interim ministry

Valuing staff who step up

In churches that have more than one clergyperson on staff, it is good and right for the congregation to look to the associate pastor(s) for leadership when the senior pastor is away. That associate pastor has the training and the big picture understanding to keep ministry moving forward during the senior pastor's absence.

Things get tricky, though, when we're talking about the long-term leave (such as sabbatical) or the resignation of a senior pastor. In these instances the capabilities of associate pastors do not change, but their capacities do. A senior pastor's two-week vacation typically means temporarily-added stress for an associate pastor, who might take on more worship leadership, preaching, pastoral care, and administrative (e.g. meetings) duties than usual. That is doable for a short span. Carrying those extra responsibilities for months, however, could easily lead to resentment and/or burnout on the part of an associate pastor. After all, she is doing more than the job to which the church called her. And all too often congregations don't recognize, bring in help for, or compensate this essential yet supplemental work. 

How, then, can these common gaps in senior pastor leadership be navigated well? Here are a few thoughts:

Senior pastors can

  • Make the effort to communicate to church leadership how much time they spend on the various aspects of their ministry so that those leaders can make good decisions about coverage.

  • Invite their associate pastors to ask questions, share concerns, and state needs around the responsibilities that might fall to them during long-term senior pastor absences.

  • Secure temporary assistance for their associate pastors during sabbatical periods and advocate for additional compensation during and time off after the leave for their associate pastors.

  • Help the church be pro-active about budgeting for temporary assistance and additional compensation so that the funds will be there when needed.

Associate pastors can

  • Talk with their senior pastors, pastoral relations committees, and/or personnel committees about their hopes and fears around their senior pastors' absences.

  • Keep track of all of their responsibilities and the time needed to do each well. Be prepared to share this information with church leaders and to help them do the math. ("If you want me to pick up X responsibility, what would you like for me to drop?")

  • Ask for what they need. What kind of help would be most useful? Who might provide it? How much recovery time will be required after the church is fully-staffed again? How much additional pay would be fair for taking on senior pastor duties?

  • Go on vacation beforehand. Have something to look forward to afterward.

  • Ensure they have breaks built into the time when they'll be running point.

Congregations can

  • Recognize their associate pastors as pastors, all the time.

  • Take care to appreciate their associate pastors' extra effort and to note the toll it takes when the senior pastor is gone.

  • Acknowledge that associate pastors pick up extra emotional labor when senior pastors are absent due to added anxiety in the system.

  • Mobilize to pick up some of the duties that would otherwise fall by the wayside when the senior pastor is away.

  • Listen to associate pastors when they say that expectations are unreasonable. Even better, invite them to share concerns in advance of the leave and work to resolve them.

  • Give associate pastors some choice in what they pick up and what they hand off to others during senior pastor absences. Some associates might be eager to preach more. Others might want to stay closer to the areas of ministry to which the church called them.

  • Budget for additional pastoral help during stretches without a senior pastor in place. In other words, be ready to call at least a part-time interim minister following a senior pastor's resignation, and be prepared to pay for temporary help during a senior pastor's sabbatical.

A senior pastor's absence can be a time of growth for the associate pastor and the congregation. In order to harness this opportunity, though, it is important to be thoughtful and pro-active. Otherwise, expect the associate pastor to begin imagining herself elsewhere. 

Photo by Felipe Furtado on Unsplash.

Appreciate your pastors

October is Pastor Appreciation Month, but let's be honest. Clergy - interim and settled - deserve to be noticed year-round for the ways they have committed their lives not just to the tasks but also to the intense spiritual, emotional, and mental labor of ministry. Thank them when…

...they get up at 4:30 am for a pre-surgery visit after crawling into bed late the night before due to a meeting that ran long.

...they struggle over whether to take that much-needed vacation, knowing that a beloved church member is on hospice care.

...social media tells people in the pews to "walk out of worship if your pastor doesn't preach on [insert current event here]," yet your pastor understands that that doesn't need to be the focus today.

...the lectionary is serving up softballs for addressing the world's ills, and they go there, knowing some parishioners will be angry.

