The Spiritual Landscape
Interim Ministry: Silver Bullet or Substitute for Action?
Four: Ritualized interim ministry ignores the very particularity of a community's needs that the community supposedly re-examines during the interim. I've heard an increasing number of parishes say, "We are moving in a positive direction, we know our strengths," only to have the leadership on the next rung up insist that they need outside help. The situation is analogous to our attachment to consultants and, like consultants, the truth is that an outsider-expert might be helpful and he or she might not be. The somewhat magical and gnostic assumption that an outside expert knows better than the community what the community needs runs a number of risks: A) Dependence on an expert can alienate passionate, committed parishioners who are already keenly aware of their church's needs. B) It can stall the movement of a growing parish by placing all activity on a tentative footing. And, C) if the wrong interim is appointed (as with the wrong kind of consultant), then at best a parish will be told what it already knows or it will be subjected to a potted version of what the interim thinks every parish needs to do.
Five (and finally): I am frankly dubious about the amount of information or wisdom that most parishes acquire in a lengthy interim periods. Granted, there may be some rare cases when some kind of special attention might be needed in the neutral zone (traumatic events, clergy misconduct, an extraordinarily long tenure comes to an end).
But even Fortune 500 companies, which are far larger and culturally far more complex, do not take the kind of time that most parishes take to study themselves. And some denominations that are bigger than my own, including the United Methodist Church almost never rely upon interims.
Every parish should observe some reasonable, creative time in the neutral zone to take stock, evaluate the past, and articulate their needs and mission going forward. But the notion that the parish will discover something utterly invisible to them over a year's interim is, it seems to me, a rare thing. And even if something unseen or unacknowledged surfaces, who better to navigate that water than the new leadership of the parish?
The American church—like the larger culture—is a great place for systems, strategies, and engineered cures. For that reason, we tend to see systems like interim ministry as the "silver bullet" for what troubles us. Systems like this postpone the need to make a choice. They offer us a substitute (to either name or blame) for success or failure going forward and they eventually acquire an unquestioned value and purpose in our common life.
Interim ministry has acquired that silver bullet status in our life and ministry. And—notwithstanding the intelligent, gifted work that its practitioners are doing—it has slowed our growth and robbed us of resources for building the Kingdom.
Let the conversation begin...
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/