Appreciative Interim Ministry Resources
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If you have a brief article of interest or a report on an Interim Ministry consultation group or training that you would be willing to share with the interims please contact the Coordinator Rob Voyle.
Rev. Robert Voyle
An almost universal phenomena that occurs in interim ministry is that at some stage the parish and the priest will begin to entertain ideas that the interim should become the permanent priest. A second almost universal phenomena that follows the first, if these feelings are not firmly resisted, is that the pastoral relationship will become conflicted and ultimately destructive to the life of the parish and the clergy person. A similar phenomena of parishes seeking to call the associate rector as the permanent rector can be equally disastrous. Many in the Church can recall stories of pain and unnecessary suffering because interims or associates were allowed to become the rector. Out of such experiences many in church leadership have decreed that the interim or associate should never be considered as a candidate. Yet, while I write this I am reminded of a colleague, who was sponsored for ordination from a parish, returned there as a curate, (supposedly an equally bad thing) and then when the rector departed, was called as the rector. He has now been there some twenty years, and from all accounts has done a grand job and the parish continues to prosper.
When asking for feedback from members on whether the interim should be considered as a candidate the vast majority of the responses were adamantly opposed, with statements that it was "like committing adultery" and led to much misery. On the other hand several raised the issue of "priest-in-charge under special circumstances" where parishes in essence are given a priest by the bishop as an interim with the understanding that it could be made permanent after three years if both parties agreed. Such parishes don't undertake a typical search and many go on to call the interim as rector. From all accounts that I received most of these situations have worked out quite successfully. As someone who holds rigidly to a flexible plan and definitely not given to solving human dilemmas by legalism, I am intrigued to discover when it may be a Godly thing for the interim to be a candidate and when it may be a very ungodly thing.
In reviewing situations that have became conflicted I think most of the misery resulted from two critical issues being overlooked. The first is the issue of fear and its impact on a congregation's decision making. In the realm of solving crimes, popular wisdom suggests that one should "follow the money." When consulting with parishes in conflict my advice is to "follow the fear." People in fear do crazy things and generally make very poor decisions. I am continually amazed at the place fear has in our lives, from Adam's response to hiding from God because "we were afraid" to the Jesus' numerous admonitions "do not be afraid" throughout the Gospels. Living in fear may be our heritage as sinners but it is not our inheritance as Children of God. Yet I wonder how many daily decisions in the life of the church are made because someone is afraid. The interim phenomena of mutual infatuation is understandable in the light of the inherent fear of the wilderness experience of transitional times. Out of the instability of the moment people either reach back to their past or fearfully cling to whatever person is present in the moment. Great pressure may be exerted on clergy, bishops, and congregations to solve this anxiety by simply appointing the interim as the rector. For the interim, the infatuation can be very ego-intoxicating and also lead to clouded judgment and poor decision making. The interim minister needs to be very intentional about assisting the congregation with coming to terms with these basic insecurities of the interim period rather than assisting their repression by becoming the permanent priest. Such fears will not remain repressed but will become manifest in the poor decisions that are made in its midst. When fear is the basic motivation then the wise interim will resist like a saint the demands of their own ego or the corporate fear of a parish or the church at large.
The second critical issue is that of intentionality and failing to honor commitments once they have been made. When I first began interim ministry, I was an associate who was principally filling in for the rector while we waited for the new one to arrive. I was not intentional about the interim time other than maintaining the pastoral life of the parish. We did not consider issues of grief or transition and in hindsight the parish was done a great disservice as it was not prepared for a change of leadership and several years later went through some very difficult times. Now I am very intentional. As intentional interims we are committing ourselves to assist a congregation with the transition between leadership. To seek to change the nature of the relationship midcourse and become a candidate is to betray the commitment to assist the congregation in their transition. It is a violation of the boundaries that are established at the beginning of the relationship. These boundaries are essential, especially in conflicted situations, if the interim is to remain objective and not embroiled in the conflict. It becomes impossible to maintain credibility as a healing presence when energy becomes diverted from facilitating a healthy transition to establishing oneself as the best possible candidate.
