THE HARDEST TRANSITION OF ALL

A local church in transition faces many challenges, known and unknown. We must define—and confront a set of assumptions. Too often I have dealt with the transition team statement, “We are ready to grow!” Or “There are so many people who want to come-or come back—to our church. The pandemic changed so many habits and patterns. One of them is affiliation with a local religious institution.

A recent Gallup poll concerned American religiosity (click here to read more). The main point in the poll is that for the first time in nearly a century, church involvement in America is under 50% of those surveyed. Our colleagues in Canada and other Western-culture countries are much further along in their exodus from church. Now, in Western cultures, more people of all age groups separate spirituality from churchgoing. You may hear people tell you, “I can be spiritual without being religious.”

When we are trained for intentional interim ministry, the Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry Training, we look at a change process that involves the hard work of congregational assessment and discernment. Even when formal and informal church leadership groups work hard with the intentional interim in a thorough and transparent review of ministry as it has been and, as it may be in the future. Two questions surround the work: who do we want to become and, what kind of minister will help us to move to that vision?

But there is a basic question behind these and all other assessment questions. And it rarely is asked. What us our church paradigm—and does it work now or in the future?  A paradigm is a pattern of thinking or a “mental model” that guides personal and institutional life. Often, we are unaware of a working paradigm unless there’s a conflict of perceptions and assumptions, of a crisis.

A couple of American church paradigms are challenged by the Gallup poll results. First, Americans are not “churched.” They are increasingly “unchurched.” What does that mean for church leaders who assume that numerical growth can happen with the next pastor? Also, the local church may no longer find “families with young children” as the natural way to numerical growth. Another paradigm: we are a “family church where we love each other.” Use those phrases—and there is a paradigm in place. But does that paradigm face some painful reassessment?

The congregation I have served most recently has been a “destination church.” People drive from many communities to worship and to have fellowship. The pandemic put the brakes on that way of being church. With a complete shutdown for many months, the congregation made use of its Facebook page for providing a worship service and a sermon. We also began offering the same on Zoom. Through Facebook, we gained viewers on a global scale. On Zoom, older computer-savvy members as well as some whose physical disability prevented them from attending church now began attending regularly for the first time.  The paradigm of “destination church” requiring in-person participation has shifted to “hybrid” paradigm. That challenges many assumptions about what it means to be “church.” As the search process gets underway, the pastor paradigm also will shift into some unfamiliar territory.

The transition team has important work to do telling the story of the church. The narrative can say a lot about how the congregation has been through times of change, and what that change has done to self-perception. The team must be ready, however, to drill down further. What is church? Then, what assumptions do we make about this church?

A couple of examples from church history show us how real these forces can be. In the early 1460s, the printing press came into working use. The first printed book was the Bible—in German, not Latin. In one generation, more people became literate. They could read God’s Word for themselves. Martin Luther was among them—and, as he read and thought for himself, his personal paradigm began to shift, especially in the Church’s teaching about salvation. The European Reformation became possible as more people could read for themselves. As they say, the rest is history.

Think about the impact Zoom has had in many congregations. “Everybody knows”/”Our church always has…”/”I am so uncomfortable with…” (paradigm language here) certainly came to the forefront when holding worship services on Zoom or other videoconference systems provided a way for people to come together at least virtually. Some church members without Internet access had to be included in other ways in the life of the congregation. Sacramental churches like mine have struggled with the testing of theological paradigms (can Holy Communion be virtual or only tangible?). On the other hand, are people nourished through prayer and the preaching of the Word? In transition, the leadership of the congregation decided to continue Zoom or live stream worship and in-person worship. But another question looms in how to be a hybrid church. How can we have members who are local, and who are global? That’s a paradigm shift.

All of us have faced into trauma in the past year dealing the COVID-19 pandemic. The patterns of life, work and worship changed within only a few months. In many parts of the world, local churches shut down for public worship for the first time in anyone’s memory. The normal and usual ways of worship were and still are disrupted. Another question we face is whether some people who we have considered “members” have been more disconnected than ever before and may not come back. Often, intentional interim ministers work through this pattern. What does it mean to be a “member”—and how is that part of the paradigm shift in the congregation?

Now we are at the beginning of this conversation—the Gallup poll on religiosity. Congregations and their leaders must listen to those who have moved into a different patten of thinking, a different mental model of what it is to be spiritual and how that differs from being religious. What will it take for the congregation, and for denominational leaders, to consider what it will take to be a “future congregation” in the present? That core issue is the hardest—but also an essential—part of transition and, in the end, it may be the most important issue in intentional interim ministry.

The Rev. John R. Throop, D.Min. is moving into intentional interim ministry as he celebrates 40 years of ordination as an Episcopal priest.

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