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Could interim ministry be the answer in tough times for the Church?

by
14 May 2021

Report by Abigail Frymann Rouch

THE vicar runs off with the churchwarden; the curate disappears with the collection plate; the Reader dies in the pulpit; vandals burn down the church; a dispute carves the congregation in two; the faithful shrink to a handful and can’t see a future for themselves. . .

There are many reasons that a worshipping community can find itself in shock, wrestling with anger or grief or worry, and unable to agree on a way forward.

For the past few years, parts of the Church of England have been trialling a specialist ministry devised in the United States and designed to address these sorts of situations.

Under the name of “interim ministry” (IM), clergy and lay people have been appointed to short-term posts in parishes, with a mandate to help a congregation pick up the pieces and get going again.

Dioceses that use interim ministry do so in ways that best suit them; those that have embraced it include Chelmsford and Liverpool, while Bristol and Truro are using it as a way to try to manage parish vacancies better.

There are around 150 interim-ministry practitioners and diocesan contacts across 34 C of E dioceses, and a Source Book, or “good-practice” guide, was produced in March. In addition, there have been two networking conferences, in 2017 and online earlier this year.

While some interim ministers are called in after a trauma, others — more often — are called in to smooth pastoral reorganisation. As increasing numbers of mergers are expected in the coming years, plenty of other parishes are going to be faced with potentially painful changes.

As the Church Times reported in February, a discussion paper circulated to all bishops and diocesan secretaries warned that many dioceses would need to contemplate pruning the number of stipendiary clergy and diocesan staff (News, 5 February). This was the result of simple demographics and complex economics, exacerbated by the effect of the pandemic on giving.

The Source Book describes the need for interim ministers to be “a non-anxious presence in the midst of transition, grief and conflict”. They may spend between six months and three years with a congregation, and the Church of England has now legislated to make such short-term appointments easier.

Interim ministers tend to be older, with experience of change management or conflict resolution from earlier parish ministry or a secular career. Long experience in parishes may or may not be an advantage, depending on the habits that the priest has picked up. Because of the sensitivities around IM, there is an unwritten rule that parishes involved with an interim minister are not identified in reports about them.

 

INTERIM ministry is not fully explained by its name. Some vacancies are listed on the Church Times recruitment pages, but readers may not have been aware that “interim” has a more specialist meaning than simply “short-term”.

The Ven. Dr Andy Jolley, Archdeacon of Bradford

Some dioceses and non-Anglican Churches prefer the term “transitional ministry”, but this can lead to further ambiguity: in the Church of Scotland, for example, the term refers to a particular type of interim ministry. 

There is no formal qualification identifying interim ministry as distinct from regular parish ministry. Instead, recruiters hope that the person specification in an advertisement should be enough to attract those with the relevant skills (and put off those without them). In Leeds diocese, person specifications for IM posts list “skilled at managing change” as an essential characteristic.

The Revd Julie Bacon, an interim minister in Leeds, counts as vital “a spiritually informed analytical approach . . . resilience, robustness, not being afraid of conflict, and being able to be non-anxious; to be grounded in yourself and enable other people to feel that, even if the situation around them is unclear, you’re not going to run away.” Is she the good cop or the bad cop? “Possibly both at times,” she laughs.

The Revd Kate Lovesey, an interim minister in Chelmsford diocese, ranks being a good listener as the key to this ministry. She was sent into a multi-racial parish by the diocese as a part-time interim minister. The previous incumbent had lasted only two-and-a-half-years: his style had not been well received, and “a lot of people” had left the church, she recalls. She believed that, in addition, there might be a “racial element” to the congregation’s troubles, even if some members were horrified by the accusation.

Robert Keenan, a churchwarden, says that the congregation felt “weary” at the prospect of another interregnum. Their archdeacon offered them interim ministry, and they accepted it with some nervousness. Ms Lovesey denounced racism from the pulpit and addressed the issue discreetly with particular individuals.

She encouraged ethnic-minority church members to take on more visible roles, and licensed a black woman as a lay minister. She says, matter-of-factly, “We’re all a little bit racist — accept it! — because we don’t understand each other’s cultures, and we need to do more of that.”

Mr Keenan says that Ms Lovesey’s intervention “got us back on an even keel”. He has appreciated her clear communication about church governance, and notes that “four new parishioners have joined us in the last year.”

 

THE diocese of Chelmsford is something of a hub for interim ministry (News, 9 April). In 2014, it was awarded Strategic Development Funding for an initiative, the Turnaround Project, which worked with struggling churches, using a variety of interventions, one of which was interim ministry.