Changing the plan midstream and becoming a candidate circumvents the self-study and search process. The risk of divisively polarizing a congregation becomes enormous if another candidate is called over the interim who is already known to the parish as being available for the position. Some interims have succumbed to the seductiveness of interim infatuation because they entered into an interim position while really wanting a permanent position. Interim infatuation also blinds both clergy and congregations to long-term realities. The skills that may make a clergy person effective as an interim may be a liability in a permanent position. For example, effective interims are able to respond quickly to crisis situations but may be less inclined to persist with long-term planning. The parish, while appreciative of these skills during an interim, may erroneously assume that the interim would make a good long-term rector.
Intentionality is also one of the reasons why the priest-in-charge under special circumstances, in contrast to interims becoming candidates, appears to be effective. At the beginning of the pastoral relationship the plan is clearly spelled out to the congregation and the clergy person. This plan is not altered because people have become frightened or infatuated. Rather, there is a commitment from both priest and parish to work without recrimination. While this process is going on both the priest and the parish are not distracted by competing with other candidates in a search process, but can focus their attention on their mutual ministry. Intentionally and commitment to this plan also has the effect of reducing a considerable amount of fear by providing stability in the midst of turmoil.
Clergy need to be clear with themselves and the parish when they enter into a pastoral relationship. If we have agreed to serve as an intentional interim we need to honor that commitment and not succumb to the fears, infatuations, or our own changing desires. Intentional interims need to begin preparing a congregation for their departure the day they arrive, especially be reminding the congregation that they will not be a candidate for the position of rector. When the interim succumbs to fear or interim infatuation all the intentionality and commitment to the interim process goes out the window and the congregation is robbed of its opportunity for grieving, self reflection, new understanding, and a healthy healing transition between leadership. It is analogous to going to care for a grieving friend only to end up in bed with them. Such relationships are not very Godly and are rarely helpful or successful.
Rev. Robert J. Voyle
Several years ago while completing my doctorate in Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary I took a class on Spiritual Direction. Surprisingly it was one of the most popular classes in the School of Psychology and was presented by both psychology and theology faculty. One of the things I remember most vividly from the class was a fellow student's response to a statement that I had made about being a priest. He said: "I'm a Protestant and I don't believe in priests, I believe in the priesthood of all believers."
I have ruminated on that comment in many ways since hearing it and have gone about the work of Interim Ministry. It seems to me that he missed the point. What I think St. Peter was referring to was that all believers will have a priestly ministry. It is impossible to have the priesthood of all believers without knowing what priests are. As I think about his comment the words of my Seminary Professor Raymond Pelly come to mind: "and the priesthood of all believers became the priesthood of no one."
Despite having many years of pastoral training and working as a psychologist and an associate for pastoral care I do not feel like a Pastor. When asked what I am and what I do, the word that I identify with more than any other is Priest. Somehow I have this weird idea that priests do this thing called pastoral care. As I ruminated on this topic some more, I decided to consult the literature, and ran through several Pastoral Care literature databases. I came across several hundred references to pastoral care but not one contained a reference to priests. Using priests as a search word brought forth Melchizadek and a few other references but none on the work of contemporary ministry.
With the computer failing me I turned to the two legged databases and consulted friends, peers, seminary professors, and checked out theological school reading lists. One Episcopal Pastoral Theologian apologetically said not much was happening in the area of priest and perhaps I should check out what the Roman Catholics were writing about.
Unfortunately the one Roman Catholic Theologian that I know has been on sabbatical. I also wonder whether I can take seriously the writings of a church that doesn't take seriously the priesthood of over half of her members. When I raise the question with fellow clergy, most of them have started to talk about sacramental ministry, celebrating the Eucharist, or anointing the sick. Now I admit that these can be important things and priestly things to do, but I am often most aware of being a priest when I am not engaged in sacramental ministry. If sacramental ministry is all there is to being a priest, then I think we have missed the point that my protestant friend was trying to make. How can we have the priesthood of all believers when only a few are allowed to do priestly things?
