Monday, May 4, 2015

Interim Ministry

The time between long-term clergy is a time of complex change in the dynamics of a congregation. Such transition does not simply fall into place by its own volition; it must be guided, directed in ways that foster increased health and vitality for the congregation, as it enters its next phase of ministry. A skilled interim minister, trained for and experienced with engaging congregations in ministry that fosters intentional change, can empower even troubled and recalcitrant congregations to experience transformation and wholeness.
My own experience and training in interim ministry has equipped me to coach congregations through these times of transition. "Coaching" is a good metaphor; moving through the changes that prepare a congregation well for its next minister, is the work of the congregation itself, not of the minister. If I prepare myself for a church's next minister, that does the church no good; the church must prepare itself. I bring the tools, skills, and leadership presence to guide lay leaders and members in this work.
As a fully Accredited Interim Minister (AIM) in the UUA, I have completed three tiers of training with the Interim Ministry Network, an ecumenical/interfaith organization, and been certified by them as a Transitional Ministry Specialist. I have attended multiple annual seminars of the Unitarian Universalist Interim Ministers' Guild, receiving specialized training at each one, in issues ranging from staff supervision, to facilitating conversations on difficult topics, to guiding congregational mission and vision work. And I make a point to seek out additional training annually (usually in autumn), understanding that learning interim ministry, like all learning, is a life-long process. These have included trainings in missional church ministry, Policy Governance, and church consulting, among others. Now completing my fifth interim ministry, I have found opportunities to incorporate tools and analyses from all these educational opportunities into my work with congregations.

Discussion of Interim Ministry in UU Churches
featuring myself and Rev. Alex Holt
"The VUU" - online talk show produced by Church of the Larger Fellowship
January 15, 2015

My own approach to interim ministry emphasizes listening and relationality. Rather than foolishly rushing in to prescribe some one-size-fits-all solution to a congregation's needs, I always take the first few weeks of my ministry with a congregation to hear the multiple viewpoints and unifying themes of church members and leaders. Then, as a clearer picture emerges of the strengths and needs of the particular congregation, I initiate with the congregation those specific strategies with the greatest potential to meet that set of needs, and build upon the relevant strengths. Increasingly, the principles and techniques I've studied in community organizing have informed and deepened this work. In all this, I strive ever to remain mindful of the relational and systemic dynamics at play in the life of the congregation, always ready to make mid-course corrections as needs arise.
That said, relationality never means enabling or coddling. There will be times when any congregation will make mistakes, and I will not hesitate to note when this is happening. Yet neither is mine an autocratic approach, for disempowered lay leadership is counter-productive to congregational well-being in the long term. As many community organizers say, "Never do for others what they can do for themselves," so that all (ministers and lay leaders) can claim and balance their proper authority and responsibility. So while categorically saying "No!" is rare for me (though not unknown), I will note the negative (and/or positive) consequences I see as likely arising from a particular course of action, and encourage the stakeholders to weigh those likely consequences in their deliberations. One settled minister who followed my interim ministry in that church described its members' recollections of my approach to engaging conflict constructively: "The congregation still remembers the quiet, soft-spoken Rev. Eric, who with the patience of Job could listen deeply to their stories, and then tell them with the conviction of Micah the errors in their ways." My goal at all times is to foster the trust that establishes such truth-telling and risk-taking as worthy of our efforts.


  • Roadmap for Interim Ministry - Olympia: prepared for congregation's board, following and based upon 5 weeks of initial meetings with dozens of lay leaders throughout the congregation. This document functioned as a guide for work going forward in this congregation.

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