Revisiting the “Interim Tasks”: What will guide us in our Interim Ministry?

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 pastorsThe 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.

The Missional Church

Rereading Gruder, Darrell L. ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998.
I don’t know if “missional” is still a word in current parlance, but it is one way to describe a church that has a strong outward focus. As Gruder says, “We have begun to see that the church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel, but rather its instrument and witness. God’s mission embraces all of creation.” (p.5)  The Church (as an institution) is important to the mission of God.
The missional church is a unity that is called by God. Jesus was called by God to represent the Realm of God lived out in the world. Jesus was not the Realm, of course, nor was he the king of that realm. Jesus was given authority to be the representative of God’s Realm. The church is called, as a corporate body, to represent the Reign of God to the world. (p. 104) Not just as a collection of the faithful, but as a body.* The church is a visible entity, a unity with a common purpose. That purpose is to actively present, through its actions, the Kingdom/Reign of God to the world. To be a visible sign of the invisible realm that God desires for the world.
Each of us, as faithful individuals, may act in accord with the purposes of God as we understand them and as we are able in our settings and with the skills and gifts we have. This is a sign of the fruits of the Realm. The church, in each of its many settings, is called to be a very visible embodiment of the Realm both in our relationships within the body, and in our presence in the community as a body acting together for the good of all. In the past, we have acted in unity with other church bodies, either ecumenically in our communities, or as denominations, to found hospitals, orphanages, food pantries, colleges, and seminaries. Today, churches are building affordable housing, homeless shelters, social service agencies that combine education, job preparedness, thrift store clothing, food preparation and menu planning, and a host of ways to assist people, to give them the skills and confidence and stability they need to move from survival to thriving. But so many congregations do not believe that they are capable of such action, and many do not even see that unified action is part of the purpose of church. They will say that if church feeds the individual, that person can go out and try to live a good life. But if the church is not representing the Realm of God as a body, as a whole, then that individual may feel and act as if they are out there alone. They may not have an adequate representation of the Realm of God to carry forth into the world.
The church that sees its role primarily as “making disciples” without understanding those disciples to be representatives of the body of Christ, of the Realm of God visible in the church, are misunderstanding the work and life of Jesus. Jesus did not call disciples just to have them sing, “Glory, Glory!” or to find their own salvation. Jesus called them first to watch and learn from him to respond to everyone with compassion, and then to go out into the world healing and teaching about the Realm of God  as a real place, near, but not fully fulfilled, where all are accepted and loved just as they are, where God is known as a presence as real as a human father, who is best honored through letting go of the drive for material things in favor of care and justice for the poor and outcast, and reconciliation between enemies. The church is the (always imperfect) body of Christ. Each person is but an organ, a portion, and cannot act effectively alone. The church is where the body is grown, matured, shaped through prayer and communion. The church body is not, however, a collection of autonomic parts, but a gathering of whole humans, who share their thoughts, who read and pray and learn together what it means to represent the Realm of God to the world.
In my work as an Intentional Interim Minister, I have tried to express the idea that it is important for church bodies to have a purpose, a mission, that is more than a statement of goodwill, but that actually pushes the whole congregation in one direction. Many churches seem to resist this as I noted above. My home congregation has felt the disapproval of other churches and individuals when they called an out, gay pastor several years ago. I believe that has forced them to see themselves as standing together for the Gospel in new ways, and they as a body have been on the forefront of issues of peace and reconciliation in the community, as well as standing strong for inclusion and welcome when others would exclude. They have accepted a vision of the Realm of God and choose to represent that to the world through presence, participation in community activities, signs and banners, and t-shirts. I don’t know if it takes a unifying incident in every case, but it certainly takes something that helps the congregation feel that they are in the world in a special way, as a group, a unity, that humbly, but firmly stands for God’s Realm in a world that does not know it; that they operate under the authority of the One who calls them for the sake of all. That is a Missional Church.
* The text speaks of a “new Israel”, but that is dismissive of the continuing faithfulness of the “old Israel.”