So what then is this being a priest all about and what does it have to do with interim ministry? I think there are two ways that most people endeavor to live in this world. The first is to be here for ourselves. This is humanity's fallen instinctual response to the world. It is evidenced by King Nebuchadnezzar whose self-adulation ultimately led to a psychotic break and he wandered the fields like a beast (Daniel 4:1-37). The second is perhaps a little more enlightened and that is to be in the world for others. This is the model generally offered for those in the helping professions. The helper is here for the helpee. But this way of being is also fraught with difficulty and can lead to that resentful state as evidenced by Martha who fretted that no one, not even her sister, would come to her aid (Luke 10:38-42). Or, and what cleric has not experienced, the older brother phenomena seen in the story of the prodigal (Luke 15:11-32). When we see ourselves as helpers we will become resentful when no one helps us or others are rewarded. We are also inclined to become resentful when the helpee refuses to be helped and consequently challenges our helper self-concept. Perhaps a more enlightened way to be in the world is to balance being here for ourselves and for others. But balance is rarely possible and the result is that we live forever in tension being pulled apart by opposing forces.
The solution to the dilemma of how to be in this world is the priestly one of being here, not for self or others, but for God. This was Jesus' priestly way of being in the world. He was in it but not of it. He had emptied himself of his divine frame of reference and entered into the world of humanity. And that human frame of reference he took back to God. He is an intermediary between God and the people. He not only revealed God to humanity he also revealed humanity to God. He did not argue or seek to coerce others to his viewpoint. He spoke the truth and was not invested in outcomes but trusted them to God. His priestly way of being in the world freed him from the interpersonal manipulations of tyrants, rich young men, religious leaders, and parents who didn't understand their children. At the heart of his ministry, and what for me is most profoundly priestly, was his work of reconciliation. Whether it be in the ultimate reconciliation between God and humanity that he wrought on the Cross or in the acts of reconciliation between individuals that he encountered, such ministry is a priestly ministry. Regardless of whether I am working as a psychologist or as a clergy person or just being a friend, I am most aware of being a priest when I become part of a transcendent moment in which someone experiences reconciliation. On many occasions it has moved me to a speechless joy.
Interim ministry gives us some wonderful ways to experience a priestly ministry. We have the opportunity to leave behind our world and enter into the world of a parish, knowing that we will soon be leaving. We have the opportunity to be Greek to the Greeks and Roman to the Romans. Because we are not personally involved in the parish arguments we are free to be there for God and much less susceptible to interpersonal manipulation than if we had been there for years and had a huge investment in the outcome. Interim ministry also affords us the opportunity to be a healing presence in conflicted situations and to participate in the work of reconciliation. Perhaps the "non-anxious presence" that has become the buzz word of late is nothing more than the priestly presence that is manifested when we are here or there for God.
"You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9)."
I wish you God's richest blessing in your priestly ministry. If you have any comments, or thoughts, or found someone writing on the subject of priestly ministry I would love to hear from you.
Rev. Robert J. Voyle
Several Biblical expressions of ministry capture the spirit of interim ministry. From a theological perspective transitional times are primarily wilderness times. The great story of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness is an archetypal expression for the community in transition. In the wilderness, faced with uncertainty, the people grieve for what they have left behind, even if it was a life of hardship. They may grumble and seek to hold fast to temporal realities and forget the God who has liberated and sustained them. Yet in the midst of the wilderness the people encounter God anew and find a new identity that it is not limited by the past. And Moses, the one who has led the people through the wilderness to this new understanding, does not get to enter the promised land.
The other great transitional ministry in the Bible also took place in the wilderness and was that of John the Baptist. He stood between the Old and New. He prepared a way for the new by calling the people to repentance, to make a heartfelt change in the way they perceived themselves and God. Like Moses he did not get to see the fruits of his labor but saw that it was necessary for himself to diminish that Christ may increase.
These two stories capture some of the essence of interim ministry. It is a time of calling a people to leave behind the knownness of the past, which may be secure or in turmoil, to examine who they are and the direction they are going, and to prepare for the future. Like John the Baptist interim clergy need to assist in the transition of leadership rather than establish themselves as leaders.
Rev. Robert J. Voyle
From a psychological perspective I think I am well suited to interim ministry. I rarely get intensely attached to things, ways of doing things, or to groups of people. I find it relatively easy to move from one congregation to another and enjoy meeting new people and doing things in new ways. The downside of this ability is that I can be quite surprised when I encounter people in deep pain over a change in church practice, style of liturgy, or even the loss of a rector. Fortunately, through considerable pastoral training, I have managed to resist the self-protective urge to respond with "Get a Life" and have found ways to transform the pain into the birthpain of new understanding. Times of loss and transition evoke a complex matrix of emotions and thoughts that we call grief. The intensity of the grief reaction, while often understandable, is also a measure of the extent to which the griever believes that the source of These times of transition and pain can be opportunities for new life when they are dealt with sensitivity, understanding, and compassion.
