#1 – Getting beyond Binary Thinking

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Contemporary congregations often recruit against a background of anxiety about decline. Whether receiving transfer growth from declining congregations, facing amalgamations, closure of worship-centres, or losing members to neighboring churches or into post-institutional life, church-members may have an unspoken awareness that congregational life is not the central aspect of Christian life  in the West that it once was.

If a congregation senses a waning momentum within its own gathered life – or feels that the congregation’s attractiveness to the community has dimmed – the church’s core members may begin to feel a sense of overwhelm. In the face of this overwhelm there is a strong temptation to diminish the complexity of the picture and reduce analyses to the search for both a single cause (an albatross) and a single cure (a silver bullet.) It is often an environment defined by  binaries like these that will welcome the arrival of an Intentional Interim.

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The I.I. has the task of enabling the congregation to pause and begin to draw the conversation out; to reveal the wider picture and peel back other layers within their own particular story. By leading the group through these conversations the I.I. can add new perspectives and highlight other dimensions in the story, in order to slowly move the group’s thinking away from reductive analyses or unhelpful binary perspectives.

To put it graphically, without such a process there will be inevitable issues when a 3D pastor arrives in a 2D world! If binary thinking – such as silver-bullet vs albatross – remains unaltered then if a congregation has pinned their hopes on a new pastor as silver bullet, it won’t take too long before the label proves inaccurate. “We employed you to turn things round. You haven’t. In fact we’re still declining! Fix it!!”

Of course, the role of albatross is not one anyone would volunteer for any great length of time! It is not a sustainable role!

I know of a denominational region in Australia which sustained consistent numerical decline over a two decade period. For most of that period the average tenure of a senior pastor has been 2 years and 6 months. The modal tenure of a regional superintendent in that same organisation was also 2 years and 6 months. That’s just long enough for a new pastor to go through a single silver-bullet/albatross cycle!

This cycle of silver-bullet-to-albatros; the mindset of “We hired you to fix everything. You haven’t fixed everything…” can be found in other aspects of the wider culture.

In the UK, the rotation of soccer coaches and managers gives us another example. By comparison Australia, where I live, has chewed through the service of 7 Prime Ministers in 10 years. That’s an average tenure of 1 year, 4 months and 3 weeks. 1903-1913 showed the same rate of turnover. 1939-1949 the same. So this instability has not been a blip. By comparison the denominational region I mentioned was relatively stable. Just not stable enough to grow and mature. Churches need to stand apart from unhealthy patterns – even if they are familiar – and do the intentional and careful work of establishing patterns of thought and behaviour that will nurture confidence and growth.

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Case Study from the Suburbs

Lori has recently been installed as the Senior Pastor for Riverside Church* (name changed) a denominational church on the fringes of suburbia. It is a prosperous and pleasant neighbourhood and the church has been there since the foundation of the suburb forty years ago. For twenty years the church operated as an ecumenical project. For the last tweny years the church has been denominationally run and has been served by a succession of 7 Senior Pastors. Eighteen months into her tenure Lori is beginning to ask why the turnover has been so high.

When she was hired, Lori was very clear that her job was to “help the church recover from its previous pastor.” The regional superintendent installed her with that as her essential remit. It was a job spec Lori was happy to ake on, being a very able pastoral analyst and pastoral practitioner.

Today she has more questions concerning that remit. This is because of a coffee shared with Craig, the pastor of a neighbouring church in another denomination. Craig has been in situ for twenty years.  From Craig, Lori has just learned that every pastor of Riverside Church in the last twenty year period has been installed with a remit from regional HQ to “help the church recover from the previous senior pastor.”

Lori’s feelings about her pastoral remit have suddenly changed – along with her sense of security in her tenure. Understandably! Her questions now would include:

  • Why is HQ giving this instruction to successive pastors? Who has felt let down? Is it the congregation or is it HQ?
  • Why is there a pastoral breakdown with each successive pastor? Is it the congregation? Is it a coincidence of recruitment errors? Is there an archonic or spiritual layer to the story, into which successive generations of personnel are falling?
  • Might Riverside Church be an example of a system (ie pastor+congregation+HQ) falling into an entrenched pattern rooted in binary thinking. If it is then ipso facto the system will be collectively unable to think outside of that framework.

The best person to help all parties confront and address these questions will someone who is not part of that system matrix – not HQ, not the congregation, and not the senior pastor – since all potentially are a part of the dysfunctional vortex, whatever their inidivual virtues and abilities. This faciliation from the outside is the work of an Intentional Interim.

