This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

All Ministry Is Interim Ministry.

{I send this in to the Outlook.  We'll see if they print it.  Meanwhile, feedback is appreciated.}

            The good news of Jesus Christ has an inherently transformational character.  It means change and transition.  Jesus’ comes into the world for healing, liberation, salvation, and deliverance… all of which are about change.  Jesus’ ministry was anything but stable.  He moved from place to place, and he challenged the status quo at every turn.  Jesus empowered people to think and act in ways that expressed the Kingdom of God, which was a reality very different from what prevailed in their society.
            The time in which we live is also characterized by pervasive and fundamental changes.  Phyllis Tickle calls our time “the Great Emergence.”  She says we live in the latest in a series of major cultural shifts that take place roughly every 500 years.  Her view certainly explains the situation in which we find ourselves culturally.  In our time, the old paradigm has gone, and the new hasn’t yet gelled into a recognizable form.  Our whole culture and world is in transition; these days everything is “interim.”  Change is now our cultural context and we will have to adapt to it in any case. 
            This environment of comprehensive change affects our churches.  For one thing, the shifts we are going through are so profound and pervasive that the old model of the “permanent” minister is less and less operative.  Because we live in a culture of transition, all ministry today is transitional; it necessarily has a temporary, provisional, and “between” or “on the way” quality.  The great value of Interim Ministry is that it has always addressed issues of transition in congregations.  There are therefore many lessons we may learn from Interim Ministry that apply to all ministry in a time of pervasive change.
            At the same time, these changes in church and culture require that we rethink Interim Ministry itself.  Our traditional understanding of Interim Ministry was built on the assumption of a temporary period of transition between two stable states.  The goal of Interim Ministry was to get a congregation through this period of flux and arrive at a time of stability again, with a new Pastor. 
            But that model does not account for either the transformational character of Jesus’ mission, or the pervasive changes affecting our culture generally.  Churches no longer actually settle into any traditionally recognizable, sustainable, stable state.  For the sake of a dynamic ministry in Christ’s name, every new minister needs to be prepared to keep positive change and adaptation happening, no matter how much congregations may crave stability.
            The positive spirit that Interim Ministry brings to the church is its inherently transformational and future orientation.  At its best, Interim Ministry changes a congregation’s focus from past to future, and opens up a congregation to the new things the Spirit is doing, and will continue to do, among them.  Churches will thrive once they lose the assumption that the transition time is temporary, and that stability is the goal. 
            I repeat: all ministry is now “unstable” and transitional.  Maybe we can actually see this time of change as a gift from God that makes us better able to undertake mission in Jesus’ name, for he too was about change.  Instead of being an institution focused on preservation and stability, we seek to anticipate Jesus’ coming commonwealth by living together according to his life and teachings, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  In short, in a time of great change we are better able to understand Jesus as a change-agent; Interim Ministry is the best source we have for managing change in the church. 
            Here are the traditional Interim Tasks, reframed in a way useful to all church leaders in a changing world.

1. Coming to Terms with History.

            According to the standard model of Interim Ministry, the first of the Interim Tasks is “coming to terms with history.”  It is essential for a church in transition to establish its independent identity by evaluating and reconsidering its own past and story. 
            In practice, this often meant a reappreciation of the roots and heritage of a congregation.  It might also have involved reconnecting to standard forms of Presbyterian worship, polity, theology, values, etc.  The church was encouraged to develop a longer view of itself beyond the circumstances of the most recent, now departed, Pastor. 
            In a time of radical transition and change, however, our history is not necessarily a positive thing to get in touch with.  Too many churches are so cognizant of their heritage that they lose sight of the world they are situated in today.  Church becomes an exercise in nostalgia or even grief over some perceived golden age.
            “Coming to terms with history” now demands a more critical look at a church’s past.  The entire history of our churches was in that old historical paradigm that is now gone forever.  Our churches thrived very comfortably in that paradigm; but the question remains as to what value practically any of that history has for us today.  On the one hand, we can find many examples of “what not to do.”  On the other, we may discover examples of ministry that we had disregarded, marginalized, or forgotten, but which have now acquired a new relevance.  We may dust off these stories, and bring them back into our common, active memory.   
            Unless we sever the chain tying us to the dead weight of our past, the church is like the nursing home inmate who still thinks it’s 1956, and has clearer memories of those days than the present faces of his own grandchildren.

2. Discovering a New Identity.

            Along with reviewing the past, it is also essential for a church in transition to have a clear understanding of the present situation.  Thus the second Interim Task had to do with a church’s identity and context. 
            In practice, this task focused most on gathering accurate demographic data.  The church looked at itself and its surroundings in great detail, identifying both congregational gifts and possible target populations.  The idea was to wake a church up to the changed and changing character of its environment.  Realizing that, for instance, it is no longer located in a sleepy, white, middle-class town, circa 1948, but in a bustling multi-ethnic, urban, 21st century neighborhood, is something many churches need to face.
            As superficially beneficial as this approach may be, it still ignores a more important and primary theological question: “Who are we, and what is God calling us to do, as God’s people in this time and place?”  Ministry now involves drawing people into discernment and conversation about their own callings from God.  Where does our passion as followers of Christ meet the pain of a broken world?  Churches will focus on the needs in the local and global communities, seeking to share in the ways God brings healing and transforming energy into these places.   And they will support and encourage the diverse discipleship of their participants in addressing those needs.
            Since transition is now our general context, churches will want to evaluate their mission continually.  Waiting to do this only when compelled by presbytery after the departure of a Pastor is not the most fruitful approach.  It is not even enough to address these issues intentionally every three or five years.  Today, all Pastors, not just Interims, have to help a congregation to locate, articulate, and activate how they are called to participate in God’s mission in a certain time and place.  Indeed, this is a task for all Christians.  Understanding what God is calling people to be in the present context has to be a daily discipline of discernment.

