Inquisitor: Something I’ve noticed about Intentional Interim Ministries, or Community Healing Ministries – as well as a lot of para-church organisations – is that their leaders are often not congregational leaders and often not active members of congregations at all. A lot seem to be in home-based churches or small, private accountability groups. Why is that? What do you make of that? I mean if I want someone to come and help me with my congregation wouldn’t I want to hire someone who is passionate about congregational church and active in congregational leadership? If the I.I. is passionate about congregational health shouldn’t they be part of a healthy congregation?
Paul: Lee, let me be as blunt as I can. If congregational life was all roses there would be no need for para-church or intentional interim or community healing ministries. If the person engaged as a “church doctor” or intentional interim cannot see super-clearly all that is not rosey and not functioning in congregational life today then they will not be able serve any congregation as a fixer. That’s point one!
Point two is that if you have a call as a “church doctor” then, whether you carry the title or not, you will find God engaging you with churches that need healing. That means that over the long haul the I.I. or church doctor is going to be continually immersed in the most painful, dysfunctional, unpleasant and sometimes quite toxic of experiences of church. You simply cannot live in that space all the time. The church doctor has to be able to come home to a safe space – a place of love – a place of real fellowship. That is why, as you rightly observe, so many of the Church’s specialist ministers do church, for themselves, in that simpler, more intimate, and private way.
Look at it historically and you’ll quickly see that reform and renewal of the congregations has always come from people on the edge and beyond the boundary of that scene; from people in reclusion. Think the Moravians, an extended, residential community hidden away in what was Czechoslovakia, which seeded the great Evangelical Revival of the 18th century. Think Melancthon and Luther seeding the great Reformation from out of the monastic world. Think Patrick, Aidan and Columba, again from the monastic world. Or again think Ignatius Loyola from his sick bed and his cave outside Jerusalem. Think Saint Anthony keeping orthodoxy on the road with the briefest of visits from his reclusion in the Syrian desert. Think about the role l’Abri played in the 60s and 70s in the renewal American and European evangelicalism. All done from a hiding place high up in the Swiss Alps.
To have that unbeholden liberty and that prophetic eye you really have to come in from the edge in one way or another. That’s why I reckon that small, independent, intentional communities, is very often where the help comes from. So, to boil it down, I would say, “No! You should not have any qualms about getting help for your congregation from ministries on the edge of or beyond the world of congregational church.”
Inquisitor: Paul, I’ve seen on your website that you say your twenty four years in intentional community has “informed your approach” to Intentional Interim ministry among congregations. So is it really only that way round? Is that really a subtle way of saying that you see the small, intentional way as superior to big church? Or do you see some things that larger congregational churches will do better? Can bigger churches teach and enrich the smaller churches and smaller expressions?
Paul: One of the reasons that congregations are struggling and often operating out of fear is their awareness of decline. Generally speaking, in the West, congregational life is becoming less meaningful and less powerful and less significant to a growing proportion of the Church – capital C. More and more believers – not just millennials, but of all ages – simply don’t want to express their faith or belonging, or discipleship or accountability in traditional congregational ways any more. So to stay relevant, within the whole smorgasbord of church expressions, that is why, I believe, congregations are on the whole going to be on the receiving end of the equation. It’s why they need to be doing a lot of listening and a lot of re-imagining.
Having said that, in this current space, congregations still have the advantage of strength in number to actually create new things for their communities. In smaller units of church it’s about serving and joining the local community – either through natural networks or through structures that already exist. Whereas congregations can create new structures.
Another area where I think large congregations often do better is in recognizing people’s gifts, encouraging and equipping people. I think they often do a better job of honoring- and I mean that in the New Testament sense – people whose work is in ministry – I mean pastors, teachers, prophets, evangelists – maybe not evangelists – and probably not people in apostolic or pioneering ministry. In the New Testament elders were paid, and people in apostolic ministry were often paid. (Follow Apostle Paul’s writings and career and you simply can’t dispute that.) Those patterns of giving and cross-subsidy enabled specialists to specialize and sow into the life of groups and congregations at a greater level.
Sadly I think that kind of culture is very weak in the smaller types of church that are growing up right now. Generally larger, inherited churches have been better at actually paying their workers – although that is a pattern that is changing now. If you leaf through a district or regional handbook for a lot of denominations, the book will appear similar to 20 years ago – a list of jobs and names next to them. What has changed is that many of those positions are no longer a means of gainful employment.
Inquisitor: Yes it can look a rather bleak picture can’t it. But if that’s the case is Intentional Interim ministry just rearranging the chairs, or do you think it can really change that story of decline for congregations?
Paul: Absolutely it can! Off the top of my head I can think of countless examples of churches which not only recovered their health from a decline, but were able to grow significantly – after a period with an I.I.
If the congregation is really willing to ask the tough questions of “What is needed here?” “What is God doing in our area?” “Who lives here now and how can we serve them?” – and really be willing to see themselves as servants of those answers, then yes, even in today’s challenging landscape a church can thrive – be it a micro, middle or mega-sized church.
I think of the old folks church that became a church for the students and then broadened from there. Another old folks’ church that became a church for kids – and then broadened from there. A church of mature ladies which became a mums and bubs’ church – and then broadened from there. A tiny remnant church which became a retirement village ministry, and became one of the most consistent and loveliest congregations in its suburb! Often I.I. is needed to congratulate a church on its previous mission – which has often expired many years ago – and envision and excite the people about their mission in this season.
So again I think coming in from the outside and from the edge of that world often helps bring that more flexible perspective and that edge in leading the mission forward.
Inquisitor: Is that a other reason that you see the I.I. as a short-sharp kind of engagement rather than a longer term assignment where, presumably you get more embedded?
Inquisitor: So is the edge where you see yourself? And is the edge a comfortable place to sit – long-term?
Paul: Ha ha! Yes it is. And no it isn’t! But in the end it’s really a matter of calling. At the end of the day the Church is a smorgasbord of expressions. You need to be where you need to be. And like St Anthony, sitting on his pillar on the edge of the Syrian desert, I think that’s the I.I’s seat!