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 feels 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 diminish the complexity of the picture and reduce analyses to the search for a single cause (an albatross) or 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.
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 employed and rejected the service of 7 Prime Ministers in 10 years. That’s an average tenure of 1 year, 4 months and 3 weeks. By comparison the denominational region I mentioned was relatively stable. However, not stable enough to grow. Churches need to stand apart from those patterns and do the intentional and careful work of establishing patterns of thought and behaviour that will nurture confidence and growth.
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!
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.
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.
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 simple way of laying the ground for a far more collaborative experience as the new pastor and congregation prepare to meet and explore the way ahead. Something well worth the investment.