One of the Biblical passages that has been of great assistance to sensitizing me to the intensity of the grief reaction is Psalm 137.
Psalm 137: A Lament or Song of Grief
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, "Rase it, rase it! Down to its foundations!"
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
The people of Israel have been exiled to Babylon and are overwhelmed with grief. They are also confronted with a significant theological question. How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? Or will God hear our prayers and be with us when we are in a foreign land and no longer on Israel's soil? Confronted with an enormous grief that shakes them to their core the Israelites delight in the possibility of vengeance not only against their captors but also their children. But such strong grief reactions also point out the reality of an attachment to a perceived source of life that in fact is not the source of life. For congregations the question is "How can we sing the Lord's song without our Rector. The fear is that we may never be able to find fulfillment in our worship and Christian service again.
In many grief situations there are always those who will torment the bereaved. They will do all in their power to cheer up the bereaved rather than let them grieve. With the best of intentions tormentors rush to theological rationalizations, or rush organizational change and get the new rector installed. But torment brings anguish. Decisions conceived in anguish often have disastrous results. Interim ministry is about walking with those who grieve rather than tormenting them. By enabling a congregation to grieve, to discover that they can continue to Sing the Lord's song, and to know what that song is, we enable them to prepare for a new conductor. We do not facilitate new understanding by imposing it but by allowing it to emerge as people grieve.
Rev. Robert J. Voyle
Have you ever walked into a church and thought to yourself, What in God's Name is Going on Here? As an interim minister and as a church consultant I find myself asking this question everywhere I go. I also use it as the title and theme for one of the first sermons I preach when beginning a new ministry. What is very interesting about asking this question is that I rarely get any intelligible answers. The first time I asked it was during a sermon in a parish where the rector had been removed for sexual misconduct. The parishioners responded with embarrassment, nervousness, knowing (but actually not knowing) smiles, and several parishioners appeared to be itching in their seats to get out of church and tell me in graphic detail what had been going on. What the question had raised in the minds of the people was the unintelligible gossip, or everything that was going on that was not in God's Name. What I am most interested in however is the real answer to the questions: Where is God at work in your midst? Where do you find God? Where do you see God acting in your life and in the lives of your fellow parishioners? Or in other words; What in God's name is going on here?
Asking this question is of great help to enable the quick joining with a congregation that is necessary in interim ministry. My personal view of ministry has been heavily influenced by the contemplative tradition of the church. It suggests that ministry is not something that we do, rather it is something we participate in. Our task is not to make God happen, but to participate in what God is already doing. By asking, what in God's name is going on here? I can identify what it is that I am called to participate in. By maintaining my focus on what God is doing, rather than what I or the parishioners are doing, I am also freed from being ensnared in much of the ego-driven craziness that passes for parish life. This has enabled me to join congregations with very diverse backgrounds and styles of worship and ministry. It also helps me minimize my personal agendas and become part of God's agenda. For congregations in transition this has been of great reassurance, that my ministry is not about changing them but being with them as they prepare for a new rector. It has also been a source of great joy as the congregation has been able to sharpen their identity and to recognize that this work of God has not stopped but is going on independent of the previous rector.
Helping a congregation to identify what in God's name is going on can also be very beneficial for the congregation's planning and budgeting. When the congregation can truly discern those places and ministries where God is active then they can allocate their time and resources in more appropriate and intentional ways. Asking the question as a ministry consultant can also raise curious results. At a recent meeting of rectors and congregational leaders, each of the people present could readily discern where they individually identified God at work in their parishes. Yet on asking them where they thought their fellow parishioners found God, few could positively identify those parish ministries where parishioners found God. Several said it would be presumptuous for them to say where parishioners found God. I strongly disagree. As parish leaders their prime responsibility is to know what God is doing in their midst by knowing where their members find God and see God at work. A failure to identify what God is doing suggests that their parish planning and budgeting is likely to be governed by wishful thinking and best intentions rather than participation in the coming of God's kingdom. So the next time you go into church ask yourself and those around you: What in God's name is going on here?