In 2018, they received Strategic Capacity Funding to establish a network and training programme for IM. Forty-six congregations have been on the receiving end of it, says the Bishop of Barking, the Rt Revd Peter Hill, who oversaw IM in the diocese.

The Rt Revd Peter Hill, Bishop of Barking

He says many have been “transformed”, though there have been “one or two failures”, such as when an interim minister was put in post alongside the existing vicar. From that they learnt that an interim minister has “got to have a clean start”.

The Revd Helen Gheorghiu Gould, who until March was interim-ministry adviser for Chelmsford, ministered in a parish where there had been a breakdown between the congregation and the previous incumbent.

About 40 per cent of the electoral-roll membership had left. The parish was not attractive to would-be incumbents, she says, and “they felt sore at the diocese and the archdeacon and the bishop for leaving them in this position. There was breakdown in all sorts of ways.”

Her churchwardens remembered: “A couple of years down the line, we were informed that Helen was coming . . . to try and heal the rift. . . Helen visited every member of the remaining congregation in their homes. . . Helen also visited all the congregation who had defected, for their views. This was followed by meetings in the church hall, where everyone was welcome.”

They described the meetings that she ran to encourage people to open up. “She covered the wall with Post-It notes. . . Helen analysed our responses and fed them back to us.”

Ms Gheorghiu Gould recalls driving home one evening. “It was a bright moonlit night, and I remember saying, ‘God, what am I going to do with all this information?’ . . . I had this immediate response, which was, ‘Good Friday.’”

People who had left the church were invited to come back for the Good Friday service. During the sermon slot, she and the archdeacon read out the comments — anonymised — that she had collected.

“They swept through all those emotions of anger and sadness and sense of loss, and also the joy of the past and the hope for the future and the real appreciation that people had for one another,” she recalls. Afterwards, the archdeacon read out a letter of apology from the bishop.

The churchwardens note that many who have left have now got stuck into their involvement in other churches; “however, the animosity is no longer there.” The parish’s need for an incumbent was also addressed, as Ms Gheorgiu Gould became its permanent part-time priest-in-charge.

 

SOMETIMES, a church finds itself in need of a fresh start after a gradual stagnation rather than a sudden shock. In Liverpool, the Revd Fiona Pennie said she was sent into a parish with shrinking attendance to see whether it was viable. Only afterwards did she find out that one of the bishops had said that it needed to close.

“I listened. I empowered people,” she says. “There were just one or two people doing all the jobs; so I found the skills and gifts of people who had a heart for God but hadn’t necessarily been empowered in that.” She asked someone who had been churchwarden for more than 30 years to stand down for a time.

The Revd Julie Bacon

She also ran discussions about the church’s history and heritage to understand how the congregation had got where it was, and found “certain things that needed healing that had happened in the history of the church”, personally or collectively. Then she encouraged the members to discern a way forward.

One worshipper, Rachel Morley, explains that, after a succession of vacancies in the parish, the congregation of about 30 had got “a bit flat . . . a bit down”. “Our archdeacon mentioned about interim; so we said ‘Yeah.’ . . . A number of us were thinking they were coming to see whether we stay open or not.”

What did Ms Pennie do differently? “Everything,” she smiles. Apart from the history and heritage work, “she arranged a big fun day for the community to come in and see that we’re still open. We’re not in the best area; so there’s rails up at the windows. . . Some new families started coming to church after that. We also did Messy Church.”

Before Covid, they decided to move the Sunday school into the front of the nave. Ms Morley applied for a £3500 grant from the Deanery Mission Fund for furniture for the children, and storage units.

Ms Pennie didn’t like the children to head out of the building to the adjacent hall for most of the service. “We could be part of church, plus we were able to educate the children about the church service,” Ms Morley explains. And they found that some children appreciated being able to see their parents.

Also, they didn’t want concerns about noise to put parents off bringing their children, even if some older members of the congregation took longer to adjust to this.

Ms Pennie “gave me so much more confidence. . . I have anxiety disorder, but I got up and did a sermon with her and applied to be churchwarden, which I am now.” She also leads Bible studies that were instigated at this time.

Ms Morley concludes: “People [at the church] are more accepting of change and are willing to try different ways.” The church was found to be viable, and now has a full-time priest.

 

LAY empowerment is a big part of interim ministry. The Archdeacon of Bradford, the Ven. Dr Andy Jolley, believes that it points to how a parish might be strengthened to be “more lay-led” under ordained oversight. Ms Gheorghiu Gould suggests that interim ministry “is founded on collaboration”.

