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This was a question posed to me by a very concerned congregation member a year into my time as interim pastor there. As often happens during interim periods, church membership, attendance, and giving were lower.
Many people who were already disengaged with the church in one way or another decide to leave without the emotional tie to the pastor. Others cannot bear the unknown of who the next pastor will be. Still, others from different denominational backgrounds cannot understand the interim pastor process and why it takes so long to find a new pastor.
We discussed the typical timeframe for pastoral searches, which normalized the process for this member. We talked about my appreciation and hope for the congregation, which helped make this particular member feel more hopeful. But what I heard in this question was also an echo of another question: “We’ve tried everything, but we still aren’t growing. What else can we do?”
Both of these questions assume there is a problem and will be clearly and easily defined with enough analysis. Underlying both of these questions is an assumption that the church faces technical challenges that can be solved by technical solutions.
Examples of this line of thinking are familiar to all of us.
Except they won’t because we are ignoring how the world has changed. We are ignoring the ways that the pace of our lives has changed. We still rely on volunteers the way we relied on them in a time when most families could live on one income, and there were always people who could come by mid-day and mid-week to help with things around the church. We still program as if Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings are protected.
When I was a new seminary graduate, I told a much older congregation member that I didn’t think the church was called to be a purveyor of spiritual goods and services. I was told that I was too naive and not experienced enough in the ways of business or the church world to know what I was talking about. Over ten years into ordained ministry, I still believe this, and having done interim ministry, I agree with all those who say we are in a time of continued Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation was partly a call back to the essentials: scripture, grace, and faith. It was a call away from the beliefs and practices seen as corruptions of those essentials. It was when the church had come to see itself as the dispenser of spiritual goods and services and had come to love its order, rituals, power, and riches more than God.
For all my appreciation and hope, my final words to the member were that I thought this was a critical time for the congregation, as it is with so many communities trying to figure out what it means to be the Church in the 21st century.
This is the time for rediscovering our identity. This is the time for honest and difficult self-examination. This is the time to ask who and what church is all about. It’s time to ask who and what God is for us and the world and whether we like being a social club that occasionally talks about God. We can ask ourselves whether we are truly open to those who would radically change who “we” are. We can consider whether we are genuinely open and welcoming or will go a step further and invite people to grow and serve alongside us in this incredible journey of faith as followers of Jesus Christ.
Let’s challenge ourselves to rediscover our missions. Let’s look beyond the walls of the Church and listen to our communities for the ways they need us to be neighbors to them. This is the time to excise the things that keep churches from living out their particular calls. This is the time for unswerving mission alignment and discerning new pathways forward.
Do we love the internal life of the community, institution, or family and programs we have created more than God’s vision for God’s beloved creation? Desire is not enough. We must determine whether we have the passion, will, and energy to do what is necessary.
Churches must do the hard, important work, including implementing the things we discern. Churches enduring pastoral leadership transitions can engage in a church reformation, reconsider who God is calling them to be and do in the Church and the world, and learn new ways of being and doing for the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is an opportunity for transformation, not by our will and design, but through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
May it be so, for you and for me.