Interim: between what?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about what can hold this strange world of ours together. Social capital is at a low. Old ideals seem to be falling apart. The economy is a strange mess of mostly rising stocks, trade disputes, stagnant wages, and wide gaps between extreme riches and poverty. I believe sincerely that something dramatic will happen in this country on the order of the yellow vest protests in France and elsewhere and maybe worse. People will eventually see that they are being sold a deeply false story and get angry. So far anger is being manipulated, directed in anti-social, anti-democratic ways. It is time to stand up for something far better, even if it is hard to imagine, and not allow the power-hungry manipulators to win.

We have signs of cultural dismay all around us. Violence in schools and against “the other,” trauma in households that has continues over two and three generations, and is damaging the lives of youth and adults in terrible numbers, producing people whose empathy has been destroyed, who do not even know how to treat others with respect and care. Drugs and other escapist behavior occurs because there is little vision of hope, of happiness, of what it means to live together, to live for one another, instead of being isolated, afraid, and deeply angry.

We can, and must, work on every possible front to help people to heal. But we also need to work to make the world in which we live a better place.

I’ve been reading Charles Eisenstein’s work on a sacred economy, and on ways to approach climate issues. He sees them as intimately connected. As long as our economic and monetary system demands that we monetize everything – labor, resources, land, entertainment, song, story, everything – and demands that we make a profit, in order to pay off debts, that we will not be able to heal the earth, because we will depend upon a financial incentive. The incentive is not currently to preserve, but to exploit for gain.

We in Christian circles have a revolutionary card to play if we can bring ourselves to do it. God gave us humans one basic task, to be good stewards of the earth, to see ourselves as part of the whole of creation, all the rest is about getting along with one another. We have usually seen care for other people, especially those less well off than we are, as part of the good works we are called to do. But, I am thinking there is more. In his lifetime, Jesus dismissed most every effort to name him as Messiah, to be raised above his disciples or anyone else. The language of Christ, the King, came later, much later, especially as Christians gained in power in the world. I don’t believe Jesus saw himself that way. A leader among equals. One who came to serve the lowliest as well as the wealthy who would accept him as he was, with his band of outcast and disrespected followers. Learning to to truly live as equals with all of creation, to build support for the least and landing nets for the high flying, to heal one another, to share with one another, to figure out what parts of our lifestyles are sustainable, necessary, beneficial, healthful, that bind us together instead of set us apart, could be the most important task before us.

Building endowments, providing tablet computers to classrooms, building new highways and tall buildings and luxury cruise ships, may not be inherently wrong, but really are not ultimately high priorities. What is important is not easy for me, reaching out to neighbors, building relationships. But it is important. So is thinking and dreaming and imagining the shape of the new paradigm we need to be transitioning into, as churches, as individuals, as communities, as a nation, as a world. I am working on that. I’ll share as I go along.

Ecclesial Governance:

The Case of Licensed Pastors

 

At an Association Executive Board meeting, we were discussing the new Manual on Ministry and how the local Division on Church and Ministry has been adapting to the new guidelines. They object to the absence of the category “Licensed Pastor,” as we should. One of our members expressed the feeling that these “top down” rules were not in accord with our congregational polity, where the Association is the location of standing and the ordaining body. He later retracted the term “top down,” although not really its intent. I find this to be a telling and important expression of our common mis-perceptions about governance in a free society, and especially in the UCC. I’ll deal with the UCC here, but there are clear parallels.

In the UCC, we join in covenant into various bodies representing our local, regional and national connections. Congregations are one setting. They gather into Associations for mutual support and to do work together they could not do alone. Associations gather into Conferences in similar intent. The General Synod biennial gathering is a gathering of conferences. But, by intention, those who represent each setting are not the elected leaders of smaller settings, but individuals chosen for that purpose. When I first was on the Association board, I assumed that one or more among us would represent us on the Conference board. That would be hierarchical practice, an ever narrowing power elite. But we elect Conference board members at large from the Association and one of them comes to the Association board meeting to report to us. Of course, that person then communicates back to the Conference setting. The same is true of General Synod delegates. They are not selected from among the current leadership, but are chosen, using guidelines intended to gather the diversity of the church together. They are the ones who vote to guide the national staff in its work on behalf of the whole church.