...they are pulled between wanting to be a whole person (including showing up for their loved ones and themselves) and wanting to be the best pastor possible.

...they work so hard to encourage your church's progress, only to have conflict burn it all down.

...their calendars look like boxes of markers exploded on them, with color-coded appointments leaving precious little blank space.

...they have to wear the mantle of spiritual leadership even as they wrestle with their own faith.

...they have no idea what to do next after a metaphorical bomb goes off in your congregation, so they keep putting one foot directly in front of the other.

...the Church or your church makes them representative of all of a particular demographic, such that they bear the weight of excellence on behalf of all their peers.

...constructive feedback is hard to come by, no matter how much they seek it out.

...others discount their voices because they are too something, yet still they keep raising them because the message is faithful.

...they toil in obscurity because they are making big impacts that will ripple out far beyond what they will ever see.

...they make (or lead your church to make) decisions that are hard but good.

...they offer care to people who disappoint or even hurt them.

...they want more for the Church, because it is Christ's body here on earth.

Thank your ministers often for all the seen and unseen work they do to bring more peace, connection, and understanding into this world. 

Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash.

The importance of context

When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be an astronaut. That was not an uncommon goal in those days. The space shuttle program was relatively new, and the teacher-in-space program – as disastrously as it ended – made space travel seem more attainable. I’m still not so sure what was so enchanting about this dream. Maybe my budding introversion loved the idea of so much, well, space. Maybe it was the enchanting solar system photography that captured my imagination. Maybe I just didn’t know what all my career options were. Maybe I watched the movie Space Camp too many times. (The answer is probably all of the above.)

My parents encouraged me in this low-likelihood endeavor. They took me to the Marshall and Kennedy Space Flight Centers. They helped me write letters to request the scientist equivalent of head shots. They signed me up for Space Camp (which, by the way, was fun but nothing like the movie). My space fixation went strong for several years until I realized I didn’t enjoy science and math nearly as much as English. When I hit junior high, most of my astronaut posters and training manuals (yep, I’m a nerd) were put into drawers as artifacts of nostalgia.

I still love space, though. One of my favorite places continues to be the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. My husband, who went to Space Camp the same summer I did, gets giddy about it too, and now our son looks forward to going. On our most recent visit there was a new (to me) experiment about the context of the space race. As a child, the history of space travel was interesting, but it was just a timeline of progress. But the space program was never just about exploration. It was set against the backdrop of wars (hot and cold) and a struggle for the identity of the country, and the choices, the pressure, the setbacks and achievements cannot be fully appreciated without putting them in this larger context. Suddenly the stakes were clearer to me, as was the tenacity of those engineers who made the improbable happen with very little tech.

So it is with our congregations. The ebb and flow of membership, the beginnings and endings of ministries, patterns of pastor tenures, and even the architecture of church campuses must be set against the backdrop of all that was happening locally, nationally, and globally in particular eras. Then we are able to look for God’s presence through it all, identify values and legacy, and discern future direction.

When looking ahead, don’t forget to direct your gaze backward first, noticing cultural and political trends in the process. Only then, with a full grasp of context, will you be able to get clear on the character and gifts that will launch your church into a future in which the sky proves no limit.

Photo by Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash.

How firm a foundation

I currently have the privilege of serving as transition facilitator for a congregation in Memphis, Tennessee. This involves coaching a team of laypeople as they lead the church through some discussions that will be intense as well as - if we do our work with great intention and trust God's presence - fruitful and hopeful. (Transition facilitators work with congregations that have traditional interim ministers, dividing the labor between congregational self-study and the essential pastoral functions.)

This past weekend I trained this transition team. We had a big agenda for our Saturday together. Worship together, bond as a team, understand the scope of the transition process, pray our way through the large physical plant, plan for our first congregational conversation, and set the timeline for our work. (Yes, I was tired, and I'm sure the team was as well!)

I was not surprised that we quickly fell behind in our ambitious schedule. The people around the table were telling stories and enjoying one another's company. Internally, my desire to stay on task warred with my conviction that these conversations were the work, no matter what our agenda said. A key component of the day was the sharing of faith journeys. I was amazed by the depth to which team members told deeply personal stories. There were tears. There was laughter. The connections being formed and strengthened were almost visible, they were so visceral.

