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: Ll, 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 cannot see clearly all that is not rosey and not functioning in congregational life today then I just think they CANNOT serve the congregations in these ways. 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. So over the long haul the I.I. or church doctor is going to be immersed in the most painful, sad, hurting, dysfunctional and sometimes quite toxic of experiences of church. You simply cannot live in that space all the time. You have to be able to come away to a safe space – a place of love – a place of real fellowship. So I think that explains why a lot of these specialist ministers do church, for themselves, in that more intimate, recluded way.
You know historically, reform and renewal in 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. Patrick, Aidan and Columba, again from the monastic world. 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 liberty and that prophetic eye you really have to come in from the edge in some way or another. That’s why I reckon that small, independent, intentional communities, is often where the help comes from. So I would say, “No!” You shouldn’t have any qualms getting help for your congregation from ministries on the edge of or beyond that world of congregational church.
Inquisitor: I’ve seen on your website that you say your twenty four years in intentional community has informed your approach to Intentional Interim among congregations. Is it really only that way round? Is that really a way of saying that you see the small, intentional way as superior? Or do you see things that congregational expressions of church do better, and that could enrich the smaller expressions?
Paul: One of the reasons that congregations are struggling and often operating out of fear is an 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 – of all ages – just don’t want to express their faith or their belonging, or their discipleship or their accountability in that way any more. So to stay relevant, within the smorgasbord of church expressions I believe congregations need to be on the receiving end of the equation. And they need to be doing a LOT of listening and a lot of re-imagining.
Having said that, congregations 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 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, people in apostolic ministry were often paid. And it enabled those people to specialise and sow into the life of groups and congregations at a greater level.
I think that kind of culture is very weak in the smaller types of church that are growing up right now. Generally the larger, inherited churches have been better at actually paying their workers. Though 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 look similar to 20 years ago – with a list of jobs and names next to them. What has changed is that a lot 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! And that’s not a faith statement! I’m stating fact. Of the top of my head I can think of countless examples of churches which not only recovered their health from decline or from out of torpor, 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 – whether it’s 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 different perspective and that edge to the work of 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? Is that 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 and places. You need to be where you need to be. And, like St Anthony on his desert pillar in Syria, I think that’s the I.I’s spot!