There are some disadvantages of this system. Those who attend General Synod may never have served on a Church and Ministry committee in the Association setting, may never have experienced life in a small struggling congregation, may be unaware of the challenges of finding ordained and authorized people to serve in part-time, tent-maker ministries. That may also be true of the staff that is charged with turning the will of Synod into the practical guidelines and physical realities of a book to be used by all in an effort to enable the movement of pastors across Association and Conferences lines.

A Manual on Ministry is, first of all, not as rigid as it sounds. This is the United Church of Christ, after all. The national bodies cannot really take local options away, although they can make it difficult to use the national tools and resources if a local setting is not following the guidelines. But they also cannot refuse to listen to the concerns and needs of the local Associations and Conferences that make up the governing bodies. In our system, the larger setting must be responsive to the smaller if the covenant is to hold. And, of course, the smaller settings must be willing to cooperate with the larger when the process leads to greater benefits for the whole.

So, to return to the problem of licensing: We, in our local area (Wisconsin) need licensed lay pastors in our smaller congregations. Whether they will lead them to a great revival and growth, or will help them to maintain the vitality they have on their own scale, those local lay leaders are generally affordable, eager, and willing to be supervised, relicensed annually, continue to learn the arts of ministry, and often will serve well for many years. Some become as active in the community and in ministerial circles as any ordained leader. Some remain more in the background. Some become excellent Bible scholars, others focus on pastoral care. Nearly all provide leadership, identity, and consistency to a small congregation who would be unable to find and pay suitable ordained leadership. Of course, these people are paid, and should be paid a good wage based on their pastoral experience and the hours they are hired to work. But they rarely depend upon these wages as their sole support, and often receive employment benefits elsewhere.

I do not know what objections have been raised to this practice, but I could guess that there are concerns about the motives and biases of these local leaders. Certainly we have had pastors come into vulnerable congregations and preach against “left-wing liberalism” and convince them to leave the UCC,  or see the congregation as their particular fiefdom where they can push people to doing their will without regard to God’s will. A few have created cultures of abuse or fear or any number of other sinful and evil things. Unfortunately, these leaders have often been ordained somewhere and inadequately screened. In other words, they have not been through the appropriate process as set out by General Synod through the Manual on Ministry. This manual now urges Committees on Ministry to require full background checks, mental health evaluations and periodic reviews. These may not have been intended for licensed pastors, but are certainly just as wise for them.

Perhaps there is a worry that these licensed pastors are not appropriately educated. This is legitimate, but that is why Church and Ministry committees assign mentors and re-evaluate each pastor annually. They may set learning goals, require attendance at a lay academy or other educational program, encourage self-directed study, or whatever else may help the licensed pastor grow in skill and confidence and faithfulness.

The point is, the covenants between the various settings of the church are mutual. The hierarchy is minimized in every possible way, even if it results in a loss of experience or wisdom. We offer the latter in our feedback, in special consultations, in the listening attitudes of staff and delegates across the spectrum of the church. We may not always get it right the first time, as in not “authorizing” licensed lay pastors, but we have the process and possibility of doing so. And, if we are faithful, and submit all our deliberations to prayer and careful discernment, we are sure to learn and grow along the way.

Secularization is Happening, and Liberals are in Trouble

Ther us much to think about in this blog. I am adding this to an article in Christian Century that described St. Patrick’s work in Ireland. A series of engaged Christian communities trying to live out the kingdom of God while interacting with the society around them.

Mind Squirrels

exit

A narrow definition of secularization goes like this: “First, modernization induces people to lose faith in God and religion. Then, as religion is no longer meaningful, they stop identifying with it” (Hout & Fischer, 2014). In the mid-twentieth century, this was a common understanding of how the world would become less religious.

The evidence has consistently shown the contrary.

