There comes a time in every church's life when it needs a trained interim pastor. The transitional minister slows down the pace and facilitates healing and regrouping before a new phase of church life begins with a new pastor.
The first time the Rev. Susan De Simone served as an interim pastor for a church, in the early 1980s, she was fresh out of seminary, searching out an associate minister position. Instead, interim ministry beckoned by way of a small Connecticut congregation in transition after losing its pastor.
"I read everything there was to read on interim ministry—two tiny books," says De Simone with a laugh. The term lasted five months, but De Simone was hungry for more. She knew she had found her life's work.
Searching for more resources, De Simone attended courses on conflict resolution and other interim-related topics through the Alban Institute in Bethesda, Md. Now she serves on the faculty of the Interim Ministry Network (IMN), an ecumenical association based in Baltimore. The network consists of more than 1,600 interim ministry specialists, consultants, and church leaders representing 25 denominations, including the United Church of Christ.
The Interim Ministry Network serves as a group of peers who support each other in the setting of interim ministry. IMN faculty teach all over the country, usually in retreat centers.
"We try to keep the costs down for people who come," says De Simone, noting that course participants range in age and experience and come from all walks of life. The courses prepare interims for the developmental tasks a transitional congregation experiences during a healthy interim period: letting go of the past, determining the new identity of the church, shifting lay leadership, strengthening the relationship between the church and its denomination, and dealing with any troubling issues—and hopefully resolving them—before the new pastor arrives. The process transcends any theological differences between denominations.
"I think this is something that's very much what God wants us to do: work together," says De Simone. "The kind of leadership you need, the need for building the strength and interconnection, the need for honesty, transparency and integrity—all the dynamics are the same. We have members [ranging] from Unitarian to Missouri Synod Lutheran. I don't know of any other ecumenical organization where the clergy maintain their own identity, but work together seamlessly."
To learn more about the Interim Ministry Network, go to www.interimministry.org.
Interims help churches heal
The Rev. Char Burch, Interim Association Minister of the Northwest Ohio Association, has spent the past 20 years working as an intentional interim in the local, Association and Conference settings of the UCC, and says a time of transition is crucial in any church setting or situation.
"In a business setting, someone leaves his job so you advertise and then hire someone immediately," Burch explains. "Transition in pastorship is different. There are emotional and spiritual connections going on."
When a church faces losing its pastoral leadership, it first turns to its Conference office.
The Conference works closely with the congregation to help them think through what kind of interim leadership would work well for them. It can help prevent the local church from being overwhelmed by the responsibility of searching for an interim. Conference staff will meet with the moderator or consistory and talk through the emotions that may come up during a transitional time. There is often sorrow, anger or shock, says Burch.
Whether the transition is in the local, Association or Conference setting, time is needed to work through these emotions before adjusting to a new style of leadership. The interim's job may be to start asking such questions as "Why do you do that this way?" and "Where do you see yourself going in the future?" Inevitably, those left behind will miss some of the strengths of the former pastor, Burch says.
An interim period "provides the time to realize the person is gone," says Burch, "and in that space, new relationships can be established."
"We want the best for the local churches," says Burch. "We want them to be stronger."
Pastor hears call to be an interim
The Rev. Roger Nicholson will tell you he was dragged kicking and screaming out of retirement to his current interim posting at First Church of Christ UCC in Simsbury, Conn., but the smile behind his voice gives him away.
More than 20 years ago, Nichol-son made the switch from "regular garden variety" pastor to intentional interim. Nicholson says that without doubt, interim ministry is harder because of the two-track commitment. "First," he says, "you have the regular minister duties: preach, teach, baptize, marry, bury. But you also have the transitional agenda, which is important."
Over the past two decades, Nicholson has seen a change in the world of interim ministry. Interim periods are getting longer, mostly due to the diminishing pool of pastoral candidates. But churches also are recognizing the value of interim periods, and are receptive to the idea of regrouping before a new minister is called.
