The interim labyrinth

Is your church going through a period of transition? Christian Shearer offers his favorite metaphor for congregational discernment: the labyrinth.

Among the more well-known maxims of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is this one: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” That explained some of the nerves I was feeling as I prepared to start my first interim pastorate in 2018.

As is required by my presbytery and many others, I prepared for my first interim pastorate with interim pastor training. While the program did a great job telling me the “what” and “why” of interim ministry, and even some of the “how,” I felt it was missing the “when” was missing. It was as if the class gave us a list, not a step-by-step sequence, and as any recreational chef or baker knows, sequence can make or break the whole enterprise.

While I knew my decades-long career in church revitalization ministry would serve me well in interim ministry, I felt I was lacking a simple, clear and evocative model. A few weeks before starting, I had what I can only describe as a Spirit-inspired “Aha!” moment, making a connection between my own spiritual practice and the interim process. There was an ancient spiritual tool that I’d used in my personal prayer life and during times of discernment that could serve as the signature image of the journey the church would take during its interim season: a labyrinth.

I am now three and a half years removed from that first interim pastorate, and the model of the labyrinth for interim ministry continues to be effective and invigorating for churches and interim pastors.

Why the interim labyrinth?

From the moment the interim minister arrives, congregations yearn for a comprehensive outline of what they’ll be doing, why it matters, and what steps will be taken in what order. The labyrinth provides that roadmap because it emphasizes the interconnection of each phase of the process. A labyrinth is not a confusing maze nor a puzzle to be solved; the interim journey won’t be either.

As Lauren Artress puts it in her book Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice, “Labyrinths are unicurval. They have one well-defined path that leads us into the center and back out again. There are no tricks to it, no dead ends or cul-de-sacs.” The church’s next installed pastor may be one of the results of an interim period, but it isn’t the only goal of it. There is so much more to explore, discuss, uncover and learn along the way.

Furthermore, the labyrinth is a widely-known prayer and meditative tool, dating back to 2600 B.C. Using this overtly spiritual image emphasizes that the work of an interim is holy work. It is intentional collective spiritual discernment. Thus, the metaphor of a labyrinth heightens and deepens expectations while inviting a slow, reflective pace.

The metaphor of a labyrinth heightens and deepens expectations while inviting a slow, reflective pace.

The interim labyrinth sequence

For those wanting to use the labyrinth as their blueprint, you’ll want to travel collectively through the same four steps that individuals do when utilizing this instrument: 1) prepare to enter it, 2) travel inward, 3) pause at the center, and 4) travel outward and exit.

Phase 1 – Prepare to enter

This initial phase of the interim journey is the equivalent of the congregation warming up as an athlete. Skip or shortchange it, and you set yourself up for a subpar performance, if not an outright injury.

Jill Kimberly Hartwell Geoffrion in her book Praying the Labyrinth: A Journal for Spiritual Exploration offers these questions for those readying to enter a labyrinth, which signal the kind of preliminary work a church must do prior to a transformative interim venture:

  • What I am longing for? What do I hope happens?
  • What am I feeling right now as I prepare for this inward trek?
  • What do I need God to show me that I can’t figure out or remedy on my own?
  • Will I give myself wholly to this?

These questions are meant to clear the underbrush, relax any reservations, coax engagement and spark hope. So, in addition to joining and connecting with the church family, the interim pastor in this initial stage gives his/her/their attention to the following:

  • Educating the congregation on the interim labyrinth process with each of its phases.
  • Creating, in partnership with the church’s leadership, multiple opportunities to discuss, mull, and linger over questions like those suggested above. These can be in worship, small groups, townhall meetings, retreats and the like.

Phase 2 – Travel inward

This phase is all about exploration, discussion and rumination. There is no rush to judgment, no conclusions drawn, just openness to what God might have in store. With each step, initial anxiety dissipates, making room for genuine curiosity and honest sharing. The further into the labyrinth the church heads, appreciation for and excitement about the process will grow.

The normative five developmental interim tasks define some of what will be sought during this phase – such as helping the church come to terms with its history, clarify its mission, understand its context, etc. But, that said, it’s crucial to talk, learn, and dream for the sake of talking, learning, and dreaming, and not with any end firmly in view. The inward journey is inherently an act of cooperative creativity, at root a joint venture between God and the church.

The inward journey is inherently an act of cooperative creativity, at root a joint venture between God and the church.

For churches coming into the labyrinth from a previously difficult pastor/church relationship, prolonged conflict, or other similarly troubling scenarios, there’s a more therapeutic way to define what will transpire during this phase: safe spaces will be created, irenic behaviors championed, peacemaking skills taught, and vulnerable, sometimes difficult discussions will be had. Only through such things can the cycle of hurt, suspicion, and/or division be pulled into God’s light and ultimately healed (Ephesians 5:13-14).

An effective second phase yields a stronger sense of “we” in the church (as in, “we are in this together” and “we are listening to and learning from each other” and even “we all matter equally in this”) and diminished “me and mine.”

As the congregation concludes this phase, the key findings and impressions of the inward journey should be shared. Having it in writing allows everyone to operate from the same footing during the next phase at the labyrinth’s center.

Phase 3 – The center

Just like when you use a labyrinth personally, the congregation now pauses intentionally at the center of the spiral, asking, “God, what do you want us to do with all that we’ve discussed and gleaned on the way here?”

One powerful way to structure this pause at the center is as a circular dialogue between the session/staff and congregation. Begin by asking the congregation what God has impressed upon them during the inward journey, then have session respond by beginning to craft action steps and strategic goals based on that input. Then go back to the congregation with those initial ideas from session to get feedback, and so on.

After only two or three rounds of this dialogue between church and session/staff, there should be little doubt about God’s direction and priorities for the church. Do this well enough and there will be widespread buy-in, newfound purpose, and intensifying optimism because the church is moving forward together.

The end result of this time spent at the center of the interim labyrinth should be a written plan of action. This is how the church commits to what God has shown them, and it should be consecrated in worship, symbol, and celebration.

It’s only at this point that the church is ready to begin its pastoral search. The church’s job listing will write itself because of all the work already done. Likewise, the church will be able to be targeted in its search.

Phase 4 – Travel outward and exit

By this juncture, the trust level between the congregation and interim pastor should be high. Thus, the interim pastor accompanies the church out of the labyrinth, instead of the church waiting for the next installed pastor to do that.

Imagine the labyrinth or spiral image again – can you see that it resembles a spring? During the earlier phases, that coil becomes taut with potential energy. In phase four, the spring gets released, creating powerful momentum. Ideally, the change from the interim pastor to the next installed pastor will be like swapping engineers on a moving train: the church is accelerating into what lies ahead, the interim jumps off, and the installed pastor clambers on to keep things chugging along.

During the earlier phases, that coil becomes taut with potential energy. In phase four, the spring gets released, creating powerful momentum.

Conclusion – “Solvitur Ambulando”

The church I was serving as an interim came to love the labyrinth process and didn’t want it to stop. It doesn’t have to, of course. It’s a pattern that can be repeated over and over again, even if in a shorter time frame, every time the congregation faces a serious unknown, an important question, a fork in the road, or a need to look ahead strategically.

“It is only solved by walking.”

God leads, we follow. God speaks, we listen – and we do that in part by listening to each other deeply and authentically. God answers, we ask. Because God is sure, our wondering and questioning are too. We move, and God moves ahead of us and with us. Or in St. Augustine’s famous maxim, “Solvitur ambulando,” that is, “It is only solved by walking.” This is the way of the labyrinth.

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