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Case Study from the Country

Don was the pastor of an independent church in a country town. His neighborhood has faced significant challenges over the last 20 years. Since the local mill (the main local employer) had closed down, everything in the town had to adjust. Schools, shops, clubs etc either amalgamated or disappeared. By the time of Don’s arrival the last of the local shops had finally closed. It has become a very different community to the one that surrounded the church 20 years ago.

Don is a distinguished and experienced pastor, a man of compassion, vision and great capability. That’s why he was hired. However by the end of his first 12 months, the diaconate had moved Don out of silver bullet category into which he had been enthusiastically welcomed, and into the albatross category. The deacons made this call because by the end of his first 12 months Don had somehow failed to reverse the trends of social and generational challenges confronting his church.

The diaconate lay the responsibility for congregation’s continuing decline trend squarely on the new pastor’s shoulders. At his review they extended him a 12 month window in which to fix everything and, basically,  get the church back to where it was 10 years ago! 12 months on Don had still failed to deliver and so was let go, thus freeing the deacons to begin the search for a proper silver bullet pastor!

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From the outside it’s easy to perceive wrong thinking in the Diaconate’s analysis process. However from within this struggling community of faith, the process somehow made perfect sense! The deacons and gatekeepers simply would not accept the wider perspectives that Don had to offer them. In a way they felt that his wider analyses of the church’s and town’s situation were essentially Don’s devious way of avoiding his delegated responsibility.

This kind of resistance is precisely why the dispassionate outside voice of an Intentional Interim can be so valuable. The I.I. is not offering perspectives to obviate responsibility or feather their own nest. The I.I. is there purely to set the church up for a healthy bonding with the next pastor and a sound footing for the beginning of the next chapter.

If, prior to Don’s arrival, the congregation had undertaken the very simple exercise of white-boarding together the various challenges contributing to the church’s decline, mapping the timeline too, even that simple activity would have positioned the people better to engage more intelligently with their new pastor, without the pressured binary thinking that scuppered their new pastor’s tenure so quickly.

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Before getting into its next pastoral search Don’s congregation would be wise to outsource to an I.I. to help the deacons and people together to get a fuller gauge of the needs of the hour. I have found that most congregations are a real mine of knowledge and insight, which – when tapped by the right kind of conversation, a whiteboard and a pen – can be quite acute in mapping terrain and charting possible courses. The crowd is often better prepared to understand and meet the needs of the hour than it thought.

Unlocking the Wisdom of the Crowd

One simple exercise for an Intentional Interim is to ask the church on one whiteboard to list every event and local change which has effected the size and wellbeing of the congrgation over the last 20 years (for instance.) Then on a second whiteboard list every factor in the present year, impacting the health and wellbeing of the congregation. While still in the plenary session invite a thoughtful individual to come and red tick every event and factor which they believe the next pastor will be able to fix, you will probably find – as I have – that the individual and the crowd becomes quiet and a little uncomfortable as the complexity of their context sinks in. It is a moment the Intentional Interim must manage carefully.

Once the penny has dropped, and the complexity has been realised, it is helpful for the Intentional Interim to be ready to uplift the people with real-life stories of healing and transformation to show that what may appear overwhelming is nothing more than the context for a potentially fruitful new lease of life and a new journey.

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If the crowd is then broken into a number of small buzz-groups all tasked with identifying two strategic items they believe a new Senior Pastor really can help them with, you will probably find – as I have – that the crowd has perfectly adequate skills to identify the most strategic areas of need against which it would be meaningful to recruit. Of course there will be some diversity of view. The reason I recommend small buzz groups because with a good number of groups responding you will be able to clearly map where the agreement of those groups is bunched. Agreement will always be bunched somewhere.

In that agreement is the wisdom of the crowd in understanding the need of the moment. My experience is that most groups have that widsom when invited to engage in this way. I have used this exercise myself in three churches.

You might think that an I.I. with a pen and a whiteboard sounds a bit old-tech? But in Intentional Interim ministry I have found it a powerful tool in facilitating healthy transitions from one pastor to the next. It’s a direct way of unravelling over-simple or binary thinking and beginning to rebuild the confidence of a congregation. It begins to lay the ground for a wiser, more collaborative experience of ministry as the new pastor and congregation prepare to meet and explore the way ahead. It is something well worth the investment.