Monday, January 31, 2011

An Action-Reflection Approach to Interim Ministry

After 11 years of interim ministry, the amount of questions related to the approach of my call to serve has reached a critical mass.

I arrived at the interim ministry call because I enjoy the foundational questions of congregational life. Who are we? Why has God called this community of faith to this particular place at this particular time? How do we relate to one another? What is our context for ministry? There were also some life stage questions and logistics that made interim ministry a good fit. My mentors, teachers and colleagues in ministry supported my move toward interim work, and I began my training. I learned a process developed with the leadership of Loren Mead from the Alban Institute, along with many others. The idea of building a professional interim ministry profession was that the time in between pastors was a prime opportunity for a congregation for self-study and discovery of new opportunities for ministry. This approach was an amateur sociologist's dream. I learned about interpersonal dynamics, organizational development, relational systems and demography. Mead outlined the "Developmental Tasks of Interim Ministry," based on sociological work, as well as history, pastoral care, theology and missiology.

I enjoyed the work and found stimulation and fulfillment in working with social science approaches to congregational life. Not only was I equipped to work with congregations in between pastorates, in my training I acquired many consulting-quality tools that gave me extra work and development of case studies with many other congregations. I attended continuing education events through the Interim Ministry Network, which gave me more tools. All the while my interim ministry colleagues and I were equipped with the mantra, "Slow down. Trust the process."

After 11 years, I don't trust the process. I still appreciate the social science approaches, and I believe the church is better for using tools to understand both relationships in the congregation and the context of their community. But the approach of slowing down and trusting the process to the tune of longer and longer interim ministries has caused me to question "The Process." "The Process," in my anecdotal observation expends more time as the years go on. What was once a 9-12 month endeavor in the 1990s has become closer to and 18-24 month path to calling a new pastor. My longest interim ministry lasted 31 months. I remember "longer interims" were part of collegial discussion at interim ministry conventions over the past several years. I found interim ministry fulfilling, so longer sounded better to me. I remember there was rationale for longer interim ministry the quality of self-study.

During the 31-month interim ministry, I wondered if the interim ministry methodology was truly serving congregations and providing an effective path to mission. I've met with numerous interim ministry colleagues over the years. We often encourage each other with the mantras we were taught. "Slow it down. Trust the process."

"My congregation is not slowing it down. They won't trust the process." Someone would say.

"Just tell them to slow things down. They need to trust the process. I can't believe they won't trust the process." Then we'd throw around some more jargon, share a little more indignation, maybe pray for each other, and meet the next month.

How do we really know that the interim ministry "process" is good for congregations? I don't believe there is a definitive answer. I know it's possible for interim ministry to be helpful. I have some faithful, skilled and intelligent colleagues who work well with congregations. However, I question whether slowing things down and trusting the process makes congregations better off after the interim ministry is completed. All of the slowing down seems to be done in the name of congregational determination of discovering "who we are and where we're going."

The problem with the prolonged self-study in interim ministry accompanied with slow down and waiting for the next pastor to arrive conditions creates multiple negative trajectories:

1. The congregation often fails to try new things while they determine how to move forward. The church doesn't learn to be in mission while being stagnant. It's the principle of "moving where you look," not to mention basic physics and kinesiology. Something at rest tends to stay at rest, something in motion tends to stay in motion. A mere slowing down and trusting the process enables more congregational inertia.

2. Can a congregation in mission afford both financially and missionally to be "on hold" for 1-2 years, possibly longer? I think both community and stewardship trust is compromised when the congregational ethos is "on hold" while the congregation engages in a prolonged self study at the expense of trying new things in ministry.

I've come to the conclusion that with all my lack of trust in the interim ministry "process" after 11 years and 7 interim ministries, my best path in interim ministry is an "action-reflection" approach. I don't believe this will speed up the process much (if at all). There are other variables involved in calling a pastor (number of openings, variations in judicatory involvement, economics, etc.). At the very least, as an action-reflection interim, I can address the negative trajectory caused by inertia. I can use my leverage as an interim to try new thing in ministry with the congregation. Will the congregation really be any worse off if what they try fails? I believe that the congregation will learn more about itself trying new ministry initiatives regardless of failure or success as opposed to extended periods of navel-gazing. My theory is actually that congregations can accelerate ministry during the interim time, be intentional about their reflection, and learn much more about their mission identity. This approach also begins a better ministry partnership with the next pastor--rather than go into the next pastor relationship with the attitude of "save us," the congregation can recognize they are searching for a ministry partnership.

Without knowing it, my approach to interim ministry has been more action-reflection for about 4 years; today I am engaged in a little more reflection after a flurry of action in my current interim ministry congregation.

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