case of my co-pastor coachees, however, it can be difficult to know where to begin in sussing out church identity. If everyone in the room is shrugging their shoulders and looking to others for answers, ask about the congregation’s saints. Who are they? What are some anecdotes about them? How are they part of the church’s DNA? What are the legacies that the congregation has built on? Look for the commonalities and try them on: is this who we are? If so, what does that mean for what we do going forward and whom we call as our pastor?

This kind of historical study promotes hindsight rather than an unhelpful nostalgia for days gone by. Done thoughtfully, these questions about individuals can prompt laughter and tears and bring to light clarifying and encouraging through-lines that the church has never considered.

Photo by Zoran Kokanovic on Unsplash

Will your church have an intentional or unintentional interim minister?

Among my clergy coaching clients, I’ve noticed a spike recently in ministers who realize they’re doing work that ideally would have been completed before their arrival: helping the congregation grieve the loss of the last pastor, addressing issues with under-functioning (and sometimes outright sabotaging) staff, creating or making long-overdue revisions to basic documents such as personnel manuals and by-laws, right-sizing lay leadership teams, and visioning for the next chapter of the church’s story. This work, which is time-intensive and emotionally draining, can leave clergy wrung out before they celebrate their first anniversary with a congregation. They find themselves asking, “Can I keep up this pace? Do I see myself here long-term?” More than occasionally, the answer is no, and the call these ministers envisioned lasting for many years ends up being an unintentional interim stint.

There are many good reasons to call an intentional interim minister in between settled pastors. Interims expect to enter systems in turmoil, and they are trained to handle the challenges. Interims can manage all the extra pastoral duties (with ample breaks, that is) that come with a highly-anxious congregation because they know their time there is limited. Interims, with one foot in the church and the other out, can offer insights that neither a consultant (outsider) nor a settled pastor (insider) is able to see and voice.

The costs to a congregation of an unintentional interim minister, on the other hand, are high. Full-blown pastoral searches are pricey, not just in terms of money but also time and energy. Severance packages can hamstring a church’s budget. Congregations are often hesitant to invest in the next settled minister, not wanting to get attached to a leader who could turn out to be another short-timer. Throughout all the uncertainty, trust among church members and between members and staff/lay leaders begins to suffer, and the congregation’s focus shifts from mission to survival.

With all the benefits of interim ministry and the downsides of not utilizing this transition resource, why doesn’t every church call one? There are a couple of reasons. First, congregations think the interim is a time to save money on personnel costs. They see stop-gap measures such as a revolving door of guest preachers as a way to protect the budget. Additionally, they want a settled minister in place as quickly as possible because they fear the loss of members and a decrease in giving during the transition.

But the second reason, I believe, is the real one. Churches think that calling an interim minister means that they’ve failed or that they’re unhealthy. There’s a myth that only “messed up” congregations need guided introspection during the time between settled ministers. In fact, it is a sign of health and maturity as well as an investment in the future to call an interim minister. It never hurts to breathe deeply, take stock, and move toward what’s next with purpose – in other words, intentionality.

Photo by Chris Brignola on Unsplash.

How Searching for the Called dovetails with intentional interim ministry

If you have an intentional interim minister in place or are considering calling one, you might be wondering how Searching for the Called fits with the self-study work your interim and transition team will lead. Great question! As a trained IIM, I have designed Searching for the Called to honor the interim process.

The work of the congregation during an intentional interim is to reflect deeply on the church's history, purpose, leadership needs (lay and clergy), connections with denominational and missional partners, and future. Notice that these areas are the focus of "befriending the past and anticipating the future," stage two of Searching for the Called. Follow the link to find reflection questions, best practices, and tools that can complement those that your intentional interim minister brings to the table. There's also an assessment that helps the congregation know when this self-study is complete.

When your interim minister shifts from coaching the church through this time of discovery to encouraging the search team, Searching for the Called utilizes the same intentionality and deep reflection your minister has been urging during the your movement through the five focus points. It helps create a seamless hand-off from transition team to search team and emphasizes the importance of building on congregational discussions. Since many denominations frown upon interim ministers becoming deeply involved in the search, Searching for the Called can pick up the coaching role as needed.

For those who would like to read more about how intentional interim ministry and Searching for the Called work together, check out this summary for interim ministers.

Photo by Todd Diemer on Unsplash.

Succession plans

I’m hearing of more and more churches designing succession plans rather that engaging in an interim period between lead pastors. (Before interim ministry was a specialty, this approach was common in some denominations.) I will admit my bias up front: I believe the time between settled pastors is an invaluable opportunity for reconnecting with the church’s history, understanding the congregation’s specific purpose anew, and making needed changes. I also think there’s huge spiritual transformation potential, because when there is no installed leader, the church has to lean harder into its faith in God’s presence and goodness.

If your church is considering a succession plan, I would urge you to discuss the following:

What are the reasons we want our next pastor in place before the current one departs? It’s important to be able to name motives beyond the desire to avoid the discomfort of the interim time and a lack of confidence in the congregation’s ability to do the work of the search.

In what ways will the current pastor be involved (or not) in the search for the next pastor? One of the functions of an interim time is to allow a congregation to find out who it is apart from the identity of the departing pastor. If the current pastor is permitted to influence the search process, your church will – for good and ill – continue to be strongly influenced by the outgoing pastor’s passions and personality.

What will the transition look like? How much overlap between the pastors will there be (and can you afford it budget-wise)? How will the responsibilities be shifted over the course of that doubled-up period? What agreements and rituals will you put in place for the eventual end of the current pastor’s tenure?

