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.
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 new 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.
Often helpful to the relationship building process, a deeper explorations of the historical story of the congregation provides more of the solid material for the foundations. 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 current values? The stories we tell define our identities and shape our perceptions and our actions. Are these stories part of God’s story for the world?
Closely related to stories, 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? Why do we choose to do this activity or support this effort?” Congregations often scatter their efforts because they do not ask these questions. It is important to remember that there will be both collective responses and individual responses to the mission. 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.
Collective action is important because the connections of this body to the community and to other churches 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 structures formed by the work of the congregation during the interim, processes for continual consultation, for spiritual growth, for discernment of next steps should be established. 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. 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.
If we adopt these areas of focus for our work: functioning and healthy relationships, a shared story for ministry, clearly stated mission and purpose, strong connections at all areas of covenant, a commitment to processes of discernment, and well-trained and committed leadership, we will have assisted a congregation to be ready for a new pastor, and an ever changing future.
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.
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.”