Making Connections: Transitional and Multicultural Ministry
By Dr. Mark Smutny
Attending the Annual Conference of the IMN Annual Conference for the first time was like being invited to a sumptuous Thanksgiving Day feast. The two keynoters were like Grandpa and Grandma at the head of the table, leading us in prayer, offering delectable tidbits of wisdom, passing on to newbies and long-timers alike, the wisdom of years dedicated to serving in interim and transitional ministry. Workshops dished up a potpourri of topics, ranging from conflict management to nurturing emotional intelligence to leading congregations in strategic planning. Conversations were abundant at every meal as we networked, shared ideas and asked questions. Family ties were strengthened and nurtured. Long-timers hugged and told war stories about church, many of them true. Newcomers were warmly welcomed. For this newbie to the IMN, the feast was amazing, the offerings abundant and a spirit of thanksgiving still fills my heart for new friends, new insights and new ways to be church in these challenging times.
As a newcomer to transitional ministry, I learned from some of the smartest, most committed church leaders I’ve ever met. The table was filled to overflowing. The spiritual nourishment was abundant. I left Las Vegas stuffed, stuffed with new ideas, new friends and the knowledge that my new calling to transitional ministry was right for me. If you are considering transitional ministry, attend next year’s IMN conference. It will transform the way you do ministry.
Introductions are in order. In one way, I’m a newcomer to transitional ministry, having served in three long-term pastorates and only one interim pastorate. On the other hand, insights from the interim ministry movement have informed my entire career. I first studied interim ministry decades ago when my wife and I served as co-interim pastors in a new church development in Ohio, relying on the insights of interim pioneers Loren Mead, Roy Oswald, Speed Leas and Alan Gripe. Their classic contributions to the practice of interim ministry, especially the five developmental tasks, [i] were a shot of adrenaline and wisdom as we ministered in the early 1980s.
More recently, the debate in interim pastor and transitional pastor circles concerning these tasks versus a rich variety of newer formulations, have engendered much thought. When I first heard the phrase “all ministry is transitional ministry,” it was like a lightning bolt experience. To understand change in society is unfolding at white water speeds[ii] and the church must adapt or die is now fundamental to the way many of us think about and practice ministry. Wise, seasoned transitional pastors get this. Whether we serve small congregations or large, suburban or rural, multicultural congregations or people of one flavor, guiding them through these turbulent waters is a holy calling. This calling requires intensive, lifelong training and a network of support from others who help congregations walk the path of their transitions.
We hear of churches and denominations of every stripe decrying membership loss, lamenting the golden age and hoping some gimmick from megachurches will cure what ails. At the IMN Conference I learned down-to-earth ideas from down-to-earth people. I discovered bright, intelligent church leaders who helped me and can help all of us serve as proficient and faithful interim and transitional pastors, and thereby honor our calling.
For the past eighteen years I was the senior pastor of a multicultural and multilingual congregation in Pasadena, California that worships in English, Korean and Spanish, one congregation with three different language ministries. Multicultural churches are a growing phenomenon. Developing multicultural churches and the specialized leadership to pastor them is especially needed as families become more multicultural, neighborhoods become increasingly diverse and our nation debates how inclusive we will be. Learning the core competencies to lead these congregations is essential.
My commitment to the multicultural church is also theological and biblical. I believe in a radically inclusive God and a radically inclusive church, one that is mission focused, spiritually alive and wonderfully welcoming. I take seriously the prophet Isaiah, “You shall be a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7, NRSV). I believe fully in the vision of Pentecost of Acts 2, where people from every nation and land experience “the mighty power of God.” The Apostle Paul has it right when he claims that in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV). I believe in a church that welcomes everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, whether they are rich or poor, or liberal or conservative. In the time I have left on earth, I want to be a transitional pastor who challenges and equips congregations to embrace this inclusive vision, not only with words, but with deeds. In these times when change rushes by at whitewater speed, when our neighborhoods are far more diverse than what we see at first glance, when many congregations fear the world has passed them by, I want to be a pastor who equips congregations to navigate the shoals of change, avoid hitting most of the rocks and embrace habits that will enable them to become more inclusive.