We were able to check off the most important to-dos in preparation for our work with the church as a whole (and still adjourn on time!). But when we reflected on the our work we had done over eight hours, there was consensus that the team-building pieces - faith stories, casual conversation during lunch, a tangent or two, affirming one another's experiences and gifts via call and response - were where God was most powerfully at work.

This team was put together through congregational ballots that were then processed by a nominating committee to ensure as much diversity in life and church experience, perspective, age, and gender as possible. It was purposefully representational of a church that - like most churches - has plenty of different thoughts on what the next chapter of ministry should look like. 

That's exactly why this "soft" or "slow" work was necessary. (To be clear, I believe attention to relationship-building is tough and makes processes more efficient in the long run.) We were able to see the image of God in one another and note what we have in common so that we can work from that starting point rather than areas of disagreement. Now the team members can model that recognition of each person's belovedness, that delight in one another, that love for their church as they lead the discussions that must be had if the congregation is to notice and respond to God's invitations in this season.

In a snapshot, this is the opportunity in the transition time between settled ministers. The interim period puts a pin in business as usual and gives space for the congregation to deepen the connections among members and between people and God, making it possible then to have a more focused, faithful impact on hearts and lives both within and beyond the church walls. Pease don’t squander this gift!

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 8

Once your church has unearthed its gifts during the interim season and planned new ministry initiatives, the work is not done. It is important to pre-set times for reflecting on these initiatives. (Note that if debrief sessions aren't calendared in advance, they are much less likely to happen.) The questions below offer prompts for ongoing discernment about the faithful use of gifts and celebration of God's work in, around, and through the people involved with the ministry.

Ministry reflection form
Ministry name:
Ministry date(s):
Ministry leader(s):
Brief description of ministry:

What were the main tasks in the planning and implementation of this ministry?


What relationships were started or strengthened?


How did we make faithful use of the following?

  • People’s time

  • People’s talents

  • Personal connections

  • Congregational connections

  • Physical space

  • Money

  • Other resources

What did we learn about the following?

  • Ourselves (individually)

  • Ourselves (as a congregation)

  • Our larger community

Where was God at work in, around, and/or through us through the planning and implementation of this ministry?


In light of our responses to the above, what is God inviting us to consider going forward?

Using the reflection prompts above will not only allow your church to tweak ministries to make them more effective but will remind planners that even if an event doesn't turn out as planned, the careful debrief of it means that no effort is lost in God's economy. This realization is especially uplifting during a pastoral transition, and it begins to set a pattern of discern-reflect-discern that can spill over into even the congregation’s longtime ministries - and into the lives of individual church members. So give thanks for opportunities to love, learn, and grow, and pray for God’s continued guidance.

Photo by Kalle Kortelainen on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 7

The season between settled ministers does not have to be a time of standing still. (The church, after all, is the people, not the pastor.) Over the past several weeks I have introduced ways to take stock of the gifts of individuals in your church, the congregation as a whole, and your surrounding community. I have also offered means of celebrating those gifts and assessing how they are currently being used. After completing all of this faithful work, leaders have much of the information needed to plan for the immediate future. Below is an outline for initiative design that is rooted in Spirit-led discernment rather than human-led decision-making.

Create an atmosphere for discernment. Prepare the gathering space in a way that is conducive to worshipful work.

Set aside distractions. Ask, “What does each of us need to turn over to God before we can focus on the work at hand?”

Worship together. Invite everyone to name where they have seen God at work throughout the process.

Review and celebrate all that the leaders have learned from listening and information-gathering.

Pray as Jesus did: "Not my will but Thine be done.”

Discuss the question undergirding the planning process: “Given all the information and reflections we have gathered, what is God inviting us to consider for the immediate future?” Notice where there is excitement or energy as well as where there is a feeling of flatness.

Identify the realization that seems (realizations that seem) to be emerging. Get every concern on the table for the invitations around which there is excitement. Refine ideas that bubble up related to these invitations.