Still, when an interim arrives, says Nicholson, the church is so happy to have someone there that, often, they'll try to convince the interim to stay on.
Nothing doing, says Nicholson.
"Interims have to get [the congregation] to ease off, commit themselves to a process, not try to rush things," he says. "It gives the congregation time to settle and adjust to the change, give the search committee plenty of time to do a good job of preparation."
Being a non-anxious presence is paramount to being an effective transitional minister. "In the midst of all these dynamics," he says, "the challenge is to be relaxed, help the congregation not feel panicked."
"We're not just doing maintenance, holding the fort, so to speak," Nicholson says. "We're trying to get the church toned up for the next person."
Roger Nicholson is editor of "Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry" (Alban Institute, 1998).
Fund assists intentional interims in transition
As a trained interim minister, one never knows where the next job will lead, or what type of problem solving will be required to get the job done. But what happens when transitional ministers themselves are in transition?
The Illinois Conference has established an Interim Ministry Support Fund to help interim ministers continue health and pension benefits even while they're between jobs. The fund is in partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Wisconsin Region. For a maximum of three months, any qualifying interim minister may apply for funds to be used towards pension, health benefits, and sometimes salary.
To qualify for the fund, the recipient must have received training in either the UCC's Illinois Conference or the Disciples' Wisconsin Region. Churches are required to contribute 4 percent of the interim minister's salary (over and above the interim salary package), plus housing, to the fund.
The Rev. Connie Stewart, a trained interim ministry specialist currently serving Prospect Heights (Ill.) Community UCC, says the idea of the fund is to care for the core of interims who have chosen this ministry as their vocation. "It is difficult to work [as an interim] if there's no financial support in between," says Stewart, adding that sometimes the thought of discontinued health or retirement benefits deter some from accepting the call to this specialized ministry.
While the Support Fund is meant for pastors already committed to transitional ministry, another part of the fund helps those who are wanting to find out more. Each calendar year, five loans of up to $1,000 are awarded to Illinois Conference (UCC) or Wisconsin Region (DOC) pastors who wish to take interim ministry training. Once training is complete, the recipient repays the loan to replenish the fund. Even if the pastor chooses not to pursue transitional ministry any further, Stewart claims that the interim training enhances any type of ministry.
But more trained interims are always needed, says Stewart. "We can never get enough. Never!" she says with a laugh. The long-term hope is that the support funds will act as an incentive to nudge great pastors into a ministry that consistently promotes health and renewal in churches.
"We like to give this money away because we want to support the core of people who commit themselves to this ministry," says Stewart.
"At least interim ministers will know that in between times, they can get basic support," she adds. So far, the fund "has served to keep very qualified people in interim positions."
|The national setting of the United Church of Christ is drafting guidelines for interim ministry, sparking dialogue and input across the UCC, and putting folks on the same page about the responsibilities and accountabilities of the interim minister.
The Rev. Richard Sparrow, Search and Call Coordinator for the UCC's Parish Life and Leadership Ministry Team, says the guidelines will define three categories of interims, discuss the certification process of becoming an interim, and standardize the profile process. The guidelines are meant as a resource and enhancement for the work already done in the local church settings of the UCC.
"We depend on these skilled consultants, who do a specialized ministry during an important time in the life of the congregation," says Sparrow. "Their ministry is vital to the ministry of the UCC, to local congregations, and to the wider church. They're gifted, trained people, and we honor the important ministry they do in our midst."
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An ecumenical group of Christian academicians announce radical departure from traditionally-held views of salvation.
Rejecting a centuries-old hall mark of Christian teaching on salvation, an ecumenical group of Christian scholars in September said Jews can be saved without coming to faith in Jesus Christ.
Claiming "Jews are in an eternal covenant with God," 21 members of the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations challenged the traditional Christian view of Jesus as savior for all humankind. Because faithful Jews are already in right relationship with God, they said, "We renounce missionary efforts directed at converting Jews."