Throughout the twentieth century into the twenty-first, the world did not seem to become any less religious, but regions in South America, Africa, and Asia, became more religious leading some sociologists to argue that Europe’s secularization is an “exceptional case.” But this has left the United States something of a puzzle. There are parts of the country that are less religious while parts of it appear to be more religious, and there has been a sense that political alignment maps to this pattern. At the same time…

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Interims in Small Congregations

Small Congregations Are Not Failing, They Are Surviving

I have served several relatively small congregations, and seem to be moving toward smaller rather than larger. Congregations of fewer than 50 in worship, often 30 or fewer, are common throughout my area of Wisconsin and across much of our country. Many of these remember “glory days” during the height of church attendance in the 50s, 60s and 70s  and now feel diminished. Many are filled with members who are aging, and if they have younger adults and children, they often also have the grandparents. We, thinkers about the Church in abstract terms, often see these congregations as failing, as in need of revitalization. I have been very guilty of that. We take the need to re-energize the mainline religious bodies to these congregations as chief goals. The result is that we miss the vitality and needs and ministries that are before us.

Confessions

My most recent Interim taught me an important lesson. Or re-taught me, to be more accurate. Great ideas for vitality and new ministry require a carefully and deeply prepared seedbed if they are to have any chance of sprouting. And not every congregation needs those ideas at all. I entered this long-lived congregation in a village that had become an outer-ring suburb and saw it primarily as a place of great possibility. I saw people who seemed to hold beliefs and attitudes that were more progressive than those of the community as a whole and thought they would be ready to step forward boldly as so many of our renewal programs and initiatives were trying to encourage. But I did not look well enough at who they were and what they wanted for themselves and for their community. I tried to treat them like the larger and stronger congregations that really could expend the energy to try a new way. And, I showered them with imagined possibilities that I, as an intentionally interim pastor, could not nurture. The people pushed back against most of my enthusiasms, as they should, but we were able to find some common ground for initiatives that arose from within.

Lessons

A recent conversation with a member of a church I served a couple of years ago sparked a new perspective for me. “Why,” she asked, “would, intelligent, professional people who had been active in the UCC congregation leave for the non-denominational evangelical congregation down the road?” I am speculating here, but I wonder if it is because, in the current climate, our  intellectual, rational, even deconstructing approach to scripture and belief, which encourages questions and the seeking of answers, just does not satisfy. Or does not satisfy enough of the people in a small community church. People are, I suspect, looking for a spiritual answer to the needs of the heart and soul. Hoping for a personal experience of the divine, the holy, the true. For a spiritual compass. Most of our progressive churches need to develop an evangelical passion out of a deep certainty of the steadfast love, mercy and justice of God to go with our progressive social ideals. We need a place for a full, devotional, personal faith that can support acting with love and prophetic power with others for a better world. In small communities especially, we do not have the luxury of being the rational, progressive church only. We need to encompass the whole range of faith needs (but without abandoning our principles or intentionality about our language).

So, as an interim minister, perhaps it is my role to search for the spiritual power already present in the small congregation I serve, to nurture that power as they answer questions from the new UCC profile: Who are we? Who are our neighbors? and What is God calling us to do? To bring a renewed dedication to prayer and discernment to the process. And, hopefully, to leave them open and faithfully ready for the new directions they will discover with a new settled leader.

Good Governance and Politics

I am not a politician. I pay attention to politics, although not as a political “junkie,” but as a concerned citizen and member of the progressive clergy. By that I mean, I believe in a God that is both eternal and adaptable, one who speaks to our time and to all time.

On this election day, I have been looking one last time at the rhetoric of the candidates, the accusations of deceit and dissembling, of moral misjudgments and amorality, of fitness for office. One anti-Hillary video struck me be cause it was a series of clips that demonstrated that she has not been fully consistent in her positions over her career. Even over the course of this outrageously long campaign, there have been changes in her statements between her campaign against Bernie Sanders and her later campaign against Donald Trump. I choose to speak today about Hillary, because I want to look at a broader picture of politics and Donald Trump is too much an outlier to include.