This is not without pitfalls. Canon Elizabeth Jordan, Leadership and Licensed Lay Ministry Adviser in Chelmsford diocese, who has written academic articles on interim ministry, observes that “empowering lay people is almost always one of IMs’ aims.

The Revd Kate Lovesey

“If then an appointment takes places of a minister who doesn’t share that vision . . . the end result is that there’s more discontent than there was before.” One consequence is that the C of E convention of not talking to one’s predecessor about what he or she has been trying to achieve is being challenged.

Canon Jordan also believes that IM pushes the Church towards updating its understanding of the parish as “the priest’s church” that undergoes an interregnum (“between reigns”) as if it were ruled by a monarch. Several dioceses are already jettisoning the word “interregnum” in favour of “vacancy”.

She understands the dynamics of a congregation to be far more like a family; so a more realistic view of the priest would be that of a constructive family member: a parent, an elder sibling, or an honorary aunt.

Indeed, some dioceses are already rethinking how to use vacancies so that, instead of making no changes other than seeking to an appointment as quickly as possible, the congregation takes time for discernment.

In Bristol, Canon Rod Symmons, the diocese’s only interim minister, who juggles three other ministries, says that, since work was done by a lay transitions manager, who has now retired, archdeacons and area deans have been working with parishes to help them to think through the profile of the next priest.

“We’ve wanted parishes to be taking a breath and working out who they are, where they are, what the needs of the community are, what the shape of future ministry might be, and where there are churches which are going to share ministry, for them to build good relationships with each other,” he explains.


OBVIOUSLY, Covid has disrupted the way in which every church works. Where interim ministry is concerned, its consequences have been mixed. One interim minister dealing with a “significant level of long-term conflict” — half the PCC and a churchwarden had left — says that lockdown has limited the pace at which she can work, because there have been no in-person PCC meetings since she began in November. Using only Zoom, she cannot see people’s body language or bring people together in one room.

Ms Pennie is now helping three churches adjust to sharing one stipendiary minister. But lockdown restrictions and “digital poverty” have made group meetings impossible. Of her three district church councils, two are not on Zoom, and not all members of the third were able to get online.

Therefore, while she has recorded and uploaded weekly services, group exercises that she would like to carry out as part of the churches’ reviewing their “history and heritage”, and difficult conversations about financial practices that she has uncovered, have not taken place.

Instead, she has found herself functioning more as a parish priest, dealing with vandalism, and carrying out large numbers of funerals; and has just been relicensed for an extra three years so that she can carry out the IM work.

For the Revd Stephen Skinner, an interim priest-in-charge merging two rural benefices (seven scattered parishes in all) in Exeter diocese, needing to move worship online has been good for bringing people together for worship and coffee and Bible study — and some parishioners have requested that such services continue online.

But, he says, some parishes are not represented, either because they cannot use the technology, or because their broadband signal is too weak.

Dr Jolley also found an unexpected benefit of lockdown: two congregations that had merged have had unexpected opportunities to worship together, because only one building was made Covid-safe.

 

INTERIM ministry was not created for congregational mergers. It began in the United States in the late 1970s, and “grew out of research into congregations during leadership transitions. If a congregation had skilled individuals and then made decisions, it was in a healthier place,” says Cynthia Hueey, Executive Director of the Interim Ministry Network, which has 900 members worldwide.

The Revd Eleanor McMahon

Helping with the healing of congregations after a trauma or split followed later. “We’ve had people who’ve gone in after a church burns down, or a minister dies suddenly; people went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; or [have gone in] after sexual misconduct,” Hueey says.

IM is used by all the mainstream denominations, including the Episcopal Church in the US. An interim minister is funded by the congregation, and may spend only one third or one quarter of their time in the church. In the C of E, clergy who drawn on direct experience of IM in the Episcopal Church.

IM is used in both the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Scotland. It began in the Kirk around 25 years ago and is well established there. A team of eight semi-nomadic interim ministers can be moved from placement to placement without needing to apply for posts.

They are paid more than parish ministers because accommodation is not included and they have their own skills base, explains Eleanor McMahon, its longest-serving interim minister, who has 11 years’ experience.

The Kirk has also developed another form of ministry as part of IM: transitional ministry, where “the depth of hurt is not so deep, but the minister stays for longer, say, three to five years,” Ms McMahon explains. It employs five transitional ministers. An example of such work is a parish in Glasgow where the congregation is having to move building because the City Council is regenerating the area.

The Partnerships and Development Secretary, Daran Golby, says that, while he is not a member of the Church of Scotland, he brings a lot of experience of working in HR in the NHS, and has put in place layers of support. “In NHS Mental Health, all clinicians have supervisors.

