Thursday, April 21, 2016

Churches in Transition Thrive When Connecting to the Outside World

On Friday and Saturday, April 22-23, 2016, the American Baptist Churches of New York State will present an introductory conference for pastors seeking interim/transition skills.  For some, the event will be the first time they have encountered the skills for interim ministry.  These pastors may be thinking about post-retirement opportunities to serve congregations in a more short-term call.  Others may be seeking additional skill sets to help them in their current ministry setting.

I was trained back in 2006 and 2007 with the Interim Ministry Network (  The IMN organization started many years ago as an ecumenical effort (and now with some interfaith connections particularly with rabbis seeking this skill set).   Particularly for churches that call their clergy rather than have a pastor sent by a bishop or other ruling leadership, the choice of waiting a bit between pastors is quite helpful.  The temptation is to rush and "find a pastor".  Following the learning of interim ministry these past few decades, the smarter path for such times is to engage a trained interim to serve for 18 months or more.  During this time, an interim minister will continue the core work of an ordained pastor ("preach, teach, pastoral care"), yet also have the mandate and blessing (we hope!) of the congregation to engage the church in some times of reflection and deliberation.

Or in plain language:  Interim periods help shift the question of "Who is our pastor?" (with its attendant anxiety) to "Who are we?" (with a truthfulness in naming the good and the not so good parts of our congregational history, mission focus and identity) and "Who is God calling us to be next?"  (understanding that the times outside our four walls keep changing, so we need to realign and retool and then find a pastor who fits our better discerned vision!).

Or in the plainer language:  A pastoral transition works better when people spend more time on "Who is God calling our church to be next?" before even putting together a search committee to find the next called/settled pastor.

For many years, the interim ministry model has been to spend time in an interim exploring:
Congregational History
Discovering a New Identity
Leadership Changes during an Interim (especially in the lay leadership)
Exploring Denominational Connections
Commitments to a New Direction in Ministry

The book used by IMN for many years is often called "the Bible of Interim Ministry".  Edited by Roger S. Nicholson, Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry was published in 1998 by the Alban Institute.  After Alban's decision to close, this book and all other Alban titles (past and present) are published by Rowman & Littlefield. 

While these five areas (sometimes called "focus areas" or "developmental tasks") are the core skills being taught, how these concepts are taught in interim training today have been changed or tweaked a bit.  For example, more churches are facing the need to address their financial and property management issues.  It may be time to admit bylaws ratified in the mid-20th century do not work for 2016 and beyond, especially as they pertain to a greater number of lay leadership roles (boards/committees) than the present day congregation often has members! 

One area of change regards how the fourth area is taught, regarding denominational connections.  In 2006/7, when I had my training, the model was still to talk about the ways of deepening connections with denominations that a church is affiliated with or has grown distant.  For many Baptist churches, it can be a chance to realize that they are "not alone" in ministry and mission, yet as local churches have lost some ground in their numbers (financial and attendance), so have the waves of destabilization hit the denominational bodies themselves. 

Today, the Interim Ministry Network is proposing a broader understanding of what is possible when a church explores its connections beyond itself.  While the denominational connections are still in the mix (and I cannot stress enough a vital part of a church's potential future, as even we Baptists cannot do everything alone), the area of focus has shifted to include the challenge to look at the community context of your congregation more perceptively. 

In an essay reflecting on how the Interim Ministry Network and its counterpart The Center for Congregational Health has changed in its training methods, John Keydel talks of the importance of knowing your "Connections" in a way far deeper than just seeing them as "links" for acknowledgement or passive connection.  Keydel observes:
A congregation that fully engages Connections will find that it possesses a deep wealth of community-based assets that can be combined with a renewed sense of heritage and mission as it prepares to move into a well-connected and supported future.
(From Chapter 4 of Transitional Ministry Today: Successful Strategies for Churches and Pastors, ed. Norman B. Bendroth, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, p. 57).

As part of my work with interims and congregations, I recommend highly that an outcome for a time of transition be spent in reflection about the interior needs of the church, but congregations should also study and engage their community for questions of how to be relevant to the "here and now" all around them.  For some churches, they may have a plum place on Main Street and been there for decades, if not a good century or so, yet have very little awareness let alone effective outreach to that community.

Here are some tools I suggest for getting to know your community:


Getting to Know Your Context for Ministry and Mission

US Census data, reports and findings (

Federal Guidelines for Poverty Thresholds:

New York Poverty Reports (state wide and county by county analysis.  Updated each March/April

ABCUSA Provided Statistical Reports by Zip Code (contact with your zip codes)

American Baptist Home Mission Societies                                                        

ABHMS Workbook of Analysis Tools:

 Getting to Know Your Possible New Identity as a Missional Church

Mission from the Gospels:  Online curriculum ( and ABCNYS (Contact Region office to be connected with a trainer to work with your church and other congregations)

ABHMS online community:  

7 Creative Models for Community Ministry (from the book by Joy Skjestad, Judson Press, 2014)

Donate Goods or Money                                   Engage in Community Organizing

Mobilize Volunteers                                           Develop a Ministry Program

Partner with Another Organization                    Create a Church-Based Non-Profit

Advocate around Public Policy


The role of Missional Church methods (what will make or break your work being sustainable):

               1/3   your church

               1/3   others from other congregations

               1/3   others from your community (especially those without any faith background)
Getting to Know Your Resources for Service and Potential Collaboration

New York Help Lines:    Dial “211” (more counties are joining, but not quite at 100% yet)

Ministry Grants for Community Needs  (Contact for leads on possibilities)

Template for creating your own community services access hand-outs:

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