“SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?”- A PROBING CONVERSATION ABOUT INTENTIONAL INTERIM MINISTRY
“When you need me but do not want me I must stay.
When you want me but no longer need me I must go!”
Nanny McPhee – a mythological model of transitional leadership?
Inquisitor: Nanny McPhee could be taken as a mythological type for the transitional or intentional interim minister. Her tagline was, “When you need me but do not want me I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me I must go.” Is that how you see the intentional interim’s call?
Paul: There’s something in that! Certainly most churches don’t “want” an intentional interim. They more likely want “just to get on with things” or to “get a decent pastor” or to “put this last chapter behind us” or to “get the church healed up.” That’s when they need the intentional interim! But I think the best way to go in is at the invitation of the local board or eldership.
Inquisitor: But isn’t it the case that a holistic interim process is likely to vacate all the positions such as elders and boards?
Paul: No, not always. I do think that is a healthy default – that if a reset button is being pressed the elders and gatekeepers need to step down to create a blank canvas or a level playing field. But sometimes the board or eldership will engage an intentional interim for a defined period and may remain intact, or they may just feel too unsure of the process or too lacking in hope of the outcome to surrender their protective role.
In reality I don’t think it’s a night and day difference, because in reality, even if all offices are vacated, the intentional interim needs to work with everybody – including with all the gatekeepers and stakeholders, who will have a unique and privileged perspective – whether their position is officialized or not.
Inquisitor: So is it an uneasy relationship with the board then – if part of your job is to work out if they are part of the problem – you know, if they are looking at possibly not getting their positions back?
Paul: Well I am happy to say that in the main hasn’t been my experience. Obviously there are situations where gatekeepers find they cannot adapt or cannot step back – or situations where there may be some malevolence involved. In intentional interim ministry we do sometimes have to contend with issues of that kind. But I am thankful for that not to have been my general experience. Generally, if that question is openly on the table from the get go I have found people can engage with it.
Inquisitor: You find that honesty wins people even with that kind of uncertainty or potential blame-finding on the table?
Paul: What I have seen is that if we depersonalize the conversation; if we take “blame” out of the language, and are willing to proceed on the assumption that everyone’s intentions are good from their own perspective; if we can engage positively and respectfully with those intentions and then talk in terms like these: “Let’s look to see if our patterns, and ways of operating are healthy and productive for the church right now or whether we may need to fix or adjust some patterns,” – in other words if the understanding is there that we are putting every layer of church life under the spotlight in order to optimize happy functioning…I find that people can do business with that. I have found that the honesty and transparency of the process often leads to positive trusting relationships much more quickly than in a conventional pastorate.
Inquisitor: Yes, I have heard you say before that because the interim is not seen as feathering his/her own nest people can be more receptive and accepting of any rapid changes that may be needed. You’ve also said that you have found that better friendships are formed when you come into a church in this way. If that’s the case might that be an argument for staying as the long-term pastor, after the interim process has concluded. What are your thoughts on this – can the interim stay or should they go?
Paul: I realize that people may differ on this but my answer would be “No, don’t stay.”
Inquisitor: What, never?
Paul: Yes. Never! I say that because the intensity of connecting, visitation etc, the depth of conversation and engagement; all those are a function of the short 1- 2 year time-frame that an interim process occupies. So by my reckoning if you stay on after the process you’ll either be burning out before too long or disappointing people when you change gear to something sustainable for the long term!
Also when you go in as an interim you are going in as a fixer – not because you necessarily identify with that church, all its doctrines and values, or the geographical location. Those points of connection are, however, very important if you are going to be willing to journey with a church for the long run. That’s why, in principle, it would be a “no” from me.
I also think you need to be absolutely straight with people about your intentions. Transparency is vital in forming a trusting relationship. This means your “Yes” must mean “yes” and your “no” must mean “no”. For me that’s another reason that someone in going in saying “I am here as your intentional interim” needs to know from the outset they they mean it. And the people need to know that too. Otherwise you confuse or lose the benefits of that special relationship that I’ve talked about.
Inquisitor: Do you think it’s important to set a very clear time frame then for the process?
Paul: My time frame has generally been 1 year minimum / 2 years maximum. But I would add a rider that there should be evidence-based criteria that the process has done its work. Glory to God, the time frames and criteria have generally lined up in my experience of these things. But I have to tell you, in all honesty, that’s not all been out of my cleverness or design. It’s more a pattern that has become really clear in retrospect. But my basic theory is that when an eldership body or board is ready to put its collective hand up and say, “We would like a process,” that’s a pretty good indication that God is on the case and that the moment has come for Him to deliver what’s needed!
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