Guest commentary by Laura Viau
“So… how many churches have you served?”
I can understand why I get this question. If I’d gone straight from college to seminary to ordination, I might have several churches listed on my résumé. Instead, I’ve had several careers. Right out of college, I spent five years teaching and coaching in public high schools. I detoured into positions comprised of technical writing and project management work.
And then: God called me to start preparing for congregational ministry.
My seminary years overlapped with a job in fund development for a global mission organization, writing everything from grant proposals to multi-day program scripts. When I graduated with my M.Div. from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in 2012, I was moving into a broader communications role with executive level responsibilities.
That serpentine road toward answering a long-delayed call to congregational ministry did more than add mileage and a variety of really useful skills. It helped me know myself better.
Crafting a résumé is complicated when you stay at the same workplace for a decade with several shifts in job titles. But reflecting on that history, I can see that I am happier in roles that last fewer than three years.
Along the way, I discovered a love for guiding teams through problem solving and strategic planning when processes and programs get bogged down or stuck. I also figured out that being a change agent requires a willingness to poke the bear and then deal with its anger.
As a candidate for ordination, I thoroughly enjoyed a time of free-range ministry: preaching, teaching and leading retreats on demand in as many settings and as often as my “day job” would allow. I spent almost a year working as a hospice chaplain for as part of my clinical pastoral education experience.
Friends would ask me what kind of ministry I wanted to pursue. “I don’t know,” I’d say — because I really didn’t have a context in mind. I just knew that preaching and community with people who were willing to ask good questions were important parts of my personal call. So, I started to look around.
It only took a few months of perusing Ministry Information Forms (the forms Presbyterian churches use when searching for a pastor) to recognize one more truth about myself. I didn’t really want to say to a congregation, “Hey, let’s talk about me spending the next 10 or 15 years of ministry with you.” That answer didn’t seem right even when a faith community looked, at least on paper, to be a terrific fit.
In other words, I realized that my call was to the ministry context that had intrigued me for many years — transitional ministry, which people used to call interim ministry. Not only are these pastoral relationships shorter by definition, they combine the joys of congregational ministry with the focus of strategically working myself out of the role.
Any new pastoral relationship requires some intense learning. A pastor just starting a call meets a lot of people quickly and enters their world — their way of doing work and celebrating all the rituals of sacramental communities. As we do so, we bring a new perspective to this neighborhood, a place that has not been our home.
A transitional minister starts off in much the same way. And we invite the congregation to interact in very intentional ways: helping them see themselves, their building, their traditions and their neighbors with fresh and realistic eyes, as they are right now. We ask the hard questions, the ones that cause enough discomfort and disequilibrium that they begin to ask questions, too.
Walking with a congregation as they process the end of one pastoral relationship and prepare for the next is both an honor and a challenge. It is exciting and daunting. Congregations in transition are as messy as any household in a time of stress, with the same potential for healing or implosion. It is as much about processing grief as it is stretching joyfully beyond what once looked like limits.
There are times I think it would be nice to bring along a steamer trunk filled with tricks and tips picked up during decades of called and installed congregational ministry. And then I think about how rapidly technology, culture and even language is shifting — the very milieu in which all of our faith communities are trying to be the church. (Do people still even use steamer trunks in the age of Bluetooth-enabled carry-on luggage and Lyft?)
And maybe that gets to the heart of why transitional ministry is so important. Like every generation of faithful people, we find ourselves figuring out what being church means right here, right now. The rate of change we are experiencing means that faith communities must continually adapt. As a transitional minister, I can help name and normalize this need for ongoing evaluation and change.
This work will bear fruit in the long run. Taking first steps toward a clear vision helps members live into their work as a community, rather than waiting for a new pastor to rescue them. It also helps the pastor nominating committee communicate to candidates a clear and honest vision for the congregation’s future.
And in the meantime, we experience the joy of leaning into the Spirit, trying new things, failing and succeeding, and basking in the messiness of learning from one another. We also get to practice loving new people into our circles of grace.
No, I don’t have a long list of churches on my Personal Information Form. At least not yet. It’s possible that God might just call me to stay put in a faith community, maybe even as an installed minister. Especially given the need for adaptable leadership in these times.
For now, though, I will keep learning and following, teaching and leading, trusting and listening. Like Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee, I will care deeply about the people God brings me to. I will dig into what brings them joy and where they are experiencing (or hiding) pain. I will be here for funerals, baptisms, potlucks and session meetings — all in, right up until the day when Spirit says it’s time for me to go.
LAURA VIAU is a word nerd, triathlete, musician, Disney-phile and Whovian who also happens to be called to congregational ministry. She currently serves as transitional minister for First Presbyterian Church in TItusville, Florida.