In the last 30-plus years as I’ve served seven congregations as a pastor, only a few were officially called “interim ministry.” But from this vantage point I would call every single one of them “transitional ministry.”
In each congregation, whether we knew it at the time or not (and early on I did not!), we were experiencing what might be called a capital-T kind of Transition. Now we use phrases like post-Christendom, post-modern, post-denominational or emerging church to describe the tectonic shifts that were (and still are) taking place. There can be varying degrees of awareness in congregations about this type of Change or Transition. Sometimes it gets expressed as a subtle, inarticulate unrest or grief in congregational life. Other times it can be a very outspoken discontent, or can even comes out as a more accusatory, Who stole my church?
But of course, there are also the zillion and one mini-changes or micro-transitions that get spelled out in the life of congregations every day – a sense of purpose gone MIA, lack of spiritual vitality, shrinking membership, budget shortfalls, decaying buildings, mounting conflicts and polarization, etc.
In 1995, when I became the first female head of staff of the largest PC(USA) church west of the Rockies, I followed a pastor who had been there 31 years. In many ways, I was an interim pastor – though my interim lasted 10 years. But, more importantly, I see now that I was doing transitional ministry.
Not all pastors are doing interim ministry; but today all pastors are doing transitional ministry.
I read it so long ago, I can’t remember the source, but the saying still strikes me as truer than ever: “Being a pastor is like being a dog at a whistler’s convention.” We pastors are at everyone’s beck and call. We often find ourselves going every which way. In Stanley Hauerwas’ words, pastors are a “quivering mass of availability.”
But transitional ministry is different. More intentional. More deliberate. Amid the myriad of voices calling for our attention and challenges we face, here are a couple things that can help keep us on track in transitional ministry:
- Stay spiritually connected
Um, this may seem like a penetrating glimpse into the obvious, but stay spiritually connected. I mean to, like, God. I’m pretty sure this is actually our number one job – to be a spiritual person. I don’t mean holier than thou. But grounded in the Good News. Rooted in God’s unfolding promise to mend the entire universe. Reading our Bibles, praying and staying connected to Jesus and trusting ourselves to some sisters and brothers who become our community of faith.
- Stay curious
Family systems practitioners talk about taking the “researcher stance.” It’s about being curious. On the rare occasion (ha!) when something weird happens, or someone acts totally bizarre in the congregation, or opposes your perfectly reasonable proposal, you don’t have to get defensive or get your hackles up. Just ask a question. You say: Hmmm… I wonder why … ? Or: Tell me more about that … . Keep asking. Keep learning. Stay curious.
- Normalize conflict
I seriously used to think conflict was bad. What was I thinking? Conflict is inevitable! And, in fact conflict is essential for growth in human relationships. I wish there were another way to get at maturity! But this is what we’ve got. So let’s quit demonizing conflict and normalize it. Of course, the key thing is learning to do conflict well.
- Pick one hard thing that needs to be done – and do it.
True confessions: I’m not a big fan of 5-year plans or mission/vision statements. In my view, they tend to take enormous amounts of energy to draft, grab the imaginations of a writerly few, idealize an imagined future, get tossed in a file drawer and – worst of all – kind of downplay or ignore the crud (or diamond in the rough opportunities) that we need to deal with that is in front of us right now! (I might be oversimplifying a teeny bit, but not much!) I am much more a fan of the Solvitur ambulando approach. This Latin phrase attributed to Augustine means, “It is solved by walking.” Just take the next step, and God will show the way. Do what’s in front of you to do – the hard thing that is staring you in the face. So, light a fire. Pick something and go for it.
And when you’ve done that, then do the next thing… and the next thing.
- Stay courageous
When I’m scared, I tend to get serious. More rigid. I think, We can’t fail! But then I realize, Wait a minute! Failure is not fatal. The only failure that really fails is the kind that doesn’t learn anything.
What I want to be is courageous. Courage is not fearlessness. Courage is being afraid and moving forward anyway. If only it were a personality trait, but it isn’t. It’s more like an attitude that is cultivated (meaning “hard work”).
So, I keep reminding myself and church folk that we’re on an adventure. Let’s value taking risks. Let’s encourage experimenting and dreaming. It’s not just, “What is our vision?” but, “What in the Sam Hill is God up to here?”
Still, the work of transitional ministry is not for the faint of heart. Jeffrey Jones sums up the challenge of ministry in general (and of transitional ministry in particular) in his book, “Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations,” with these words:
“I can never be the pastor they truly need unless I am willing
to lead them into the stress that they are experiencing,
live with the blame that some want to place on me,
continue to pursue God’s vision,
and stay with it until the time is right to move on.”
Until then… courage!
Heidi Husted Armstrong is transitional pastor for First Presbyterian Church in Seattle.