#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, or losing members to neighboring churches or into post-institutional life, church-members may have an unspoken awareness that congregational life is a declining aspect of Christianity in the West.

If a congregation senses a downward trend within its own gathered life – or feel that the congregation’s relevance or attractiveness to the community has dipped – it may begin to feel a sense of overwhelm. In the face of this overwhelm the temptation is to scale the picture down and reduce analyses to the search for a single cause (an albatross) or a single cure (a silver bullet.)

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An intentional interim has the task of enabling the congregation to pause and draw the conversation out, to reveal the wider picture and unpeel some of the layers in their own particular story. By leading the group through these conversations the intentional interim can move the group’s thinking away from reductive or binary perspectives.

Without such a process there might be some issues when a 3D pastor arrives in a 2D world! If this binary thinking is left unaltered then if a congregation has pinned their hopes on new pastor as a silver bullet the pastor then it won’t take too long before the label proves inaccurate. “We employed you to turn things round. but you haven’t. In fact we’re still declining! Fix it!!”

Of course the role of albatross is not one anyone would wish to live with for any great length of time! I know of a denominational region in Australia which has been in consistent numerical decline over the last two decades. For most of that period the average tenure of a senior pastor has been 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…” is part of the wider culture. In the UK, take a look at the rotation of soccer coaches and managers. In Australia, consider that the country has enjoyed and rejected the service of 7 Prime Ministers in 10 years. That’s an average tenure of 1 year, 4 months and 3 weeks. When that is the surrounding culture, churches need to do the intentional and careful work of nurturing different patterns of thought and behaviour in order not to operate identically to the surrounding culture.

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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) closed down, everything in the town has had to adjust. Schools, shops, clubs etc have either disappeared or amalgamated. It has become a very different community to the one that surrounded the church 20 years ago.

Don is a very capable and experienced pastor. That’s why he was hired. However by the end of his first 12 months, the Diaconate had shifted Don from silver bullet category to albatross category. The deacons made this call because in his first 12 months Don had somehow failed to reverse the trends of social, ideological, and generational challenges confronting his church.

The Diaconate lay the responsibility for congregation’s continuing decline trend squarely on the new pastor’s shoulders, granting him a 12 month window to fix everything and get the church back to where it was 10 years ago! 12 months on Don had still failed and was let go, freeing the deacons to look for for a proper silver bullet pastor!

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Looking from the outside it’s easy to perceive wrong thinking in the Diaconate’s analysis process. But from inside this little community of faith, all that judgment being piled on the new pastor made perfect sense! Hence the value of the dispassionate outside voice of a consultant or Intentional Interim. 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 intelligently with their new pastor without the binary mindset that has scuppered relationships on the leadership team so quickly for Don.

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Before getting into its next pastoral search Don’s congregation would be wise to outsource to a consultant to help deacons and people get a more accurate gauge of the needs of the hour. Most congregations are a mine of knowledge and insight, which – when tapped by the right kind of conversation with a consultant, a whiteboard and a pen – can be quite acute in mapping terrain and charting possible courses.

Perhaps a consultant 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 a healthy transition from one pastor to the next. It’s a simple way of laying the ground for a far more collaborative experience as the new pastor and congregation get together to explore the way ahead. Something well worth the investment.

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