Work toward agreement. What further exploration is needed to confirm or flesh out our responses to God’s invitations? What will faithfulness look like in moving forward with what God is inviting us to consider?

Test the agreement. Let the resolution(s) rest. If your leadership isn’t able to sleep on it/them, take a meal break and then discuss how leaders are feeling in their heads, hearts, and guts about the proposed way forward.

Ask the “next step” questions. What leadership will be required for what God is inviting us to do What current programs do we need to scale back or celebrate and let go of in order to respond to God’s invitation? To whom do we need to reach out to start living into God’s invitation? Who will be the primary point person/group or liaison? When and how will we stop to evaluate our progress toward our vision of faithfulness? (Next week I will provide a ministry reflection form to aid in this assessment.)

Take action. Make detailed plans for action steps. Who will do what? How, and by when? What support and/or accountability is needed? The planning team takes these responses and begins putting detail to potential initiatives, handing them off to standing committees and/or leaders for approval and/or implementation as appropriate.

Offer gratitude to God and ask for God’s help in the coming months.

As the work draws to a close, be sure to celebrate! You have done faithful, hard work on behalf of your congregation. And this effort will not only help your search team better know what a great-fit pastor will look like, it will also make your church more enticing to most candidates.

Photo by Daniel Fontenele on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 6

After taking stock of the full range of gifts in your church and community, it's time to move from inventory and celebration to getting curious about everything your congregation has noticed and experienced. This can be a very powerful moment for a church in an interim season, and for those congregations engaged in the intentional interim ministry process, the event described below can pull on the threads of both mission and connections.

Invite the congregation to gather around tables for storytelling. Sharing a meal together provides a great reason for people to come and fuels the conversational energy. Set the vibe by bringing the visual gifts display and the accompanying responses into the meeting space, and get people excited by explaining how their participation will contribute to movement into the church's next season of ministry.

Include the following in the congregational conversation:

Worship together. Invite the congregation, as an offering to God, to name aloud responses to the following. Have someone write them down as they are voiced. Be sure that people of all ages are included in this offering.

  • Skills and stories of individuals encountered in the community

  • Personal experiences in the community

  • Observations about the community, especially what surprised, delighted, and challenged

Distribute the information compiled from studying the demographics and naming local leaders and gather around tables to discuss the following questions. Ensure there is a facilitator and a scribe for each conversation group. It is important to have someone who is prepared to keep the conversation on track and ensure all the voices are heard.

  • Who are our neighbors?

  • How is God at work in/around/through our neighbors?

  • Where might we join in that good work?

  • What are the challenges in our community?

  • Who is affected by them?

  • Who is already doing good work around them? How might we support them?

Close with prayers of thanks for your neighbors and for wisdom and faithfulness in using your gifts. Be sure to collate the accumulated responses after the gathering.

Next week's post will take the noticing and curiosity to beginning to put ministry initiatives on paper.

Photo by Bogdan Kupriets on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 5

Pastoral transitions are perfect opportunities not only for assessing our church’s gifts but also for starting and renewing relationships within the community. These efforts allow us not only to notice challenges in our neighborhoods but also to uncover the gifts and stories of the people who live and work around us, making it less likely that we will rush in with well-meaning but wrong-headed (and sometimes destructive) "fixes" as part of our attempts to be faithful to the gospel.

Considering context first involves knowing who our neighbors are. Here are some ways to identify the people who live and work around you:

Conduct a demographic study. Check with the judicatory or denomination to find out if it has contracted with a demographic service. If not, contact your local chamber of commerce or search online for demographic information. Look for age, gender, race, ethnicity, age, family composition, population concentrations, economic levels, education levels, and any other available statistics. Put the demographics of the community with the demographics of the church side-by-side. What do you notice?

Learn who the local leaders are. Brainstorm (as a team or by a mini-survey to the congregation) or look online for the following:

  • Local government officials

  • School principals/superintendents/deans/presidents

  • Librarians

  • Chief emergency responders

  • Business owners

  • Directors of organizations/agencies/associations

  • Clergy of other congregations

  • Other influencers

Collate the above information and pray for the people in your neighborhood.