"We know there has been a long tradition of anti-Judaism within that Christian tradition," says Joseph Tyson, chair of the scholars group and professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University. "It's based on certain misperceptions of history, and it's theologically invalid ... We're convinced that a re-thinking of Christian attitudes toward Jews is central, indispensable and sacred."
The 10-point statement, "A Sacred Obligation," marks the latest in a series of attempts to bridge historic enmity and divisions between Christians and Jews. It comes in response to "Dabru Emet," a call from Jewish scholars in September 2000 for Jews to rethink their understanding of Christianity. It follows also on the heels of an Aug. 12, 2002, statement in which Jews and a committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said attempts to convert Jews are "no longer theologically acceptable."
In the United Church of Christ, despite general support for the sentiment expressed, UCC voices take issue with certain specifics.
Dale Bishop, Executive Minister for the UCC's Wider Church Ministries, says that many in the church would not join the scholars in conferring special salvation status upon Jews in God's economy. Nor would many consent to tenet nine in the statement: "We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people."
"We recognize it to be a part of their tradition," Bishop says, "but that doesn't mean we incorporate it into our theology or belief system."
The Rev. Martin Duffy, son of a Jewish mother and now a retired evangelical UCC pastor in Easton, Pa., agrees that Christians shouldn't target Jews for conversion, because such "pressure" has caused undue harm through history. But he refused to join scholars in asserting that "Jews are in a saving covenant with God."
"Everyone has to be spiritually reborn to enter the kingdom, and that's not something you get from your genes or your blood," Duffy said. "At some point, you have to make a personal decision for Christ ... That's what Jesus taught, and he was a good Jew. He's my rabbi."
September's statement advanced prior, more parochial efforts as this time thinkers from six denominations—Lutheran, Episcopal, Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ and Roman Catholic—joined the cause of questioning the doctrine of salvation by faith in Christ alone.
Although Jews heralded the statement as a step forward for interfaith dialogue, evangelicals outside the UCC bristled at the apparent undercutting of a bedrock teaching.
"While that covenant [between God and Jews] is still in place, it in no way implies salvation," says James Sibley, Coordinator of Jewish Ministries for the Southern Baptist Convention. "If it did, why would God send his son to die this horrible death if it were not necessary?"
"Evangelical Christians cannot assent to a diminished universal significance of Jesus as both a Jewish and Gentile Messiah and Savior," says Gordon R. Lewis, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Denver Seminary. "The Jews were the ones who needed the atonement [because] there aren't any, Jew or Gentile, who live faithfully by the law. The law is fulfilled only in Christ, and only through the atonement can we who cannot keep the law be saved."
For centuries, Christians taught that God's covenant with the chosen, Jewish people had been replaced by a new covenant with the church, i.e., with all who believe Jesus Christ is Son of God, Savior and Lord. Such an idea of one covenant "superceding" the other has faded from both Catholic and mainline Protestant teachings as Christians since the Holocaust have striven to argue that God has not abandoned the Jews. The recent statement unfolds that shift's potentially vast implications for Christian teachings on salvation.
In applauding the statement, two Jewish respondents focus on one of the 10 points: "Christians should not target Jews for conversion."
Renouncing conversion efforts "is absolutely critical to the Jewish stance" in interfaith dialogue with Christians, says Rabbi Ruth Langer of Boston College. "It is virtually impossible to dialogue with somebody who seeks to annihilate who you are."
"All areas of relations between Jews and Christians were in effect poisoned by that doctrine of supercessionism," says Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, Executive Director of the National Council of Synagogues. By contrast, this statement, "I think is very heartening to Jewish people and for relations between the two communities."
Other points in the statement further explored implications of affirming a valid covenant between God and Jews.
Scholars said, for instance, "We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people," noting that land has never been key to a Christ-based covenant with God.
Signatories went on to say that "both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in peace and security in a homeland of their own."
