Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Challenging my methods in interim ministry

I recently returned from a two day retreat with other large congregation pastors in the Southwestern Washington Synod. I departed for the gathering with reticence, anticipation and a bit of relief (marveling at what a production it is to prepare for our daughters to stay at home without our presence and what it takes to get out the door at this time in our lives). I do not have the time to waste for a gathering that isn't useful, so my guard is usually up and I prepare myself for an expedient exit. Not only was I pleased with the collegial nature of this gathering, but the discussion topics and materials rose far above expectations.

Mark Grorud is an ELCA pastor currently serving as a lead pastor in Omaha, Nebraska. He recently left a position with the ELCA supporting large congregations--mostly those worshiping 700+ per week, but also resourcing and connecting with congregations like FLCC, who worship over 300 per week. In approximately 4 years in the position, Grorud had an expansive view of large congregations in the ELCA, gleaning much wisdom regarding practices, trends and congregational dynamics.

First Lutheran Community Church is far above (approximately 380 per week) the median in the ELCA in worship attendance, and in the top 10 percent for the SW Washington Synod, but small on the spectrum of large congregations. I became reacquainted with some basic information regarding staffing and congregational size theory. Where the information became highly valuable related to large congregations and pastoral transitions. The largest congregations have a few things in common related to transitions.

1. A long pastorate
2. A vision-casting lead/senior pastor
3. Most large congregations have short transitions between lead/senior pastors (some with the attempt to be "seamless"), ranging from no time at all to just a few weeks or months. The exceptional cases involve a senior pastor leaving under duress (conflict, financial or sexual misconduct), which in some cases could involve several months between settled senior pastors, but rarely lasted more than 6-9 months.
4. A congregation that equips leaders for ministry.
5. A congregation often grooms a new senior pastor before the other senior pastor departs.

Conventional wisdom in interim ministry proclaims that longer interims are better for a congregation in transition. I have been challenged to recognize that this is not the case for larger congregations. Grorud made a strong case that for a smaller to medium-sized congregation (ranging from 50-250 that is more dependent upon a solo pastor for ministry), the attachment to a pastor exists on multiple levels, with grieving and mission and vision work are slower and more methodical. In a larger congregation, though the pastor is a prominent figure related to worship and ethos, the direct hands-on leadership is less prominent. Such a sophisticated web of leadership may need an interim to provide continuing momentum in special cases, but the larger congregation needs a new senior pastor sooner than later.

This theory and practice related to larger congregation transitions challenged my own methods and practices in interim ministry, especially reflecting on my last large congregation interim. I thought I might have been there too long--because of my own learning curve, the system I was in, and the limited scope of my education. Large congregations tend to not use interim ministry--and the education preparing pastors and congregations for interim ministry serves as a function for small and medium-sized congregations. Therefore my leadership process for FLCC during this transition time is being re-examined. I will employ several of my current practices (including the Transition Team), but I will be seeking coaching and advice from interim pastors who have served in larger congregations (a rather small group). I will report on my learning as I have time to gather information, reflect and implement.

Keeping the congregation aware of my learning and process as an interim pastor is important for congregational life--and I look forward to any questions or feedback you might have.

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