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Improving the future by disturbing the present

by
20 January 2017

Interim minsters do much more than hold the fort: they can implement lasting change, say Helen Gheorghiu Gould and Peter Hill

INTERIM is a buzz word at the moment, from Gareth Southgate’s being appointed the England football team’s interim manager before taking on the post permanently to reports that the UK might strike an “interim deal on Brexit”.

Observant readers of this newspaper might have spotted interim ministry (IM) posts appearing lately in the appointments pages. These are short-term ministry appointments, deployed to bridge short-term gaps, or to lead longer change-processes of two to three years. They help parishes to recover from breakdown and catastrophe, or support pastoral reorganisation. In Transitional Ministry (Church Publishing, 2009), Loren Mead writes that interim appointments have the potential for “both sorting out and cleaning up problems from the past, and also clearing the way for a new pastoral appointment”.

But an interim appointment can be much more than a response to uncertain times, when no clear course seems obvious — a stop gap until the real thing comes along. It can also be a sensible strategic solution to help manage change.

 

THE diocese of Chelmsford has been exploring IM for two years, as part of a wider programme of transformation, Turnaround, which has been made possible by the Church Commissioners’ Strategic Development Funding. The project seeks to help parishes to find a way forward when they are struggling with challenges around leadership, decline, conflict, or problems with buildings.

The diocese recognised that, sometimes, a parish needs some breathing space, or a transition, between one incumbency and another. This helped it to identify priorities, prepare for a new future, and to help the PCC address issues — or sometimes, simply, to confront painful truths or demanding situations.

The diocese has found that experience of IM has been positive for the parishes and ministers concerned. The legislative changes approved by the General Synod in July 2015, which allowed for short-term clergy appointments under Common Tenure, further enabled and gave added impetus to the deployment of IMs (News, 17 July 2015).

At present, Chelmsford has ten IM posts operating around the diocese. They take a variety of formats, including a “Turnaround” Area Dean, a stipendiary interim minister, and interim lay missioners, besides a mixture of stipendiary, non-stipendiary, and retired-clergy support. Interims are also working alongside diocesan staff, working in areas such as governance and stewardship support, and buildings advice.

There is no one “shape” of interim minister: the diocese has interim ministers who are clergy with long-standing ministry experience, and those newer to ministry with a background in change management, leadership in business, and the health and voluntary sectors. There are also lay people with business skills working as interim ministers.

IM is orientated towards change rather than bridging gaps or “holding the fort”. It is a strategic investment that is made when there is a need for transformation, but where the conditions, capacity, resources, or will do not yet exist locally to bring about that transformation.

It challenges parishes to think more creatively and pragmatically about the future. Congregations do not always welcome spending time in these “zones of uncomfortable debate”, because change is uncomfortable and raises awkward questions. But, as Catherine Booth is reputed to have said, “There is no improving the future without disturbing the present.” We see that worked through continually in the New Testament with Jesus and the disciples.

 

AFTER two years, the diocese is beginning to see positive results from IM in several parishes, both in terms of mission and financial health.

In one case, an IM worked for 14 months in a rural parish where there had been conflict and the loss of 40 per cent of the electoral roll. The parish spent three years with a pastoral vacancy, and struggled to appoint. By listening and supporting reconciliation, and helping the parish to rethink its vision and mission, the IM helped the parish to grow in confidence, mission, and numbers. It is now paying its parish share, and has a half-time Priest-in-Charge.

Another interim minister has just spent 18 months sorting out a series of governance and leadership challenges in a group of urban parishes, encouraging them to find a new vision for growth and mission. This group of parishes is now trying out a new pastoral configuration, with a team of lay and ordained ministers.

An interim appointment has just been made to turn around an urban deanery that has several underperforming parishes — some with leadership issues, others with significant building challenges.

 

THE Church of England is at the stage of well-informed experimentation, exploring what is working in different contexts rather than adopting a single model. In Chelmsford, we have found the need for a flexible approach, including longer-term appointments of interim ministers, and short-term input on issues such as governance. The diocese is beginning to look at models where interim ministers work in multiple parishes, and teams of lay and ordained people work together.

There is no one road map for IM, but a variety of resources, tools, and skills that the Church needs to learn to deploy to the best effect. IM presents an opportunity to invest in change and transformation.

But also, in fast-changing times, perhaps the processes of IM should become part of a mainstream culture of transition in which clergy and congregations can respond positively and with confidence to God’s eternal work of renewal and transformation.

 

The Revd Helen Gheorghiu Gould is an interim minister in the diocese of Chelmsford. The Rt Revd Peter Hill is the Bishop of Barking, and leads on interim ministry and turnaround for the diocese of Chelmsford.

The diocese of Chelmsford is sponsoring a national conference on interim ministry from 22 to 24 February, at the High Leigh Conference Centre. For more information visit www.ministrydevelopment.org.uk/events/interim-ministry-conference.

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