In a small 1986 book, Critical Moment of Ministry: A change of pastors*, Loren Mead laid out the Developmental Tasks that would dominate the teaching and practice of Interim Ministry for the next two decades or more. These tasks were, he thought, basically sequential, even as he acknowledged that most developmental psychology leaned toward a less rigid pattern.
coming to terms with history (what’s been going on, perspective on conflict, grief; time lines)
discovering a new identity (who are we without previous pastor? How do we see ourselves and how does that align with current reality? How must we prepare for next step into future, values, what makes us tick, mission – clearer we are, the better choice we will make in next pastor)
allowing needed leadership change (natural attrition, what kind of leadership need for road ahead? readjustments, reorganization, warm body vs. gifts, both lay and pastoral changes, staffing, personnel practices)
renewing denominational linkages (connections with larger church to utilize resources, search process connections)
commitment to new directions in ministry – having learned from these tasks what to carry forward and what to release and gaining openness to what might come next
The bolded phrases are in Loren Mead’s words and I would note that they have often been stated in a far more rigid way than he intended them. Because of the way they have been used, contemporary Interim Ministers have been seeking other words, and other ways of thinking through the work of this ministry that reflects present situations and needs. A lot has changed since 1986, as I am sure Loren Mead recognized. (He passed away in the last year, 2019) Our tasks are rarely as straightforward as he saw them 35 years ago. His goal was a more vital, missional church, as it remains ours. The question is whether that church looks like the church of earlier times or whether times of transition move us into very different territory. Where the churches of the mid-80s were seeing a bubble of returning Boomers, bringing their children to Sunday School at least through Confirmation, the rising adults of the GenXers were not finding their meaning in traditional worship or organizational structures. The era of Worship Wars and more rapidly shrinking congregations began in the 90s and traditional churches have seen far fewer young faces. Now, in 2020, we have some greater interest from Millennials, but they will bring far different needs and desires to the church. We can no longer assume that a single path will help all congregations get to the next step, so I propose we do not have tasks, nor do we have the moderately adapted “focus points” of the Interim Ministry Network materials, but areas of attention that apply to the interim period. These will involve the shared work of the interim pastor and the congregation.
I have a couple of experiences with “flipping” houses that needed a substantial amount of work to prepare them for their next phase of life. The first task is the evaluation of the house as it is. What is strong? What is crumbling? What is crucial and what expendable? What are the attractive, aesthetically valuable parts and what is just plain ugly? What is the foundation upon which we can work to return the building to a house and a home?
If I apply those experiences to the tasks of Interim Ministry, then the first task of the interim is to explore the whole of the church, to ascertain the spiritual strengths, the organizational structures that frame the congregation, the foundational values that guide it, and the places where it is in need of reworking or remodeling. The goal is to create a living house that, with skilled leadership, can serve as a home for those who are there now, and those who will be attracted to this community in the future. The task of the interim will be to lead the congregation through a parallel process of self-evaluation and preparedness.
No building can be strong without a sturdy foundation. Churches need to know what they will be (re)building upon, before they can determine if the structures/programs/traditions they have are well supported. Much as a building must have a cohesive structure, and a larger building project requires a team of planners and builders, a church requires a congregation that is ready and able to look at itself in its context and make good decisions. Relationships are the first foundation of a church. Before any other work, serious relationship issues must be addressed. If a cooperative housing building needs a building-wide repair, the coop owners must be able to talk together to make the necessary decisions. Consensus must be reached before work can be done. Preparing for a new phase of ministry with a new pastor requires the input and cooperation of the whole, so solving issues of conflict, addressing deep grief and high anxiety and fear, is a first priority for the interim time. These may be large and intractable issues, or may be of shorter history and more easily worked through, but must not be either hurried or dragged out. The goal, as Beverly and George Thompson point out, is to “create conditions for the congregation to name the truth about itself.”**
Once the relationships are on a more steady basis, deeper explorations of foundations based in the story of the congregation can be undertaken. How does the history of the church shape its current sense of purpose, its mission and ministry? How does who the church is now reflect its past and its proclaimed values? Look both ways, from past to present, and from present to past. Have the values expressed changed in essence or in emphasis from those of earlier times? Determining the core values of the church in the present further sets the foundations upon which the church can build.
Core values and current context shape the mission and purpose of the organization. The essential question is “Why? Why do we gather? Why do we matter in our community?” When a congregation has established a solid sense of its mission, future questions like, “Why should we choose to do this activity or support this effort?” will have an answer: “Because it is within our mission and because we have assets and skills to make a difference.” These questions and answers shape the identity of the church. It is important to remember that there will be both common responses to the mission and individual responses. We are both united and separated. Our life stories overlap, but are not parallel. Each person can witness to living out the mission in their own way, and enrich the sense of value and purpose of the whole.
Common action is important because the connections of this body to the community and to other churches, both within and beyond the denomination are important. When we work and serve together, we have greater impact and greater potential for partnerships, denominational support, and community unity. Building and rebuilding these connections may be a significant part of interim ministry.
In order to continue to build upon the work of the congregation during the interim, there must be processes for continual consultation, for spiritual growth, for discernment of next steps. It is not the task of an interim to set in place a firm direction for the mission of the church, but it is important to develop a commitment to the processes by which the direction may be determined and maintained.
In order to maintain that commitment to process, leadership in those processes must be developed. Such leaders will encourage people to participate and understand the how and why of the tools of the process. The goal would be that people be comfortable and willing to talk together, to share ideas, to disagree and to creatively approach the questions that will arise.
Change in the church, as in all our society, is an ongoing part of life. To be vital, churches must learn to adapt, to be flexible, and to see in this the leading of the Holy Spirit. By focusing on process rather than a desired outcome, a congregation may be freed from its former, traditional restraints to become the church for its unique time and place, responsive to the creative energy of newcomers and connected to the foundations of faith and spiritual practice that reflect deep Christian roots.
*Mead, Loren B. 1986. Critical Moment of Ministry: A change of pastors, The Alban Institute, New York, NY, 74p.
**Thompson, Beverly A. and George B.,Jr., “Transition Ministry as an Opportunity to Lead,” in Bendroth, Norman B. 2015. Transitional Ministry Today : Successful Strategies for Churches and Pastors. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.