Considering context doesn't end with information-gathering, however. It also involves interacting with our neighbors. Below are some ways to go about that. (Note that the first three suggestions below are particularly family-friendly.)

Go into the neighborhood. Create a scavenger hunt to encourage church members to go into nearby businesses, particularly ones they might not normally patronize. (Be sure to contact businesses ahead of time to let them know about the purpose and date(s) of the scavenger hunt and to get their permission.) For example, go into the home insurance office and get a business card. Go into the comic book shop and take a picture with the life-size cardboard cutout of Spiderman. Go into the local diner and order a slice of its famous cherry cobbler. At each location, introduce yourself to at least one employee. Make note of the people you meet and your experiences going into the businesses.

Take a prayer walk or drive. Give church members a map of a fairly small walking or driving radius. Go in groups or families, praying for the people and places along the route. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you along the way.

Challenge church members to volunteer. Create a list of local service agencies or opportunities as well as conversation prompts for interacting with people. (Where is your favorite place in the neighborhood? What is something that makes you smile? What are you good at?) Go in groups or families to volunteer. Make an effort to talk with the people – particularly the “clients” – in that place. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you.

Encourage church members to attend a city council meeting, community forum, and/or a school board meeting. Listen for the good that is going on as well as the needs being expressed.

Invite community representatives to a panel discussion at your church. Ask them what they love about their jobs and the community. Encourage them to share where they see neighborhood gifts, both individual and collective. Get them to tell about good things happening in the community, challenges they observe, and places that the church can join in either.

Next week I'll share some ways to process the information your church gleans and the experiences congregation members have in the community.

Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 4

Over the past few weeks I have been offering ways to unearth all of your congregation's gifts so that you can fully name who you are, what you do well, and what God might be nudging you to consider. Once the gifts have been identified and their current uses assessed through the survey and congregational conversations, it is time to celebrate these strengths! Chances are that your congregation will be floored by the volume of previously-unnamed blessings, providing your church with a reason to be hopeful about the future, fodder for some real creativity, and a much clearer sense of what pastoral leadership is needed. (Hope, innovation, and clarity can be big boons for a transitional season that is often very anxious.)

Here are some of the ways you can celebrate the full range of gifts:

Create a visual display of all the gifts and ministries gathered from the surveys, congregational storytelling, compilation of financial, physical, relational, and leadership gifts, and committee reflections. Ask one or more people who enjoy making art and/or organizing information to help with this task. Make all of the information movable so that it can be rearranged. Put the display in a high-traffic area where most church members will be able to see it over the course of a few weeks.

Use a number of communication means to point people to it, such as:

  • Moving the display around the building when events take place on different parts of the church campus.

  • Taking photos of the display and sending them to church members who cannot be physically present.

  • Creating one or more liturgies out of the gifts for use in worship.

  • Preaching or giving brief testimonies about various gifts or ministries.

  • Interviewing members with previously hidden or unusual gifts for the church newsletter.

As part of the display, write the following prompts and include space and writing utensils for people to respond to the following:

  • What surprises us?

  • What delights us?

  • What challenges us?

  • As we look at these gifts, what are we realizing about our congregation?

  • As we look at these gifts, what do we believe God might be saying to us?

On the display or at a congregational event, ask people to group gifts that complement one another or that could potentially be put together in new ways for greater impact. (For example, the church has a patch of unused land, a couple of adults with a propensity for gardening, and a youth group looking for a mission project. These could be combined into the creation of a vegetable garden, with the proceeds to be donated to a local food bank, or a flower garden, with the flowers taken by youth to people in nearby nursing homes.)

Celebrating the gifts will open hearts and minds to new possibilities, and getting curious about the gifts will start to move the process from naming strengths to generating excitement about the future.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 3

The time between settled pastors is a chance to reflect on who your church has been, is, and aspires to be. One of the ways to do this self-study is through the lens of gifts. Over the past couple of weeks I have shared a survey to get to know the gifts of individuals in your church better and some questions to help your congregation reflect on its collective blessings. This kind of noticing orients us to abundance and innovation rather than need, worry, or scarcity. It brings invitations from God to the surface. But to be able to recognize and respond to this divine nudging, congregations must consider how gifts are already being used. Some that have just been noted using the links above will be completely untapped, while others are likely being stretched in unsustainable ways. The assessment below will help your church zoom out to see the current concentration of gifts.

