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 shoot as straight as I can on this “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 calling as a “church doctor” then, whether you carry the title or not, you will find that God engages you with churches which need healing. What this means over the long haul is that 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. The truth is 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, para-church ministers etc, do church for themselves in that simpler, more intimate, and private way – what the Church has traditionally called the way of seclusion / reclusion.
Historically, reform and renewal of the churches 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.
- Patrick, Aidan , Columba, reviving mission to Ireland and England from the monastic world.
- Ignatius Loyola, vanguarding a phenomenal wave of international mission from off his sick bed in Spain and out of his cave outside Jerusalem.
- Saint Anthony keeping orthodoxy on the road with the briefest of visits from his reclusion in the Syrian desert. The role played by role l’Abri in the 60s and 70s in the renewal American and European evangelicalism – all 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 community is very often where the help comes from.
So, to put it in a nutshell, 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. Historically, that is the way it works.”
Inquisitor: Let me drill into this another way then. On the Neo-Monastic section of your website you say that you say your 24 years in intentional community have “informed your approach” to Intentional Interim ministry among congregations. Is that really a subtle way of saying that you see the small, intentional way as superior to big church? Wouldn’t you agree that there are some things that larger congregational churches will do better? If you didn’t believe that I guess you wouldn’t be doing this work among larger churches.
Would it be fair to say then that, when they work well, bigger churches have plenty that can inform and enrich the smaller churches and smaller expressions?
Paul: Absolutely. But let’s get back to why congregations call on the services of Intention Interim ministers in the first place. One of the reasons that many congregations are struggling is that they are operating in a state of collective anxiety, rooted in an awareness of decline. To generalize, in the West, congregational life is becoming less meaningful, less powerful and less significant to a growing proportion of the Church – let alone society at large.
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; this is why, I believe, congregations are, on the whole, going to be on the receiving end of the equation when you talk about “informing and enriching.” It’s why they need to be doing a lot of listening and a lot of re-imagining.
Having said that, even 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 sometimes do better than smaller units of church is in the area of 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 cannot 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.
I think that culture is often stronger in the larger and denominational structures of church. I think it is weaker in the smaller types of church that are growing up right now. I think it’s fair to say that larger, inherited churches have generally been better at actually paying their workers.
But just to return to that background of decline-anxiety, and this relates to that question of professional ministry; if you leaf through a district or regional handbook for a lot of denominations, the book will appear very similar to 20 years ago – a list of jobs and names next to them. What has changed is that most of those positions on that list are no longer a means of gainful employment. That is a very significant shift.
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 numerous 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 these cases off the top of my head:
- In a town that had gained a university, an old folks church made themselves a church for the students and then over the next decade broadened into a multi-generational fellowship.
- An old folks’ church became a church for kids – and then broadened into a family-church.
- A church of mature ladies became a mums and bubs’ church – and then broadened from there to being a family church.
- A tiny remnant church became a retirement village ministry, and became one of the most vibrant and consistent congregations in its suburb!
- An elderly remnant church became a “Let’s play” centre and then out of that grew an inter-generational “Messy Church.”
Often I.I. is needed to congratulate a church on its previous mission – which has often expired many years ago – and then envision and excite the people about their actual 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 where I see myself. And no, you’re right, it isn’t a comfortable place! I think you can only do it for so long. But at the end of the day, the edgy territory of the Intentional Interim is, I believe, a matter of calling. And St Anthony’s pillar on the edge of the Syrian desert, I think that’s the I.I’s spot!