The time in which we live is also characterized by pervasive changes. The old cultural paradigm has gone, and the new hasn’t yet gelled into a recognizable form. Our whole world is in transition; these days everything is “interim.” Change is now our cultural context and we have to adapt to it.
This environment of comprehensive change affects our churches. For one thing, the shifts we are going through mean that we are losing the old model of the “permanent” minister. Because we live in a culture of transition, all ministry today is transitional; it necessarily has a provisional and “between” 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 change.
At the same time, these changes 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 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 changes affecting our culture generally. For the sake of an effective ministry in Christ’s name, every minister needs to be equipped and able to keep positive change and adaptation happening. At its best, interim ministry shifts a congregation’s focus from past to future and opens up a congregation to the new things the Holy Spirit is doing, and will continue to do, among them. Churches thrive when they lose the assumption that the transition time is temporary and that stability is the goal.
Interim ministry is the best source we have for managing change in the church. Effective interim ministry helps churches to see a time of change as a gift from God that makes them better able to undertake mission in Jesus’ name.
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
This is the first interim task. A church in transition has to establish its independent identity by evaluating and reconsidering its own past and story. This often meant a reappreciation of a congregation’s roots and heritage. The church was encouraged to develop a longer view of itself beyond the circumstances of the most recent pastor.
In a time of radical transition and change, however, our history is not necessarily a positive thing to get in touch with. Many churches are so cognizant of their heritage that they lose sight of the world they are situated in today. “Coming to terms with history” now demands a more critical look at a church’s past. The entire history of our churches was in an obsolete historical paradigm. The question remains as to what value much of that history has for us today.
Unless we sever the chains tying us to the dead weight of our past, the church is like the nursing home patient who still thinks it’s 1956 and has clearer memories of those days than of the present faces of his grandchildren.
2. Discovering a new identity
A church in transition must also have a clear understanding of its present situation. Thus the second interim task had to do with a church’s identity and context, usually focusing on gathering accurate demographic data. The idea was to wake a church up to the changed and changing character of its environment.
But this approach still ignored a more important and primary theological question: “Who are we, and what is God calling us to do, as God’s people now?” Effective ministry now involves asking where our passion as followers of Christ meets the pain of a broken world. Churches bring God’s healing and transforming energy into the places of greatest need, mainly by supporting and encouraging the diverse discipleship of their members.
Since transition is now our context, churches will want to evaluate their mission continually. Today, all pastors, not just interims, have to help congregations locate, articulate and activate how they participate in God’s mission.
3. Shifts of power or leadership
A change in pastoral leadership means big changes in non-pastoral leadership 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 different future. Openness to the new is now a constant necessity. Congregations have to recognize and empower new leaders all the time. 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.
The very character of leadership in the church is flattening and spreading out. Our top-down, centralized systems of organization are being replaced by organic networks, which empower 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 or bureaucracy.
This new model of leadership actually takes the priesthood of all believers more seriously. 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 put to work in the world what God is calling them to do.
4. Rethinking denominational linkages
When churches go into transition, the denomination sees it as an opportunity to exert its influence and remind the congregation of their connection. So, the fourth of the traditional interim tasks was to reintegrate the church to the denominational structure, tradition and resources, thereby strengthening linkages with the wider church.
Denominations are on very shaky ground these days. Too often denominational structure is a gauntlet of inertia, suspicion, old habits and entrenched interests that must be navigated by a church seeking support in doing anything innovative, different or “outside the box” in ministry.
Presbyteries are learning to put the health, needs and mission of congregations ahead of the presbytery’s own issues. Perhaps, in our context of wall-to-wall change, it would also be fruitful to help churches find and develop new networks for effective, transformational and creative ministry, even across denominational lines.
We see this task in terms of all ministry in the development of productive and creative relationships, both within and beyond the boundaries. A pastor must have the skill and connections within the denomination to shake loose resources and change restrictive policies. In addition, the pastor must learn to build ecumenical and interfaith partnerships.
5. Commitment to a new future
Transitional ministry brings a congregation through change so it is ready to accept new leadership with enthusiasm. In traditional interim work, the focus gradually shifted to preparing the congregation to receive the new pastor. Interim ministry thus has an inherent focus on the future. The most effective interims are able to bring a congregation past the sense of temporariness and inspire the people to an openness to change that becomes part of the church’s 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.
These tasks are not five discrete and successive “steps” so much as aspects of a comprehensive approach to ministry and mission. Churches need to pay attention to all of them, all of the time.
Paul F. Rack is stated clerk and minister-member of Presbytery of Elizabeth in N.J.