I am convinced that Hillary Clinton has a real passion for helping people, for standing up for the middle and poorer classes, for the rights and conditions of women and children both in the US and around the world. Her path has given her a variety of opportunities to see, to listen to, and to think about these concerns over her lifetime. I have far fewer years of real attention to and concern for these and similar issues, but what I have certainly come to realize is that there is no known and tested approach to obtaining justice and mercy, no perfect response, no consensus theory even, for improving lives and growing hope. Over the years, there have been many thinkers who have offered ideas, but these are extremely complex issues and someone else can usually find a hole or problem with any proposed program or plan. That cannot stop the work, nor the testing of ideas in the real world, the analysis of the responses and effects, and the willingness to try again.  Our opinions and evaluations of how to move forward must keep changing as we listen to all the voices, and try new and old ideas. Even if through some amazing super-powers one person or group could, with good and faithful hearts, implement the best ideas they could find, they might not work, nor would they be universally effective.

But we do not have a super-powerful, beneficent dictator who can impose good upon the world. Even God does not choose to act in that way. Rather we have people with a whole range of intentions from the most compassionate and empathetic to the most greedy and self-serving. We have people with a bias toward the poor and people with prejudices against anyone who is different from their own religious or ethnic or economic group. Politics is the art of compromise and cannot, therefore, be a place of rigid ideals or even of complete political unity within a party. To bring either religious or political self-righteousness to the political arena is to create the kind of total breakdown we see in our times.

A politician (that is not a critique!) like Hillary Clinton is required to separate herself from whatever opponent she has at the moment (often without the nuance that the topic deserves), and to take stands that she thinks are viable in the political arena. Apparently, Hillary believes in a single-payer health system. That is what she tried to promote when Bill became president. She probably still does believe that is the best system, but it has been ground into her that the powers that be will not allow such a system in our country at this time. Bernie Sanders can advocate for that position as the ideal, but Hillary has to take her experience into account and advocate for something less. Not because she disagrees with Bernie, but because she wants to really accomplish change and is not willing to start negotiating from an extreme position (again!). Bernie knows how to compromise, too, but he set himself to be the person of ideals and principle who would hold our system accountable. We need Bernies. We need upright and honest  idealists trying to articulate goals on the right as well. What we do not need are people whose see themselves as bearers of TRUTH who declare all others as not only wrong, but depraved and evil. Politics and society cannot function that way.

As an Intentional Interim Pastor, I need to be able to listen to all sides, to hear beyond the immediate topics of conversation to the deeper beliefs and hopes and fears that drive action in the local church (and in the wider church as well). In some ways, I am a politician. My deeply held beliefs and convictions guide me, but I am not there to press my particular solutions or goals upon another. Rather, I am convinced that the church is a place where people should be learning to listen to one another with respect and love, and where decisions are made with prayer and discernment in the best interests of all. That is good governance.

Civic government has a similar function. It is not bad or good, big or small, but it is the arena where people speak and are listened to, where ideas are presented and perspectives explained, where the myriad of elements that make up the context of a concern can be weighed and decisions made in the name of the good of all. There should be passion, but there cannot be absolutism. My bias is that government should not be about supporting the powerful, but about balancing freedom of action while protecting those who do not have power, about being the voice for those with little voice. We need the true balancing of powers to provide justice for all parts of our society.

I hope that the next several years will bring a real discussion of governance reform including reducing big money and special interest power, shortening campaigns, creating greater opportunities for additional voices in the political arena. We need to start with state and local people, I suspect, but the discussion needs to be very broad and inclusive of all stake-holders (even though there are a few I would just as soon not invite!). Whether or not Hillary is the best possible person for President, she is right to proclaim that we are “better together.”

May Peace be with us all.

Purposeful Disruptions

After the IMN meetings last June where David Odom spoke to us about leadership, I have connected with the “Faith and Leadership” blog that comes out of Odom’s Leadership Education program at Duke Divinity. Two items have caught my thinking, especially in relation to Interim Ministry.

One was an interview with Gil Rendle, long time Alban consultant and now retiring as director of TMF (Texas Methodist Foundation). He was essentially asked how his thinking had changed over the years, especially in regard to his first book, Leading Change in the Congregation.

