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Thursday, December 23, 2010

All Ministry is Interim

Paul Rack, my Stated Clerk colleague from the Presbytery of Elizabeth, has served in the past as an interim pastor. He knows what he's talking about when he writes in a blog posting from several months back:

"Because we live in a culture of transition, all ministry today is transitional; it necessarily has a temporary, provisional, and 'between' or 'on the way' quality. The great value of Interim Ministry is that it has always addressed issues of transition in congregations. There are therefore many lessons we may learn from Interim Ministry that apply to all ministry in a time of pervasive change.... Churches no longer actually settle into any traditionally recognizable, sustainable, stable state. For the sake of a dynamic ministry in Christ’s name, every new minister needs to be prepared to keep positive change and adaptation happening, no matter how much congregations may crave stability."

Paul goes on to reframe some traditional agenda items of interim pastors to apply to all churches, whether literally in an interim period of pastoral leadership, or not:

1. Coming to Terms with History
"In a time of radical transition and change, however, our history is not necessarily a positive thing to get in touch with. Too many churches are so cognizant of their heritage that they lose sight of the world they are situated in today. Church becomes an exercise in nostalgia or even grief over some perceived golden age."

2. Discovering a New Identity
"As superficially beneficial as [the classic demographic-study] approach may be, it still ignores a more important and primary theological question: 'Who are we, and what is God calling us to do, as God’s people in this time and place?' Ministry now involves drawing people into discernment and conversation about their own callings from God."

3. Shifts of Power/Leadership Changes
"Congregations have to recognize and empower new leaders all the time. This grows naturally out of the focus on identifying people’s particular callings.... Secondly, the very character of leadership in the church is flattening and spreading out. We have always depended on top-down, centralized systems of organization. But these are being rapidly replaced by organic networks, empowering people to follow their own callings."

4. Rethinking Denominational Linkages
"Too often the denominational structure is a gauntlet of inertia, suspicion, old habits, and entrenched interests that must be navigated by a church requesting support in doing anything innovative, different, or 'outside the box' in ministry. Presbyteries are learning at least to give lip-service to the idea that they exist to support the mission of local churches. Increasingly they now have to back up these words with real actions, putting the health, needs, and mission of congregations ahead of the presbytery’s own issues."

5. Commitment to a New Future
"The insight that 'all ministry is interim ministry' means that even 'permanent' Pastors are called to have the orientation towards the future that good Interims have. In short, all Pastors will want to find the courage to be active change agents, leading the people of God into a new future. In practice this entails a kind of ruthlessness about ridding ourselves of whatever holds us back from effective mission in Jesus’ name today."

His blog entry is worth reading in its entirety.

I've been in my present pastoral position for 20 years, but never before have I had been aware of more rapid change in the character of congregational life. Participation in church activities, particularly weekly worship, is more sporadic now. Members still look favorably upon the church, and will turn out in great numbers for specific events, but they seem less inclined to include Sunday worship in their list of "must-do" weekly activities. This is especially true of regular, weekly volunteer commitments like choir and church-school teaching.

There seems to be a nearly universal decline in regular financial giving as well, much of which is generational. As my generation, the baby boomers, comes more and more to displace the older generations in church leadership, we just haven't risen to the occasion when it comes time to take out our checkbooks - and what's true for us is even more true for the generations younger than us. Again, church folk will respond to specific appeals with remarkable generosity, but the regular pledge seems to be falling into disfavor.

Curiously, we're also seeing a big uptick in the numbers of people who attend worship regularly but never become members. We need to do more to intentionally relate to this "friends" group - some of whom cheerfully sign up to help with various tasks and even submit pledges, but always decline the invitation to come out to a new members' group.

The proposed new Form of Government, if approved by a majority of the presbyteries this year, will provide Sessions with considerable freedom for innovation of this sort. The old membership categories will no longer be mandatory. I don't know, at this point, what I'd recommend changing about the way we structure our membership rolls - to better relate to this amorphous "friends" group - but I'm open to suggestions. I know of a few churches that have established a separate category of "Friends of the Church." Maybe that would be a good place to start.

Increasingly, Americans are not joiners. As sociologist Robert Putnam has demonstrated in a much-quoted book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, sign-me-up membership in various organizations like service clubs - and even bowling leagues - has been in free fall for decades. It's taken the church a little longer to catch up with this trend, but it's now upon us in earnest.

This isn't to say the church is in decline. God's just changing us into something different than what we've been. We have an old saying in the Reformed Tradition: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda ("The Reformed church is always being reformed"). What's changing is our understanding of membership. We're moving in the direction of becoming a more informal, gathered community with less sharply-defined boundaries. As the computer revolution continues, online points of connection - while they will never replace face-to-face community - will continue to grow in importance.

I think Paul's right. All of us in church leadership, ministers and elders alike, would do well to acquaint ourselves with the sorts of things interim pastors know. That's because, in changing times like these, all ministries are interim.

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