The Congregational Interim Transition Survey

In November 2009 I began conducting a survey of congregations in the ECUSA, ELCA, PCUSA and UCC, to learn about their experience of interim ministry.

My research aims to learn about the following:

  1. the effectiveness of the congregational development goals attempted and achieved during the interim. 
  2. the congregation’s experience during a transition with an interim pastor. 
  3. the influence of an intentionally guided interim transition, on the congregation after the new senior clergy has been chosen and installed

My method has been to elicit names of 3 or 4 leaders from a given congregation who served on session/vestry/council/consistory during the congregation’s most recent interim, and to invite them to take part in the survey.  I’ve been graciously helped by many presidents of council and consistory, clerks of session, vestry and senior wardens, and more than 35 leaders.  I’ve heard from more than 60 respondents, and I’m starting to analyze the results.

Since the late 1970s, the interim transition has gathered strength as a structure in church life.   Till now, the interim transition paradigm has been described and discussed  by the clergy involved in designing and conducting the interim in the parish.  The members of a congregation are seen as either cooperative or uncooperative, but always acted upon.   Congregations are assumed to be immature.    An unspoken assumption of the professional interim clergy is that the transition experience is always going to bring out the immaturity of a congregation.  Another unspoken assumption seems to be that congregations will never learn how to manage themselves in transition and will always be in need of a professional interim.  This assumption is the underside of the belief that an interim clergy person is necessary to shepherd a parish through the period of change between the recent clergy departure and the next called clergy person arriving.

One of my fundamental assumptions is that  we don’t know what the congregation knows about its experience with an interim clergy leader. Within the model used by most interim transition professionals, members and parish leaders are not given equal room, or they don’t feel competent on common ground with clergy, or they haven’t the language to express their experience.  For the congregation and the clergy, the interim transition professional is to the congregation as a doctor is to a patient. The underlying sense is not that of a Christian community focused on worship and ministry, and certainly not that of adult, mature, capable Christians in community managing a perfectly ordinary exchange of administrative leadership.   

The professional interim approach is pretty much that of the medical or psychiatric profession at work with clients.   Certainly there are many troubled congregations out there, and certainly the paradigm shift of the 1980s and 1990s called for an almost clinical diagnosis and prescriptive plan for recovering health.   But without putting too fine a point on it, congregations have continued to be dependent, depressed and unable to make these necessary staff changes without a lot of professional help.  Why hasn’t the shift really occured  yet? 

Clergy can assume that they understand a congregation’s experience better than the congregation itself does, because when parish leaders and members do speak, the pressures of an interim transition make them vocal in reaction, not in response to, what they are living through.  It would be very interesting to know how many congregations across the board have gone through at least one professional interim transition and still can’t begin to plan for change with any inward stability in evidence.  Traiined interims might be able to ask leaders and members of a congregation in transition, “Here’s a way to see yourselves–is this what you thought you looked like to others?  Is this who you think yourselves to be?  Is this who you want to be with others?”  But that is rarely what happens, since the trust issues are so often dramatic and the relationships are so often held hostage to agendas on both sides, hidden or overt.

The classic use of ‘paradigm’ is a scientific one.  The term describes an accepted model or a pattern that works by repeating itself in examples, any one of which could stand in for the original model.  For instance, the grammatical conjugation of  to run can stand in for the conjugation of to sit or to sing or to laugh and so on through the English language.  Notice, however, that the paradigm itself doesn’t get replicated–that is, to sit does not mean to run or to sing.  The replication is in the pattern, not the specific elements of the sample.   

In church life, we used to have the paradigm of clergy lasting in one called position for half, if not all of a career, and upon retirement, a new minister or priest would be chosen and stay in place for the next 15 to 20 years or more.  That was the accepted model of clergy leadership and clergy leader change, up until the mid-1980s or early 1990s, depending on where in the country the particular congregation was planted.  In larger more urban areas, in larger churches, the immediate transfer from one settled clergy person to the next, ceased being the accepted model sooner than that change in models appeared in smaller, more rural churches.  But in both geographic/demographic areas, the model for pastoral residence had changed decisively by the beginning of the 21st century, across all denominations.  In the mid-1980s, leaders at the top of church hierarchy began defining clergy-congregation failures in terms of the new paradigm, the model of interim transition. 

If,  for example, a small rural church has its beloved priest retire and immediately hires a new priest, whose arrival is followed within two years by a violent rupture between the clergy and the congregation, people at the top in the judicatory will automatically point to the absence of a period of intentional interim transition, and will label the ‘failed’ clergy relationship a ‘failed default transition.’   If a parish experiences transition several times within a five or ten-year period, the administration in a judicatory is likely to assume the problem is in the congregation. An interim will need to do serious healing to foster long-term stability after the next search process is completed.  Do congregations really learn anything during an interim transition led by a trained or professional interim minister?  If so, what?  How did they learn it?  And is this learning sustainable, or will the lessons be forgotten when the newly called rector or senior pastor arrives?

And what can be done for congregations and parishes  already diminished in funds and energy, with a part-time clergy person, or only a supply priest?  How are they to move from that limbo through the rigors of reflection and growth offered by a real interim experience? 

And what if the interim experience does not provide the kind of ministry and leadership training for congregation development, that brings new possibilities and fresh light on circumstances?  Are there answers to be found in classic congregation development that are not available within the current interim transition practices and models? 

The survey results I am analyzing follow the five basic areas of emphasis currently recommended for professional interim clergy use in any interim situation.  The research looks at data focused on churches with transition clergy using the basic training guidelines taught by the Interim Ministry Network.  Do the congregations profit from these areas of work?  Does real congregation development occur?  Is the effect of transitional ministry more than babysitting a congregation through the interim period?  Do the leaders of a congregation learn and grow enough with the help of the interim minister to be more than subject to the next transition period?  Does the interim transition really serve the congregation as it intends to?

I will provide updates on the analysis as I go along.  As with any qualitative research, after the reports are published,  the data will be available for further use.

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