He said first that, along with Michael Fullan, he does not think we can lead change in a time when there is so much change all around us. Instead, we can disrupt processes in a helpful direction.  That is something to think about. How is what we might do as an Interim disruptive? And, how do we direct disruption into healthy and helpful channels?

“You do that by living long enough with a person or long enough with a system to ask them the questions that they don’t want to have to answer. And then the system is disturbed, and people have to reform around what they discover about those answers.”

I suspect that we interims do live long enough with congregations to do this,  (although consultants probably don’t).  We have a few weeks at the beginning in order to get to know the people and the culture, to form an advisory/transition team, and to begin our analysis of the congregation. Because we come from outside, we have the privilege of asking questions, even awkward “why” questions”. Questions that people don’t want to answer because they don’t want to think about purpose.

“Pushing people to purpose” is the function of peer learning groups, something he finds absolutely crucial in clergy development, in helping new clergy in particular to develop the courage needed to be effective in congregational leadership in our times. I suspect that pushing people to purpose is also the task of ministry, especially Interim Ministry, and the direction that the disruption is intended to go. To see the congregation ask itself questions of purpose and to seek answers in the calling and teachings of Jesus, in the work toward justice and mercy, in the real coming of the a kingdom/realm of God on earth.

The second blog post was written by David Odom and concerned the financial difficulties of congregations in general, especially small ones.  After mentioning the idea of disruptive innovation, the way new products can enter the market by finding a niche that existing products are ignoring. He wonders about applying that to congregations. He asks:

Instead of starting communities that require leadership, space and more, what if we focused on the work that needs to be done? The economic model would focus on the mission rather than the creation of yet another congregation that would need to be self-supporting….The pastor and others would begin by considering what needs to be done in a community. Do people need housing? Do those trafficked into slavery and prostitution need to be freed? Do children need to be educated? Donors would be attracted to projects that change lives. Microindustries might be started to create needed products and jobs. A community would likely form that has many of the attributes of a congregation but with a different type of work at the center.

This echoes the call for congregational entrepreneurship that we hear from Cameron Trimble and the Center for Progressive Renewal. Church, not as a self perpetuating institution, but as a mission driven gathering of people around an issue that may or may not become a long term entity.

Interim Ministry was conceived in an era of seeming stability, although analysis shows the changes we face now were well under way even then. Now the landscape shifts under our feet constantly. We need to be continually analyzing, not only within the congregation’s we serve, but across the wider field of church. We who understand adaptability as our primary skill will be required to adapt not only our language and our processes, but our understanding of transitional ministry. And we will certainly be very busy helping existing congregations to become adaptable, flexible, and entrepreneurial in their self understanding and sense of purpose. May we all continue to expand our skills in purposeful disruption as we serve as guides through the changes our congregations face every day.

Excellence?

The word “excellence” being used in UCC circles and elsewhere to set a high standard for ministry and other professional settings. I have recently been working with a list of personal qualities and professional skills that might define excellence in Interim Ministry. Still, I find I am of two minds about the choice of language. On one hand we can all strive to do what we do in the very best way we can. One definition of excellence that I read was that excellence was doing something better that we had done before. That recognizes differing abilities and can be a way to encourage growth, but does not establish an actual level of competence. Another approach is to establish and to aim for a set of standards. Standards can be set at any level from minimum competence to unreachable ideal. One of the lists of criteria for excellence that I received from a colleague was followed by two final items: “Walks on water, and turns water into wine.” The list was primarily a list of important tools in which an excellent interim should be expert. In some ways the last two were no more impossible than the 15 items ahead of it if we were setting them all up as necessary for effective interim ministry. Very few of us master all of the tools that have been created to help us do our work. Most of us understand and use a pretty good sized tool-kit, but may not be experts in every aspect of every tool. For example, we all use a word-processing software like Microsoft Word. Most of us get by quite well with the basic tools. Some of us use all the styles and tabs and formatting tools and many more of the tricks and techniques embedded within the software and find them very helpful and more efficient. But we are not being judged by our ability to use those tools, but by the value and presentation of the words that we write.