“I think you should have that when you’re working in quite toxic, quite draining arm’s-length placements . . . I’m aiming to break the sense of isolation. And when they finish a placement, the IMs, I insist that they take a break.”

Looking ahead, he sees an increasing need for interim ministers. “We have a retirement cliff coming in 2023. . . I don’t see it as having a shortage of clergy; we’ve got too many buildings. That’ll lead to bigger parishes and more team ministry, [and] the expansion of the role of the lay minister,” he notes.

A Baptist minister and academic, the Revd Dr Sue Barclay, who prefers to call IM “transitional ministry” (TM) to express a sense of “moving” rather than “holding the fort”, says that in Baptist churches it is used after trauma or conflict, or to help a congregation to rethink its mission strategy to keep up with changes in society.

Dr Barclay, who carried out TM between 2009 and 2012 in a church that had suffered conflict, sums up the work as helping the church to move from being “inward-looking and backward-looking, to outward-looking and forward-looking”.

This ministry tends to be carried out by ministers as their last post before retirement, she says, because Baptist governance structures are not designed for them to take on a series of short-term appointments.

That there is no shared learning or network is something that she regrets. “There certainly would be space for a learning network” of people who could also offer each other “support and companionship”, she says.


IN THE Church of England, it is not so much personnel as funding and a lack of awareness which could limit the use of IM. The funding behind Ms Gheorghiu Gould’s post, two conferences, and a Source Book came to an end in March. Some interim ministers expressed concern that, without her input, the momentum that she had created could be lost.

Bishop Hill, who is shortly to retire, says: “If Chelmsford diocese was financially in a better place at the moment, we would be continuing funding our funding of an IM adviser. I regret that we can’t do that at the moment, because we have to decide between advisers and parish priests.”

Ms Gheorghiu Gould wrote in the Source Book: “This resource material will not have any value unless it is taken hold of in dioceses and parishes, by clergy, bishops and lay people, added to and adapted, and enabled to become a transformative set of tools which generates collaboration, partnership and energy to empower the future Church.”

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, was the Bishop of Chelmsford while IM was being developed in the diocese. In a message to practitioners at the launch of the Source Book in March, he said that IM had been “quite literally a godsend” for struggling parishes.

Archbishop Cottrell told the Church Times that “the money received was a time-limited grant to get this work started and discover what its benefits could be,” and that “the main cost of interim ministry, such as stipends and housing, will always be paid for in the diocese itself as part of its ongoing provision of ministry.”

He said that the network of interim ministers “is now exploring how best to continue its valuable work and ensure that every diocese is aware of the benefits and possibilities of interim ministry”. A Church of England spokesman said that “the National Ministry Team will continue to engage with the network and support it as much as possible.”

IM does not pay for itself as such: the Source Book notes that in Chelmsford “interventions did not always produce instant results or significant changes in attendance and parish share payments.”

But Dr Jolley argues that IM is cheaper than less proactive options. “It certainly helps us financially, because it helps us to grasp difficult questions which, if we don’t grasp them, will end up costing us lots of money. So it may well be that it doesn’t pay for itself, but it costs less than the alternative.”

IM has clearly boosted the faith of interim ministers and congregations alike by showing that seriously difficult situations in churches are not irredeemable, and that there are new chapters to be lived even if a congregation shrinks. It could help parishes that losing stipendiary posts to face the challenges of the future.


IM finds a place in the Church for skills and experiences gained in secular workplaces, such as change management, and has provoked new theological thinking around the part of transformation in faith. It already represents a more intentional use of parish vacancies than in the past, in some dioceses; and lay involvement is increasing.

If it is given room to make a wider impact, supporters of IM hope that it will not only improve the health of the Church, parish by parish, but also shake up its practices in relation to interregnums, and the relationship between clergy and their successors, and between priest and parish. It is seen as a way of equipping priests and parishes for a future that is to be more lay-led and less clerical, and lead to greater flourishing of both clergy and lay people. Given a lack of resources, there may be advantages in the ecumenical pooling of best practice nationally, despite the differences in church contexts.

A formalised network of interim ministers could strengthen and define the identity of interim ministry. Without one, disparities between methodologies are more likely to develop. There is a fear that the loss of a national lead will mean that the work achieved so far is not built on, but trickles away.

Will leaving it to each diocese to embed interim ministry mean that it becomes a luxury for richer dioceses? Those where the most stipendiary posts are lost could be those that find it most beneficial.

 

More information about interim ministry can be found here.


Listen to an interview with the Revd Helen Gheorghiu Gould on the Church Times Podcast.

 

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