3. Shifts of Power/Leadership Changes.
            A change in pastoral leadership is what defined a church in transition.  Usually this means significant changes in the non-pastoral leadership in a congregation as well. Therefore, the third Interim Task paid particular attention to developing new leaders in the church.  
            Interims have always known that effective new leaders are open to a future significantly different from what the congregation has been used to.  This is a given in interim work.  There is no room for either the conviction that we can go back to the way it was, or that we need to keep everything the same.  These opinions are a potential minefield that Interims try and neutralize before the arrival of a new Pastor.
            A similar openness to the new informs all ministry today… only now it is, in the first place, a perpetual element of church life.  Congregations have to recognize and empower new leaders all the time.  This grows naturally out of the focus on identifying people’s particular callings.  Once God places something on our hearts, it is imperative that we have the space to turn that calling into a ministry that attracts support and impacts the needy world.  Thus it is the Holy Spirit, not an institutional structure (like a Nominating Committee or a Session) that creates leaders in the church.  
            Secondly, the very character of leadership in the church is flattening and spreading out.  We have always depended on top-down, centralized systems of organization.  But these are being rapidly replaced by organic networks, empowering people to follow their own callings.  Authority is now broadly welling up from God’s Spirit working in people, rather than coming down in a focused stream from a hierarchy/bureaucracy above. 
            This new model of leadership actually takes the priesthood of all believers seriously in ways we never before imagined.  Leadership is no longer for the chosen few.  Training in seeking, finding, and implementing a calling from God is something that engages all God’s people.  The church becomes a place of encouragement and feedback as followers of Jesus implement in the world what God is calling them to do.

4. Rethinking Denominational Linkages.
            Churches with stable leadership sometimes lose their sense of connection to their own denominational structures.  When they go into transition, the denomination sees it as an opportunity to exert its influence and remind the congregation of this relationship. 
            So, the fourth of the traditional Interim Tasks was to reconnect the church to the denominational structure, tradition, and resources, thereby strengthening connections and linkages with the wider church.
            Denominations, especially the old “main-line” ones, are on very shaky ground these days.  Churches sometimes find presbytery and synod irrelevant and even detrimental to their mission.  Too often the denominational structure is a gauntlet of inertia, suspicion, old habits, and entrenched interests that must be navigated by a church requesting support in doing anything innovative, different, or “outside the box” in ministry.
            Presbyteries are learning at least to give lip-service to the idea that they exist to support the mission of local churches.  Increasingly they now have to back up these words with real actions, putting the health, needs, and mission of congregations ahead of the presbytery’s own issues.  Perhaps, in our context of wall-to-wall changes, it would be at least as fruitful to help churches find and develop new networks for effective, transformational, and creative ministry.  Christians now benefit from building links  across denominational lines.
            The new way of seeing this task in terms of all ministry is in the development of a wide array of productive and creative networks, both within and beyond the traditional denominational boundaries.  A Pastor must have the skill and connections within the denomination to shake loose needed resources and assist in changing obsolete and restrictive policies.  In addition, the Pastor must also learn to build ecumenical and even interfaith partnerships for witness and mission.    
5. Commitment to a New Future.

            Transitional ministry is about bringing a congregation through change so it is ready to accept new leadership with enthusiasm.  In traditional interim work, the focus gradually shifts to preparing the congregation to receive the new Pastor. 
            The most beneficial way of looking at this task is to realize that Interim Ministry has an inherent focus on the future.  It is not about the new Pastor so much.  Not only is he/she really temporary, but the non-pastoral leadership of a church will have a more central role.
            Interim Pastors have always felt able to say and do things that permanent Pastors might felt a need to be more circumspect about.  Congregations also give Interims more license, based perhaps on the Interim’s temporary status.  The most effective Interims are able to bring a congregation past this sense of temporariness, and inspire the people to an openness to change that becomes part of the church’s own ongoing identity.  
            The insight that “all ministry is interim ministry” means that even “permanent” Pastors are called to have the orientation towards the future that good Interims have.  In short, all Pastors will want to find the courage to be active change agents, leading the people of God into a new future.  In practice this entails a kind of ruthlessness about ridding ourselves of whatever holds us back from effective mission in Jesus’ name today.  Keeping aware of and connected to these reframed Interim Tasks will help.  

            Finally, it is important to note that these tasks are not five discrete and successive “steps,” so much as aspects of a comprehensive approach to ministry and mission.
             Ministers need to be paying attention to all of them, all of the time.  In short, ministry in a time of radical change has to be a matter of constant adaptation and adjustment.  We rethink our history and context, keep developing internal leadership and external partnerships, and lean ever forward into God’s future, as a matter of daily practice.
            Interim Ministry is where we have developed some tools and ways of thinking that are now showing their value for ministry generally.  Using these approaches, reframed for a changing context, helps the church both navigate through a time of upheaval and confusion, and do so in a way that reflects the transformational mission of Jesus Christ.


Beloved Spear said...

Thanks for this. I think it articulates well the need for pastors...particularly "called and installed" seriously consider their role in opening a congregation up to continuous growth and change.

When I started in my efforts to revitalize my congregation nearly 7 years ago, an wise pastor told me to be open to the idea that my matter how long it took...might really be more like interim ministry. Reflecting back, I think she was probably right.

Carl said...

Great post. Just gave you a shout-out in my blog:

Merry Christmas!