So, when we create a list of tools for interim ministry, Appreciative Inquiry, Asset Mapping, systems theory, conflict resolution, etc., and then say that these are necessary for excellence, I think we are confusing the toolbox with the final project. (Can you tell I’ve been working on my house?) Don’t get me wrong, I think the tools are very important. A worker installing a window in my house decided he needed to cut off a piece of trim. He had the right idea, but the wrong tool and left a ragged end with splinters pulled out rather than a smooth, finely cut surface. We have learned that if you want to encourage a large group to talk about the history of a congregation, you need to ask questions to bring out the positive parts of the story, or you can be forever sidetracked by old failures and disappointments and hurts.  You might get the same basic work done, but with rough edges and splinters instead of a smooth and helpful process.That is the essence of Appreciative Inquiry. But do we say excellence comes from being well acquainted with Appreciative Inquiry, or do we say that an excellent interim helps a congregation identify and celebrate the strengths of the past and select that which can be a base for the future?

Let’s say we have defined a set of outcome based criteria, then. (We haven’t, that task is still to be done, but…) Should we also have a scale of competence? My primary question is about effectiveness of interim ministry, so it is important to determine if there are good, better and best levels and how to judge that. There are, regrettably, some poor and awful levels of interim ministry as well. And there are some interim situations where even the very best skill and tools have very little in real outcome. Human beings are capable of great good and great harm and some can only be prayed about as we work hard to be a non-anxious presence. I struggle as a researcher with the idea of looking only at success stories even though what I want to do is hold up what is good and positive and effective.

For now, I will leave this open-ended, hoping that some wise reader(s) might have some feedback. I will keep thinking, and I intend to keep writing about my research goals and questions and about other topics related to Interim Ministry and life in transition.

Research and Renewal

I haven’t posted in a long time. I tackled two big projects at once and have added a third. I started a new Interim position  in April and could not find rental housing, so I bought a house that needed some fix-ups. The list of fix-ups has grown longer and longer and my ability to spread my energy has grown less. At the same time, I have felt a strong call to do research that I hope will advance the practice and honor of Interim Ministry. If all goes well, I will submit my proposal in two weeks to the Louisville Institute and they will award grants in March. The plan was that both the interim position and the house would finish about the same time, leaving me free to pursue the research full-time for a year. Still the hope, but the house may take a bit longer than anticipated. I may use it as my work base as I begin the preparatory research.

The title of my proposal is “Interim Ministry: A Study of Practice and Value.” In it I plan to interview conference and association search and call staff and discover the criteria and processes used in the UCC for selecting and recommending interim ministers, as well as the attitudes about interim ministry. I am sticking to my own UCC to keep the field small enough to handle, while still having a substantial variety of approaches and attitudes present. I will develop a list of ministers and congregations to interview to learn about the skills and training, and the effectiveness of the interims. In addition to questions about conflict resolution and healing and problem solving, I also want to include questions about preparation for renewal or for revisioning of ministry possibilities. I believe that the church is facing a time of great change, but that most congregations, especially the older, and small to mid-size congregations in our smaller towns, are not ready to consider the changes that can help them remain vital and alive for the future. I believe in these congregations. They are important to the community fabric and to upholding values that heal and sustain lives. But they are reaching fewer and fewer people, even in the small towns and rural areas.

We, as interims, may not be the agents of the renewal ourselves. There are some people specializing in transition and renewal, but they usually come for several years. That is an excellent ministry and one that we can help a congregation choose if it is right for them. We can help open hearts and minds to change. We can set the stage, teach the background, help people to see what is happening around them, and help them commit to renewal so they can seek pastors who will lead them through the changes they decide to take on. If we do not take that task upon ourselves, who will do it? We know it is harder for a settled pastor to initiate new things because they have a stake in the relationships and culture of the congregation. But if the congregation can begin the relationship by inviting ideas (and meaning it!), the potential for revitalization is greatly improved.