It’s a tall order. Yet this past June in Las Vegas at the IMN conference as I listened and learned, networked and asked questions, I found an amazing community of people to help me in this endeavor. For instance, keynoter Graham Standish told us how to integrate spiritual discernment and discipleship training into every church meeting. He said we are to be a “blessed church”[iii] that sees the grace of God everywhere and prays for God’s guidance. He helped us see that churches, while sometimes an impediment to the formation of Christian disciples, can be amazing powerhouses of spiritual nurture and discipleship formation.
Church growth is not about cranking out numbers but creating disciples who are open to God’s purpose and direction in everything they do.
There were workshops that helped us embrace millennials, create healthy financial systems and design transformational strategic planning processes and so much more. There was a lot to absorb, good food to eat and great fellowship. Very little of what we did needs to stay in Las Vegas. It needs to be spread to the whole world.
Given my recent ministry setting, I was aware, however, that no one I heard addressed specifically how to be a multicultural church leader or a transitional pastor who intentionally coaches a congregation into becoming a church of Galatians 3, or Isaiah 56 or Acts 2. The bones were there, but you had to read between the lines, maybe color a little outside the box.
Throughout the IMN conference, connections between its content and my multicultural experience lit up my brain. For twenty years I’ve been an advocate of Eric Law and the Kaleidoscope Institute (www.kscopeinstitute.org). It is an ecumenical organization dedicated to training church leaders to build sustainable, multicultural churches and communities. We teach church leaders in congregations, denominational bodies and seminaries, specific skills and practices that enable organizations and congregations to embrace fully God’s marvelous diversity.
I obtained great, useful resources at the conference that I will carry in my toolkit for the rest of my life. I also realized that when you combine these learnings with the core practices of the Kaleidoscope Institute: RESPECT Guidelines, Mutual Invitation, the Kaleidoscope Bible Study and other methods to strengthen multicultural churches and leaders, amazing changes can happen in lives and churches (http://www.kscopeinstitute.org/respectful-communication-guidelines/). With the right leadership, congregations can become truly welcoming of all people from our increasingly diverse neighborhoods but they need trained leadership. The IMN Conference was life-changing for me. I’m grateful to God for my call to transitional ministry. I became particularly excited when I realized the connections between what Pastor Standish teaches and the Kaleidoscope Institute methods designed to build inclusive congregations. I know I am called powerfully to transitional ministry. Likewise, I am called to embrace the church of the future which in many North American contexts will need to embrace diversity not only to survive and thrive, but to be faithful. Much more needs to be said. Suffice it to say that I am grateful to the Interim Pastors Network and all its people: staff, volunteers, Board members and the people I met in Las Vegas in June: thank you. I look forward to many years of engagement with the wonderful people who are called to serve as interim and transitional pastors. Together, with God’s help, let’s have a continuing feast.
Dr. Mark Smutny
Mark Smutny has served congregations in Ohio, New York and California. He is a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and McCormick Theological Seminary. Most recently he served as Senior Pastor of Pasadena Presbyterian Church, a multilingual, multicultural congregation that worships in English, Spanish and Korean. He recently committed to serving as a Transitional Pastor in the PCUSA. He may be reached at 626-676-0287 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] The five “developmental tasks for the interim period” were first described by Loren Mead, founder of the Alban Institute. They include Coming to Terms with History, Exploring Identity and direction, Making Leadership/Operational changes, Renewing Linkages and Committing to new Leadership and a New Direction. See Loren B Mead, Critical Moment of Ministry: A Change of Pastors, Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute, 1986, for a more recent formulation of these tasks.
[ii] The term “whitewater times” to describe the rapid speed of change besetting the church was coined by Thomas Hawkins, former Professor of Ministry at McCormick Theological Seminary in his book, The Learning Congregation: A New Vision of Leadership, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.
[iii] N. Graham Standish, Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence and Power, New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.