The purpose of the Aug. 12 statement is to stimulate conversation at local churches and seminaries, both nationwide and abroad. According to Mary Boys, Professor of Practical Theology at UCC-related Union Theological Seminary in New York City, the statement could spark long overdue conversations about what it means to be saved.
"The worst thing would be if this fell with a great thud and was never heard from again," says Boys. "I hope it doesn't go the way of one more boring religious thing."
"This is just the tip of a very huge iceberg," says Eugene Fisher, Associate Director of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "God chose the Jews to be God's people. We should respect God's choice and try to figure it out."
|The 10 points of 'A Sacred Obligation'
1. God's covenant with the Jewish people endures forever.
2. Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a faithful Jew.
3. Ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today.
4. Judaism is a living faith, enriched by many centuries of development.
5. The Bible both connects and separates Jews and Christians.
6. Affirming God's enduring covenant with the Jewish people has consequences for Christian understandings of salvation.
7. Christians should not target Jews for conversion.
8. Christian worship that teaches contempt for Judaism dishonors God.
9. We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people.
10. Christians should work with Jews for the healing of the world.
To read the statement in full, go to www.bc.edu/cjlearning.
The Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, pastor of Union Congregational UCC in Amesbury, Mass., just received the $3,500 first place Templeton Award for Religion Reporter of the Year
In February 1991, then-President Bush took great pains to argue to the American public that his proposed Gulf War conformed to the historic principles of Just War theory. The current President Bush has not made an appeal to Just War theory to support his proposed war in Iraq. He cannot. Pre-emptive strikes violate Just War theory. We are being asked to support America embarking on a war that contradicts the religious and military thinking on the justified use of force that has been dominant for centuries.
Taught in the United States War College as part of military strategy and forming part of the thinking of many major world religions, including Islam, Just War theory has been more than 1500 years in the making. St. Augustine was the first to develop an argument for the possible use of force by Christians. As the Roman Empire was under attack by invading barbarians, he asked if the Christian could justify taking a human life. Augustine gave a very qualified "yes" answer. Force could be justified "in defense of the vulnerable other." Augustine did not even include self-defense in the first list of Just War Principles.
It was another Saint, Thomas Aquinas, who added self-defense to the list of possible justifications of war by persons of religious conscience. His list of limitations and justifications of force are still the guiding tenets of Just War Theory. They are: Just Cause (usually taken to mean defense against an attack), Right Authority (established political authorities, not private citizens), Right Intention (not the love of cruelty or the lust for power), Good Outcome (there must be more good resulting than the evil done by violence), Proportionality (do not use more force than necessary), Reasonable Hope for Success (have a reasonable chance that peace will indeed result), and Last Resort (all non-violent means of diplomacy must have been exhausted).
No part of Just War theory supports a first-strike option. No part of Just War theory supports the "go it alone" strategic thinking of Vice-President Dick Cheney, first outlined in his 1992 white paper, "Defense Planning Guidance." This document proposes "anticipatory action to defend ourselves," that is, striking first against those who have not yet, and might never attack us. This clearly violates the "Just Cause" principle of Just War theory. Cheney also argues that the United States "act independently" in the use of force without global cooperation and even without coalitions of allies, if necessary. This violates the "Last Resort" tenet of Just War doctrine that all diplomatic means be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
Just War theory is a central part of the serious religious reflection, over many centuries, on the possible use of force. It forms part of the thinking on the use of force of almost every major religion in the world. It is widely studied by political and military strategists.
It is not surprising that the current Bush administration does not mention Just War theory. First Strike Strategy is not supported by any religious or moral doctrine of the justified use of force.
Augustine wanted to know if Christians could resist barbarians. If the United States adopts and acts on a First Strike Option, then it is Americans who have become the barbarians. We will have learned nothing from 1,500 years of moral reasoning.
The Rev. Susan B. Thistlethwaite is President and Professor of Theology of UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary. This colujmn appeared in the Oct. 15 Chicago Tribune.
