Monday, August 16, 2010

My Reason for Joy in Interim Ministry

If asked six or seven years ago about my reasons for enjoying interim ministry, I probably would have said that I liked the opportunity to deliver analysis with fewer filters. In interim ministry I know my tenure is short, therefore I worry less about being removed for saying something I think is true, yet may put my call in jeopardy. That kind of leverage served me and the congregations I served well over nine years of interim ministry. That kind of leverage is not to be used recklessly, only as a means to dig toward questions buried from well-worn congregational discourse paths for years (sometimes decades). That joy in interim ministry shifted in recent months.

My family has come to a place where I need to serve a congregation in a different capacity. The commuting that often comes with interim ministry is crushing crucial time for my family. As I think about God's call for me in the future, I assess the experiences that shape my sense of call. For most interim pastors, interim ministry is something they do toward the tail end of their ministry careers. For me, I served for only three years in a "normal" capacity and nine in interim ministry. My vocation is shaped by these varied experiences. I have learned that each congregation possesses its own personality. Though congregations in a denomination or partnership link some aspects of their theological identity, each congregation shares a unique expression of the body of Christ. I have served in conservative, joyful, formal, informal, innovative, hospitable, introverted, musically varied, musically standard, pious, gregarious, liberal, generous, informal, angry, excellence-oriented, education focused, inclusivity-oriented, worship-focused, social grouping-oriented congregations, and every combination one could possibly imagine. Each of those congregation is shaped by their context as well. Add any other variable that comes to your mind. Though I have not always felt comfortable in every congregational culture served, I have appreciated that God is using them through their particular expression of church.

Much public discourse around church circles is directed toward how particular expressions are not authentic to faithful Christian witness. One recent writer in the Wall Street Journal discussed the perils of "hipster" Christianity. Regardless of what way the people of God choose to express Christian community, it will always be flawed. I think people know in their hearts there is no such thing as a perfect congregation, yet congregations strive for that and are quick to go negative when the church isn't the expression they imagined, and people are ready to quote the Bible to show the verity of their statements. Now many church people are ready to quote sociological data to legitimize their expression of church.

Hipster Christianity holds faults, as does any other combination of variables in Christian expression. My point is not that congregations should not stop striving for truth, or that everything is relative. I am saying that congregations should be more of who they are, and be transformed into God's preferred future for that community. I think sometimes the sin of congregations involves coveting and bearing false witness. Congregations want something that is often not theirs. Congregations also like to demean their sister congregations when the critic does not begin to know the complexity of the community they criticize. Then congregations often confuse truth with culture, further complicating what is already a challenging and fleeting enterprise. I wonder what would happen if congregations broke commandments 8-10 less often. God, have mercy.

My joy of interim ministry resides in the varied expressions of the body of Christ in the world. God did not create each of God's children the same, and my experience of the variety of God's creation is that congregational expression will not be conformist, either. Some expressions will endure more than others, and I think differing expression of Christian faith will only increase, not decrease. I will not lament the amount of varied expressions. I lament that I may be losing touch with these varied expressions--moving in and out of these congregation, I see something of the mind of God. My trust in God is put to the test. God, have mercy.

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