Thursday, September 21, 2017

Interim Ministry, Why One Shoe Doesn’t Fit All

This blog is about Interim Ministry and what is wrong with the current approach made by many dioceses toward transition of leadership in congregations.  This leads me to the wider topic of what is wrong with policies and procedures being used in TEC especially given our on-going decline.  If you are a Bishop or diocesan staff person, you may find what I have to say challenging. I want to challenge all of us who have a leadership role in our Church to re-evaluate some of our assumptions about how we deal with congregations.

Before I get to those items that may challenge current thinking about Interims and Interim Ministry in TEC, let me start with this positive statement.  The well trained Interim can help a congregation in the transition from one Rector to another in positive and healthy ways that allow the leaders and congregation to move forward toward mission and ministry.  TEC has a network of trained interims and this is good, and I know some who are very good at what they do.  Having said this, there are issues with Interim ministries that need re-evaluating.  Among them, I would identify the following;

Studies of congregations continue to highlight that the size and culture of a congregation as well as its location and the length of the previous tenure are important ingredients in planning a healthy and good transition.

Transition in A Large Church

Recently I worked with a larger Episcopal Congregation that has started the transition to a new Rector after the retirement of their Rector of over 20 years.  The Diocese insisted that they take on an Interim Minister for two years to assist in the transition.  The congregation had a senior associate who had served the Church for over 10 years, and the Vestry believed this associate was in a better position to lead the transition because he understood the needs and because the congregation is doing well. The leadership naturally wanted continuity as they moved forward. There was no hidden agenda to promote the associate since he is near retirement.  The Diocese pushed their procedure and requirement, but the Vestry leadership persisted. 

When the Church leaders asked me to visit with them based on writings I have done on the issues of following a long-term Rector, I found the Vestry and Search Committee eager to hear what I had to share.  They were also quick to see how to avoid certain land mines and to guide the congregation through this time of some anxiety.  Being a larger church (80% of Episcopal Congregations are less than 150 Average Sunday Attendance or ASA) they were first concerned with continuing to sustain the health and momentum they have.  Naturally, the senior associate is in a unique position to support the leaders and to help with individuals who were concerned about the future and grieving the loss of the previous pastor.

Here is what I think is wrong in this situation.  Diocesan policies and procedure in almost all dioceses are based on a small church culture.  It is, of course, understandable that small church culture frames the diocesan response to transition and change, but it violates one of the major principles of church consultations, namely, the needs of churches are different based on size and whether the congregation is stable, declining, or growing. 

Dioceses seem to understand this in their smaller congregations where tenures tend to be short.  These congregations can hardly afford a full-time clergy person let alone a full-time 2 year Interim.  In these situations, it is likely that a 2 to 4 year interim is just exactly what the next rectorship is going to be.  In fact, many small churches experience one Interim after another.  This is one major reason why they stay small. 

So let me be frank.  The Interim process that is used in most dioceses is based on the following assumptions.  The “normal” congregation is pastoral (75 to 140 ASA) in size, located in a stable suburb or town, and has had a 7 year or longer tenure.  In such situations, a two year Interim ministry is beneficial.  But what if the congregation is larger or growing steadily?  What if a congregation has had less than 7 years with the previous Rector?  What if a congregation is located in a suburb with high turnover in the population?  In these situations, a two year Interim could easily stifle any momentum and even lead to decline.  Next, imagine the tenure was 3 years and the relationship between clergy and congregation went badly.  Many of us who work with congregations know that an appropriate “Acting Rector” is a much better transition for such congregations. I did this at the Cathedral in Dallas and it worked fine.

Xerox or Apple?

Let me push this to even a step further. If you are a Bishop or work for one, hold on to your seat.  What do such policies and procedures that are often held by dioceses with the authority of canons mean in a community and organization that continues to decline steadily?

One secular writer commenting on why so few companies that were on the Fortune 500 twenty years ago no longer are around speaks to this directly.  The old companies keep in place policies and procedure that served the company well in its past, but continued to cling to them when markets, circumstances, and leadership changed. 

One might point out that the current leadership of TEC has little or no track record of revitalization and growth of current congregations. Here I am not trying to be overly critical of our Bishops and leadership; I am trying to raise awareness.   Most importantly, I am arguing for creativity, experimentation, and flexibility to meet the challenges of today’s situations and those of individual congregations based on the exigencies of time and place.  Isn’t TEC a little like Xerox continuing to try to improve copy machines as Apple changes the entire world of work and communications?

Willingness to Learn from Others

Interestingly, there is help in doing this.  After my visit, the senior associate sent me a email and said that “you may find the following announcement from the Senior Pastor of a very largest Baptist church on their transition to a new Pastoral leadership interesting.”  Here is the link:

Notice that the pastor begins by mentioning the planned transition that the leadership and staff had prepared using the book Next as a guideline.  This book was written on the positive experiences of larger churches making a successful transition to new leadership.  If you read the Pastor’s comments, you will also be impressed, as I was, with the insight of that 30 year tenured Pastor about what will take place and his role in making it healthy and positive.  “His role?”  Unheard of, in the TEC, where the retiring or leaving Rector is banished from the congregation for at least one year and might not be allowed to return as a member of that congregation.  My point is that there is insight and help beyond our denomination if we would care to seek it out. 

Bottom line for me is that a single cookie cutter approach to our congregations in any area and especially in transitions is not helpful and often very short sighted.

Other Questions

Do you think the long time members of that large Baptist Church would work through their grieving process in two years?  Some older members of that congregation may never stop grieving for the predecessor.  I live in a retirement community with lots of long term married couples in it.  When there is a loss, do you really think the widow or widower gets over it after two years even with therapy?  No, they must learn to function with it. 

Do you think that if the staff of a large church all leave within a year of the new Rector’s arrival, the congregation will thrive?  Continuity is the desire of the large church doing well.  I would contend that the large church doing well is at risk in a system where declining small churches dominate.  I hope you get my point.

 Let me end with this thought.  I remain optimistic for the future of TEC under the guidance of our mission centered Presiding Bishop, however, do we really think that policies and procedures (as well as structures) that were created out of a Christendom view of the Church will serve us in a post-Christian secular society?  I hear many of our current leaders saying that the Church must change, but I see few of our current leaders willing to take the risks that such change demands. 

What do you think?