When will we build in time for self-reflection about God’s call on us as a congregation, and what will that process look like? Church mission/purpose statements evolve over time, and the interim is a natural period for re-evaluation. If there is no interim time, what conditions will you put in place to make sure this work happens so that your congregation continues to be as faithful as possible in its response to God’s call?

Calling and building a relationship with a new pastoral leader takes great intentionality, no matter what that minister’s start in the congregation looks like. Leave no question about process undiscussed, and let your choices be guided by faith in God rather than fear of the unknown.

Photo by Marc Sendra martorell on Unsplash.

Show your interim minister some love

I want to let you in on a secret. Interim ministry is extremely challenging. Here are a few of the reasons why:

The minister enters a stressed system. Pastoral transitions are never easy on congregations, no matter how amicable the last minister’s departure was. So unlike a settled minister, who (hopefully) comes into a church that is excited and unified behind the new leader, the interim comes into a swirl of confusion, strong feelings, and worries about what will happen to the congregation while it is without a settled pastor.

The minister has additional duties in addition to the regular pastoral responsibilities. Trained intentional interim ministers preach, lead worship, provide pastoral care, and attend meetings. On top of that they guide the congregation through a period of self-reflection and identity redefinition, which involves a lot of additional meetings, equipping of leaders, attention to process, and anxiety management.

The minister quickly grows to love the congregation, even knowing that the pastor-parish relationship will be short-lived. Your interim minister loves you like a settled pastor does and is invested in you. Yet for the transitional minister there is anticipatory grief built into the relationship from the outset.

The minister never gets a break from wondering about personal financial stability. Some interim terms of call are as short as 3 months with an option to renew while others are as long as 12-24 months. A transitional minister must always be looking for that next opportunity while staying engaged with your congregation for as long as it is feasible to do so.

The minister is often looked past by the congregation. You love your interim minister. You can’t help it – though the minister’s tenure with your church is time-limited, that person is still walking with you through the church year and your personal milestones, joys, and griefs. Yet you are understandably excited for the day when your congregation will have a “real” (settled) pastor. The interim minister gets this, but some days this reality is more painful than others.

Be sure and thank your interim minister for providing the leadership that allows your church to harness the opportunities of the transition time. And definitely throw a big party for your interim minister when your journey together has ended.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash.

 

Breaking shame's hold on our congregations

Note: this post originally appeared at laurastephensreed.com, but it is worth sharing here because it speaks to an issue some churches need to work through before calling a settled minister.

In a recent podcast with author Jen Hatmaker, research professor Dr. Brene Brown shared an insightful nugget from her work: shame is the enemy of innovation. When we believe that we are not worthy – of love, of belonging, of joy, of dreaming – we cannot think beyond our current circumstances. We cannot brainstorm new ways of being and doing. We cannot envision a future much different from our present.

I have noted this truth for myself. When I feel bad about how I look, it seems like making new friends is out of reach. When my inbox is not dinging, I worry that I’ll never get another coaching or consulting client. When I don’t have expertise about the topic of discussion, I’m certain my conversation partner won’t take my input seriously. It becomes hard to put one foot in front of the other, mentally and emotionally.

It’s no secret that many of our churches are stuck. They try to strategically plan their way out of the mire, but those plans often involve more of what the congregation is currently doing, has done in the past, or has seen work in other contexts. They cannot imagine a different way of being church, only returning to a day when attendance was three times what it is now and children’s Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams.

I think corporate shame plays a role in this stuckness. We think, what is it about our church that makes people want to leave, or not even come in the first place? Why do our regulars only come once or twice a month now, when a decade ago they were here every week? Why would a new pastor accept a call to a dwindling congregation with a shrinking budget? How can we draw in newcomers when everyone in this community knows about “the incident” that happened here twenty years ago? How can we call ourselves a vibrant church when our educational wing is a ghost town?

These are all questions of worthiness. And yet, our value does not come from attendance patterns or the weekly offering. Just because something bad occurred in our past doesn’t mean our story is irredeemable. There’s no need to sound the death knell when one part of the physical plant is lying fallow. We don’t have to earn our place in the whole of Christ’s body. We have significance simply because we were created by God and gathered together in God’s name.

How, then, do we push against this collective shame that prevents us from moving into a fruitful future?

First, we must unearth it. With a group of leaders – or possibly with the congregation as a whole – pose some discussion prompts. What chapters of the church’s life or which former pastors do we not talk about, and why? How do we think others view our congregation? What are our biggest worries about the church’s present or future? How do these worries affect how we do ministry?

Second, we must address the three Ps. Psychologist Martin Seligman writes that personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence radically impact our self-perception. In personalization, congregations think “we are not good enough” rather than “those members who went elsewhere needed something we don’t offer.” In pervasiveness, an issue in one area is generalized to all of church life: “our youth group has hit a membership lull” becomes “the church is dying.” And permanence prompts us to think that we can’t get off whatever train we’re on: “if we’re in decline, there’s nowhere to go but down.” Those big, shame-inducing Ps have to be shrunk down to their proper place as lower-case ps that focus on actions and circumstances rather than unalterable character.

Third, we must broaden the narrative. What are the stories that demonstrate the congregation’s uniqueness? How has this church changed lives for the better? What are the gifts of our current circumstances? What can we do now that we couldn’t do before? What are the non-financial resources we haven’t yet tapped? For whom would this congregation and its mission be really good news?

God did not make us – as individuals or churches – for shame. God created us for love, connection, joy, and innovation. Let us do the hard work of exposing and eliminating the shame that keeps us from embracing the worthiness that comes from our kinship with Christ, thereby becoming free to live fully into the purposes God has for us.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash.