After 41 years, 26 as a called and settled pastor in three parishes and then 15 as interim/transition in eight, I retired on June 30th. I was not one of those who counted the months, weeks, and days to retirement. Serving as Transition Senior Minister at West Avon Congregational Church, UCC (CT) proved to be as stimulating and satisfying on my final day there as the first had been. However once the day arrived I discovered retirement quite appropriate and in its own way stimulating and satisfying.
Immediately came surprises and adjustments! To quote an old jazz song (Fats Waller maybe) “The phone forgot how to ring” – for the most part a good thing! For the first time since 1965 I had no “UCC Desk Calendar and Plan Book” to help me organize my life and to keep me current with all the high holy days – perhaps not a good thing. I did feel out of the loop when I went to a Conference Church and Ministry Committee meeting with the old one in hand to discover everyone else had a new one I had not even seen. Maybe I was feeling not so much “out of the loop” but suddenly “put out to pasture!” Perhaps the UCC could do a better job at maintaining the institutional lines of communication!
I have come to realize that most of my reflections have something to do with working and sharing with colleagues, both of the called and settled variety and the interim/transition variety. Even when the subject matter did not at first seem one having to do with colleagues, it quite clearly did as my first reflection on the difficult question of evaluating an interim/transition ministry makes clear.
Looking back over my 15 years personal experience in interim/transition ministry which included much of our institutional history (I’ve attended half of all the Annual Conferences of the Interim Ministry Network which is now approaching its 28th meeting, every meeting of AUCCIIM and one or two of its preceding body, the UCC caucus of IMN), I am stuck with the question I have heard raised over the years but not yet answered as well as we might expect. Here’s the question: How can interim/transition ministry best be evaluated?
How do I evaluate my work? How does a congregation, a denomination, or a professional group focused on training and enriching its members evaluate interim/transition ministry?
Here’s a suggestion. Over the years, in settings that might well be deemed “successful” and a couple that might not, at least at first blush, I have decided that the person who can best evaluate effectiveness and “success” is not I or a colleague group but rather the person who has come after me as the called and settled new pastor. But not at first, and not perhaps for two or three years. Elapsed time is required, more time than I think we have been willing to give the evaluation process. Making a considerable assumption here, it seems to me that he or she is in the best place to fairly evaluate our service in the cause of the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ in that particular time and place. My assumptions of course are based in the trust that our successors have an insightful understanding of the nature and purpose of interim ministry and are not prone to fault finding and blame placing on whoever and whatever happened before her/his tenure but rather is open to seeing patterns of gain or loss over several years, open to seeing what difference our service has made once our names are beginning to be forgotten.
Perhaps a foundation might be enticed to fund a systematic study of a statistically significant sample of our successors. I suspect our specialized ministry would well be advanced by that kind of effort. Those who have been called to follow us (after their own on site service of several years) should have some clear understanding of where a congregation was prior to our service, what happened during the time-in-between including fulfillment of stated mission goals and programs, and most importantly how these factors have redounded to the effectiveness or its lack of the life of a particular congregation.
Turning that coin over, I have come to the conclusion that we as interim/transition pastors are too often unfortunately prone to believing the worst of our own predecessors, the called and settled folks we follow. Our congregations have the “developmental task” of “getting in touch with history” but sometimes we personally tend to look for and repeat the negative and ignore or not hear the positive. Our doing so (“the better word is probably can only color discolor”) the church’s going about its work on this particular task. Yes, there are situations which have been disruptive and destructive of caring and competent ministry. They need to be addressed. However, when I hear a fairly newly arrived interim pastor begin to negate the work of a predecessor, particularly when doing so “seems to be in the air” (in a colleague setting where the rest of us begin to do the same), I have to wonder just how fair we are and whether our attitudes get in the way of the effectiveness of our own ministry in that place.
Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times, newly available in paperback, includes Killian McDonnell’s The Monks of St. John’s File in for Prayer with the two lines, “Last of all, the Lord Abbot, early old/(shepherding the saints is like herding cats).” “Shepherding the saints IS like herding cats!” We know it! We have discovered it from our own experience in every congregation we have served!
Should that not give us empathy and understanding as we learn the story of the work of the one who went before us? In every place I have served there have been folks (with every good intention, I want to believe) who during my first days or, at most, few weeks dropped by to welcome me or invite me for a cup of coffee or even a meal and to tell me “What the real story around here is.”
More often then not their “real stories” have been rooted in some disappointment in the most recent former pastor. I have learned to listen carefully but also to remind myself that there are probably other (at least one, often many) ways of understanding and evaluating the previous ministry. I have found that a knowledge of personality types (in my case through work with the Myers Briggs Type Inventory) and a grounding in Paul’s New Testament affirmations of the variety of the Spirit’s gifts to each of us (all for the up-building of the church) help me understand, appreciate, and sometimes even value a very different take on things from my own.
A third observation on colleagues and their place in our ministry takes the form of a question: are we losing our sense that as specialized pastors in interim/transition ministry we have a unique connection with others who share with us our calling? Are we losing sight of our a need for on-going relationships with our colleagues for fellowship, support, encouragement, criticism, mutual learning, and the promotion of a wider understanding and appreciation of interim/transition ministry and its possibilities within the churches, the conferences, and the UCC as a whole? When I was young and newly in the ministry and attended programs and meetings where the 60- and 70-year-olds talked (incessantly, as I remember) about how good the good ‘ole days were (the 40s and 30s and even the 20s) I promised myself that when I got old I would do no such thing. Well, here I am at 67 thinking how much more appreciative we seemed of our mutual relationships a mere ten years ago than we do today! I cannot but note that the vital interest in the Committee on Interim Ministry in my state conference has waned, that our ecumenical state support group which used to attract 30 and sometime 40 interims to intriguing presentations and discussions (usually resourced by its own members) now does well when eight to ten attend, and that attendance at AUCCIIM gatherings at the Annual Conference of the Interim Ministry Network seems to have declined considerably and not in any particular relationship to UCC attendance there that I can perceive. I can identify some possible causes of this declining interest. Our local support group too often has settled for watching a DVD featuring some “expert” instead of its members going out of their way to bring the benefits of their own learnings and experience to their colleagues. Or, is that a reflection of an old guy who still prefers books and face-to-face experiences to websites and teleconferencing? I do not think so but may not be in the best place to say! It does seem to me that we are reverting to a “lone ranger” model of ministry so frequently and unfortunately seen in called and settled ministry. Instead of having a vivid sense of being a colleague with our peers, we seem to be competitors, no longer, for example, sharing experiences of being interviewed by the same Transition Search Committee and discussing who has the best gifts for that particular setting but keeping secrets and playing our cards close to our chests. Is that the result of fewer attractive openings being available to a larger pool of candidates? Is that the result of our anxiety about our securing our next position? Perhaps, but if so we have lost something of great value, something which we were building among ourselves, and something that seems well worth modeling for our profession as a whole.
Interim/transition ministry has been good for me and to me. I came in through the back door when I needed to make basic changes in the life I was living. I accepted my first interim position to test out a reclaiming of my call. I did not expect the result to be a call to a new form of ministry and yet during that 14 months, I came to understand that I was not to go back to settled ministry but to move on to working with churches dealing with possibilities for renewal and re-formation and re-energizing and taking the risk of change as I was challenged to do in my life. I’ve served small churches with tight budgets and larger churches with more resources than I would have thought ever would be necessary. I’ve served a church that, the day before I arrived, painted my name on its signboard in letters at least as large as the name of the church in order to announce to the community that there was a new person in the office and pulpit, one that simply left the name of the pastor off, and one that left the name of the former pastor on the marquee as if he was still in place. I’ve served churches that were quite alienated from the conference and the UCC and churches that were wonderfully involved in rich connections. I’ve served churches that wondered how long they could keep the doors open to churches wondering what to do about all the new people. I’ve served a church where I seemed to have no influence on its OCWM support but which took up a long range planning process I recommended with enthusiasm and effect. I’ve served churches where I have had to opportunity to significantly resource the Search Committee and others where the committee simply ignored me. I’ve served a church where contending sides had retained attorneys and threatened lawsuits and entered secret agreements yet eventually was able to move into a new life of effective and faithful mission and ministry with the calling of a new carefully chosen and effective pastor. I’ve served with a fine group of colleagues and support staff members, only once having to ask a support staff member for a resignation, many times marveling at the gifts so many folks brought to our shared calling. It has been an experience I could not have imagined and one almost always rewarding and stimulating. I move on now into retirement knowing full well that I leave our calling to competent and caring folks of the next generations. Blessings to all!
Let me finally note that I have three goals for retirement: travel, avoiding winter, and reading those novels I had to read in high school and college English lit classes to see if I can now understand why we were reading them in the first place. Trips to England (with my daughter Lisa, a high school English teacher of many of those novels), to northern Minnesota (to visit a cousin who is the last member of my mother’s family on that side), and to Arizona (to begin to furnish a condo there Ellie and I brought to be our “Winter Retreat”) got traveling into high gear in all of ten weeks. I’ve said enough about avoiding winter except to add we’ll have room in sunny, warm Arizona for other refugees from winter to visit! I’ve yet to read Silas Marner but it is in the pile of books awaiting my attention. I did read for the first time Jack Kerouac’s On the Road which was published in 1955 when I was 15. Why didn’t we read it as high school seniors or college sophomores? Interim/transition ministry was indeed stimulating and satisfying. I am finding retirement to be the same, if in different but also surprising and renewing ways!
Rev. Linden has been a member of the IMN since 1993 and currently has the PTS designation.