NEW national resources to support and expand interim ministry in the Church of England have been released by the diocese of Chelmsford.
The resources, including a website and a source book, were published at the end of last month, funded by the Church Commissioners’ Strategic Development Fund (SDF). Similar resource hubs on interim ministry have been created by Churches in the United States and Canada, where interim ministry is longer established.
Interim-ministry (IM) posts are traditionally short-term appointments to bridge short-term gaps between incumbencies. The posts, which can be lay or ordained, can give parishes “breathing space” to recover from breakdown and catastrophe, prepare for longer-term pastoral reorganisation, or help the PCC to address particular issues (Comment, 20 January 2017).
The IM and vacancy-development adviser in the diocese of Chelmsford, the Revd Helen Gheorghiu Gould, said: “Interim ministry is about managing change: it involves making short-term strategic appointments to help parishes review their circumstances, reflect on scripture and mission, and where God is calling them to be; to consider their assets and resources, and explore a vision for the future.”
Legislative changes approved by the General Synod in July 2015 allowed for short-term clergy appointments under Common Tenure, enabling IMs to be widely deployed (News, 17 July 2015). Since then, the diocese of Chelmsford has been exploring IM as part of a wider programme of transformation, Turnaround, funded by the SDF. The project — to help parishes struggling with challenges related to leadership, decline, conflict, or problems with buildings — trialled 16 time-limited appointments in 46 different settings, from single parishes to multi-parish benefices, teams, ministry units, and deaneries.
Speaking at the launch of the IM resources on Zoom, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, who was until recently the Bishop of Chelmsford, said that the C of E was not suited to a “one-size-fits-all” approach to ministry. “In many contexts in which churches were either struggling or where a really different approach was needed, interim ministry has quite literally been a godsend, enabling renewal, growth, and change to happen, and for the Church to flourish.”
Archbishop Cottrell was referring to a small survey on interim ministry between 2015 and 2020, which concluded that IM appointments had been beneficial, bringing stability and security to parishes and “untangling” difficult situations. Of the 43 people from 17 dioceses who completed the survey, most of whom were IMs, all said that interim ministry had been effective and beneficial; fewer than three per cent said that it had been ineffective and disappointing.
Respondents did call, however, for further recognition of IM as a vocation; training and resources; networking and mutual support; and clear opportunities for curates, non-stipendiary ministers, and retired or near-retirement clergy.
A Word Cloud by IM training participants in January on what values are important for IM
The new resources attempt to address these issues. The source book, which discusses the history, practice, theology, and issues surrounding IM ministry, is being used to inform the pilot training programme for about 30 IMs in England, which began in January. There are already annual IM conferences, networks, and guidance documents.
Ms Gheorghiu Gould finished her IM post last week, but a steering group is being formed to continue her work on the national IM programme, which will form part of the Church’s Vision and Strategy stream.
She said: “When many of us started out in IM 5-6 years ago, we were feeling our way and have learned from experience. But, with hindsight, it seems as if God was preparing IM ‘for such a time as this’ (Esther 4.14) when the Church would most have need of it. This work is now credible and effective and has been tested in the Church of England over the past five years.
“With the pilot IM training programme in January, we started building a cohort of IMs with an extraordinary gift to minister in challenging times; and we are ready to equip parishes for transition with tools which can give them hope and confidence for a future in which traditional models of ministry are having to be re-thought.”
Last year, Chelmsford diocesan synod formally approved a proposal to cut 61 stipendiary clergy posts by the end of 2021, and a further 49 posts if the financial situation did not improve (News, 4 December 2020). Interim ministry will be considered for posts — classified as red in a new traffic-light system (News, 12 June 2020) — which are unable to cover the average £80,180 costs of a full-time stipendiary priest.
Asked whether IM posts were simply another cost-cutting exercise to make up for a continued decline in diocesan income, exacerbated by the pandemic, Ms Gheorghiu Gould said: “It would be mistaken to link the two, because we have been working on developing IM since 2015 in Chelmsford. We are, in fact, using fewer IMs just now. It just happens to be a perfectly timed gift for the present moment.
“However, my biggest concern is that unless dioceses follow best practice and use IM effectively, we will waste this gift. As we have learned in Chelmsford, IMs are not a cheap solution, but strategic appointments which need to be used well and carefully. These are not just stop-gap posts. . .
“Used in the right way, these appointments can really harness energy and enthusiasm and be the key to revitalising and renewing parishes, which is exactly what we need at this time. Dioceses simply won’t achieve that by using IM as an opportunity to ‘casualise’ or ‘cost-cut’: they will only destabilise parishes and clergy. There are also some pretty firm guidelines from the Archbishops’ Council on using IM, and it is in nobody’s interests to see those undermined.”
Just as the Church was waking up to the value of IM, however, funding was almost spent, she said. “It won’t achieve much if it just sits on a website looking pretty: it needs to be taken up and used.”
Archbishop Cottrell concluded: “I pray that IM will become a normal part of the way that we work. . . As we move into a different world beyond Covid, and we are aware of the big challenges we face, let us raise our expectations hopefully that God will bless and guide his Church.”