Eighty-eight teens and 16 adults from First Congregational UCC in Guilford, Conn., built a home, among other tasks, during their spring mission trip to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss. First Congregational UCC, Guilford, Conn., photo.
Mission is a funny thing. Some receive a call without reason, others see reason but are still unclear about what they are called to do.
That isn't the case in Mississippi. Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss., hosted the Pilgrim Fellowship youth group from First Congregational UCC in Guilford, Conn., this past spring in a life-changing mission to raise a house from scratch.
During the year, Guilford's youth group does local mission work in its own community. It then picks an impoverished region for a large springtime mission. Merrilyn Garcia, director of the church's youth ministry, is very clear about the calling of her group. Pilgrim Fellowship is committed to doing God's work, she says. And in hooking up with Back Bay Mission, most would agree it's a good match.
Compassionate service and social justice
Since Back Bay Mission began in 1922, its mission has been to serve "the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the wider church community by faithful witness for social justice and compassionate service to the poor and marginalized." A tall order to be sure, but why Back Bay Mission does this work is very clear to those who work there.
"The 'why' of what we do at Back Bay Mission has long been anchored in the prophetic mandate of Micah," says the Rev. Shari Prestemon, Back Bay's executive director. "It tells us that the Lord requires that we 'do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.' The example of Jesus instructs us further that love for neighbor is a mandate of our faith, and that such love must be made real by our daily acts of compassion, mercy and peace-making."
"Back Bay Mission strives to be a sign of love incarnate," she says, "offering a faithful presence among the poor and suffering in our community, and providing a faithful witness to the Church."
The goal, says Prestemon, is to provide a transforming experience that makes a lasting imprint on participants' hearts and minds, by putting a face on the issue of poverty and by offering an example of the church working with joy to seek justice in the world.
88 teens, 16 adults
Garcia and Prestemon met in the fall of 2001, and Garcia inquired about bringing her group to Biloxi. When suitable projects arose, Garcia packed up 88 teens and 16 adults from her Pilgrim Fellowship group and set out for Mississippi. The projects? There were six, including rehabbing a recreation center and building a new home for a couple whose home had been lost.
Megan Yuhas was one of the teens that undertook this feat. She has been on a lot of mission trips throughout high school, but Back Bay is her favorite. "I was part of a group that was building the house," she says, "and it was a truly amazing experience. It was hard work and everyone, including myself, often got tired."
Yuhas' group worked from 9 to 5 with an hour for lunch. The sun beat down on them, and there was nary a breeze in the air. But that hardly mattered, says Megan, as everyone was part of the team and everyone played their part. "It didn't matter what the work was," she says. "If people knew it had to get done, they did it. It was so unbelievably satisfying to see teenagers, girls and boys, giving it their all to build a house for an elderly couple. It really made me proud."
Going to Mississippi really gave her a new appreciation for her life, says Yuhas. "I've seen a lot of poverty, and a lot of homelessness," she says. "However, Biloxi was the one place where I had interaction with some of the people, and really heard their stories. It's interesting how you go on a mission trip hoping to change someone's life and, although you do, they change your life so much more. They give you a new perspective on life, and give you a whole new reason to be happy. Seeing people who have so little makes you really value the life you have. It also makes you want to travel more places and spread more love."
Nicholas Catino concurs with Yuhas. Back Bay Mission had a profound effect on his spiritual growth.
"The Back Bay Mission allowed me and my peers to experience a whole new society and to fully understand different cultures," says Cantino. "The people of Biloxi were the kindest I have ever met in my life. Their help, support and this mission trip were unbelievable in that every person was touched by this amazing community in one way or another. Friendships were made and it really did change our whole outlook on life."
Within five days, the group had framed up a new house, put the majority of siding on it, and completed the roof on the new home. They tackled a number of other major projects throughout Biloxi, benefiting countless low-income families. "The group was focused and enthusiastic," says Prestemon, "filled with a deep understanding of the value of service and mission."