With the help of the church calendar, meeting minutes, and/or newsletters/bulletin announcements, ask each committee to list every ongoing and one-off ministry of the church that comes under its purview.
Categories might include but are not limited to:

  • Worship

  • Christian education/spiritual formation

  • Congregational/pastoral care

  • Welcoming newcomers

  • Outreach to community

  • Service to community

  • Fellowship

Using their lists, ask committees to reflect on the following. Make sure each committee has a scribe.

What gifts does each of these ministries utilize, and in what ways?

  • Person power

  • Time

  • Money

  • Physical space

  • Talents/skills

  • Relationships

Whom does each of these ministries reach?


How long has each ministry been running?


What do we need to celebrate about each ministry?


What are the hoped-for outcomes of these ministries?


What are the actual outcomes?


Thank God for all of the gifts that have been offered to make these ministries happen.

Leaders will gather the lists and responses to reflection questions from the committees, take time to mull them, and then discuss the following:

What people or groups are lightly or not at all involved in ministries (participation or leadership)?

What gifts are going untapped?

Which gifts are being stretched in unsustainable ways?

How are we out of balance with how we leverage our gifts and capacities?

About what are we feeling some excitement?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 2

After the first Sunday of Easter, the air begins to crackle with transition. Much of that has to do with the season - seminarians are graduating, ordinations are being scheduled, and pastors who accompanied their churches to the empty tomb are now announcing their moves to new places of ministry. These latter changes in particular (hopefully) prompt deep congregational reflection.

It matters greatly how churches frame these conversations. If we start with all that we aren't and all that we don't have, it will be incredibly difficult to imagine what is possible and discern what God wants us to do. But if we begin with gifts, we will be encouraged and creative and - most importantly - faithful with what God has given us.

Last week I shared a survey for taking stock of individuals' gifts. Below are some discussion prompts for a churchwide gathering to unearth the intangible gifts of the congregation as a whole.

Personal connections (Be sure to include all ages in this part of the conversation, adapting the questions as needed to varying developmental levels.)

  • When did I become part of this congregation?

  • What drew me here?

  • What keeps me here?

  • How has God been at work in/around/through me since I joined?

  • When/where do I feel most engaged with church members and/or God?

The communion of saints

  • Who are the saints (dearly departed) of our congregation?

  • How was God at work in/around/through them?

  • What legacies of these saints do we carry forward?

  • How were their values our values?

  • What ministries (formal or informal) did they begin that we carry on?

Congregational history

  • What are the key moments/turning points in our congregation’s history?

    • Pastoral changes

    • Physical plant changes

    • Conflicts

    • New ministries

    • Rapid change in membership numbers

  • How was God at work in these seasons?

  • What did we learn or how did we grow at these critical junctures?

  • Where is additional healing or resolution needed?

Close conversation with a prayer of gratitude for God's faithfulness or a ritual of celebration. Be sure to collate the accumulated responses from the session for further use.

Of course, not all congregational gifts are intangible. Leaders (staff and lay) can brainstorm/research and note responses to the categories below, which are based more on records and spreadsheets.

Financial

  • Giving units

  • Cash on hand

  • Reserves

  • Special funds

  • Endowment

Physical

  • Space currently utilized

  • Space currently not or (under-) utilized

  • Accessibility to people with disabilities (mobility, hearing, sight, etc.)

  • Location

  • Movable items (communion sets, tables/chairs, tools, etc.)

Relational (congregational level)

  • Name recognition

  • Reputation

  • Community partners

  • Denominational partners

  • Global partners

Leadership

  • Staff

  • Recognized lay leaders

  • Informal lay leaders/influencers

As with the intangible gifts, be sure to give thanks for these more measurable blessings as you record them.

Taking the time to inventory your church’s gifts will set the stage well for thinking about how God is leading your church into a new season of ministry and thus what kind of pastoral leadership your congregation needs.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.