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.

Custom made M&M’s helped say goodbye during the time of COVID

The world turned upside down in second week of March 2020 as our slow response to the deathly impact of what is now simply called COVID unfolded. At that time I was in the middle of the fourth month of an eight month appointment as the Interim Rector of St. Timothy’s, Wilson NC

The week began on Sunday with what turned out to be the last time we worshipped in the church as well as the last time I was physically with the amazing Youth Group. That Sunday evening we made a short video to support the search process with the young people speaking directly to the next rector with their hopes and dreams. The last time to physically meet with the Vestry was on Tuesday. We celebrated our three plus months together with a supportive Mutual Ministry. The work within the search process that focused on the updated website was reviewed and approved. Wednesday found over fifty people gathered, again for a last time, to sit at tables and work with me on the importance of The Rule of St. Benedict. Then Thursday came as did the Bishop’s directive that changed parish life. Over the next two days, much adaptation to a new reality slowly unfolded. My week away to teach a gathering of Interim Ministers was cancelled. My ZOOM and video production skills were put to the test. Caring and loving from a distance became my norm.

However, the memory of what our March video proclaimed was always a part of those meetings as my time with St. Timothy’s would end in July. The Youth decided June 28th would be our last meeting as summer was approaching. How to say goodbye?

I contracted for packages of custom-made M&M’s. Each package contained red, green, and yellow M&M’s that were imprinted with one of the following expressions: ST.TIM’S, LOVE WINS, YEA EYC, FR BILL. The M&M packages were mailed to the Youth with an invitation to the final meeting along with a request to watch a movie on Netflix called “The Healer.” This invitation was also sent by text and email.

About eleven of the Youth were able to gather on ZOOM that final evening. We talked about the theme of the movie and then opened our M&M packages and shared a form of chocolate communion. An awkward, and for me, tearful dismissal concluded our time together.

A story such as this written by a practitioner such as myself can easily fall into the realm of proclaiming competence. COVID has challenged so much of how we engage our work. There is so much more that grounds what we do than practical application of theory or even the care and concern offered as a pastor when the world, indeed, seems to be upside down. I learned later from the father of one of the newest Youth members that she was extremely excited to receive her package of M&M’s and the invitation to the meeting. It meant that she was finally old enough to be in the Youth Group. Sometimes unexpected outcomes such as this one are the mark of the Holy. It should not surprise me, but it does. 
The Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas, IMEC Vice-President

Download a printed version of this reflection here.

Pandemic Impact on Searching for a New Position

As a former Diocesan Transition Minister (DTM) for over a decade, I quickly learned that staying in touch with my former colleagues was key to landing a new position.  I have found, however, that things have changed a lot since the pandemic has taken hold of the church, our dioceses, and our churches.  Recently, I had an Interim lined up, but then the DTM called to inform me that when the rector, who had announced his/her retirement, realized that COVID meant not being able to say “good-bye” face to face with members, s/he decided to postpone the retirement until they could gather again.  As more time passed, and it was evident that COVID wasn’t going away anytime soon, s/he decided to postpone retirement all together, so s/he could shepherd his/her beloved congregation through the pandemic.

When I inquired with the DTM if there were any other upcoming retirements that s/he might need an Interim, s/he informed me, there were, but they all also had decided to stay on “to get their parishes through COVID.”  When I started checking in with other DTMs, I heard this story time and time again.  And there was another story as well.  Many of the dioceses had closed or were closing down their search processes!  And those were the DTMs I was able to reach, yet another wrinkle.  My, how things had changed in a few short months.

What used to call for an email stating I’d call them in a week to see how I could be of service, accompanied by an updated resume and OTM, now would require a different approach.

I needed to:

  • make contact with many more DTMs, and be patient knowing that I may not hear from them at all, even those I knew well
  • settle on talking to the receptionist, not the DTM, and asking if s/he could get a message to the DTM, or if I was lucky, get the DTM’s cell phone
  • open myself up to offering my transition skills for positions that were not what I had previously imagined

More than anything, my search required patience, persistence, and perseverance.  Every time I was met with a “not right now,” I asked if the DTM knew of a colleague somewhere else who was looking for someone.  Receptionists became my best friends, my connectors to DTMs who were working from home and did not have the technology to forward phone calls.  My biggest stretch was opening myself to using my transition skills beyond what I imagined I would be doing until I retired.

I had heard that the ELCA had a shortage of trained Interims.  With a quick phone call to the Church Pension Fund, I learned that the ELCA now pays 18% into our pension fund and we earn a year of credited service, the same as in an Episcopal position.  I made contact with the closest ELCA Synod and found that they were in need of trained Interims.  Soon the Synod Bishop was on the phone with the bishop I had just served under, and he and his regional minister (DTM) wanted to set up an interview!

I also opened myself up to Priest-in-Charge positions in dioceses that saw the first one or two years like an Interim and the second or third year as a time of discernment to see if the relationship might become permanent.  While it took me a bit of imagination to open myself up to the possibility of becoming a rector, I knew that those early years were all about transition work and the Focus Points from our IMN (Interim Ministry Network) training that we use as trained Interims.  Discernment would come later and who knows what God may have in mind.

I was delighted to find that things began to open up for me once I began to see possibilities in other ways of offering my gifts and skills.  I actually was once again “in demand!”  I suspect this is the way of our future as Interims.  Patience, Persistence, and Perseverance will be the key to landing each new position.  The landscape of transition ministry is in transition itself.  Who knows, maybe learning how to search for a position in a new way, is one of the gifts of COVID.
The Rev. Debra J. Kissinger
IMEC Board

Practioner’s Stories

Practitioner’s Stories are articles submitted by experienced interim ministers on their observations and methods from their deep experience as trained professionals guiding healthy transition during in Interim Ministry.

  • 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 … Continue reading
  • Custom made M&M’s helped say goodbye during the time of COVID
    The world turned upside down in second week of March 2020 as our slow response to the deathly impact of what is now simply called COVID unfolded. At that time I was in the middle of the fourth month of an eight month appointment as the Interim Rector of St. Timothy’s, Wilson NC.  The week began … Continue reading
  • Pandemic Impact on Searching for a New Position
    As a former Diocesan Transition Minister (DTM) for over a decade, I quickly learned that staying in touch with my former colleagues was key to landing a new position.  I have found, however, that things have changed a lot since the pandemic has taken hold of the church, our dioceses, and our churches.  Recently, I … Continue reading

Transition Officer Posts

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Selected Resources

Selected Resources

Welcome to our Resource page. IMEC provides these essays and working papers as a resource to to clergy, parishes and dioceses working with transitions.

The Care and Feeding of the Clergy Family
– by the Rev. Bonnie Jean M. Durning

Digital Technology Audit Survey
– by the Rev. Mary Slenski

Interim Ministry from a Lutheran Perspective
– by the Rev. Dr. Roy Almquist

The Search Process for a New Rector
– by the Rev. Frank Hegedus

IMEC Survey Results – Transition Officers
– data from the May, 2015 survey provided by Diocesan Transition Officers

IMEC Survey Results – Interim Ministers
– data from the May, 2015 survey provided by Episcopal Interim Ministers

Annual Conference/Meeting

IMEC Annual Meeting 2019

Our annual meeting will be held at the IMN Annual Meeting – see below.  We will meet during the Denominational Gathering time on Wednesday, November 13 at 3:30 pm.

The 2019 Interim Ministry Network Conference, November 11-14, 2019 in Baltimore Maryland at the Maritime Institute Conference Center.

Click here to Register today  for this exciting event.  

Exciting IMN Annual Meeting coming in November. Watch here.