Norman B. Bendroth received a 2012 Pastoral Study Project grant for his project Rethinking Transitional Ministry. His book Transitional Ministry Today: Successful Strategies for Churches and Pastors is a product of that research.
LI: Tell us about yourself and your ministry experience.
NB: I have been in pastoral ministry for over 25 years ordained in the United Church of Christ. I have served two churches as a settled pastor and nine as an interim pastor. I fell into interim ministry 21 years ago when I led a struggling urban church through a closure. After that experience I needed a “warm bath,” so I took an interim opening and had a wonderful experience. I was hooked.
I am currently serving as an interim pastor south of Boston. I am also on the faculty of the Interim Ministry Network (IMN), the progenitor of professional interim ministry. IMN has a 3-day training that introduces clergy to the process tasks they will need to be effective leaders and a 5-day training that focuses on the work of the congregation. I lead those several times a year. I also do some coaching and consulting with the New England Pastoral Institute.
LI: How did the idea for your book Transitional Ministry Today: Successful Strategies for Churches and Pastors come about?
NB: The impetus for Transitional Ministry Today came when some respected colleagues began pushing back on the current model of interim ministry. Anyone can produce horror stories about a disastrous interim ministry experience, but they raised some serious questions even as my colleagues at IMN were doing so.
Interim Ministry as a specialty began over 30 years ago and had adapted and updated the curriculum along the way. But in 30 years the entire religious landscape had changed. Mainline churches were hemorrhaging, the culture was going through sea changes and the nature of mission was entirely different. The recent data from the Pew Research Center demonstrates that convincingly. So the question became, “How do we practice transitional ministry in the midst of this changing religious landscape?”
LI: What did you find in your conversations about transitional ministry?
NB: I began the project networking with people around the country, from different denominations. I spoke with seasoned interim ministers, judicatory officials, and observers of American church life who put me in touch with others. What I found is that all churches are in transition is some way or another. People were experimenting. For instance, one Episcopal Diocese had an interim pastor to do worship and pastoral care and an interim specialist who guided the congregation through self-study and reflection.
Some “tall steeple” churches had used a succession model successfully by bringing in a new Sr. Pastor before the retiring pastor left. Increasing numbers of clergy and judicatories were specializing, whether it was providing hospice care for a church that was closing its doors or post-trauma care for congregations who had suffered clergy betrayal, extreme conflict or a natural disaster.
I then gathered a host of clergy and practitioners who were doing fresh thinking and had expertise and experience in a given area. We had gatherings in three different parts of the country. That’s what the PSP grant enabled me to do, plus give the authors a small stipend. David Sawyer wrote a creative theological piece using wisdom literature and naming the new role of the transitional leader as a “sage.” George and Beverly Thompson wrote about providing adaptive leadership using a labyrinth as an image to guide us as contrasted with a corn maze. Michael Piazza wrote about revitalization, renewal and redevelopment during the interim time and Bianca Duemling, did some groundbreaking work on transition with immigrant and African American congregations. I wrote two chapters: the first on the current state of the American Church and transitional ministry and the last on next steps.
What are some of the major take-aways you’ve learned from this project?
- One size does not fit all. Each congregation has its own unique DNA that must be analyzed and appreciated. Transitional ministers are detectives and archeologists unearthing patterns and norms, core values and behaviors. A wise transitional leader will pick the most urgent and needful of presenting issues to work on with the congregation in the time they are together.
- Educate the Congregation. Congregations need to know the dramatic sea changes that have taken place around them over the last thirty years in American religious life if they are going to understand and adapt to current realities.
- Three Questions. The three most important questions that any congregation must answer, but especially those in transition, are “Who are we?” (Identity); “Who is our neighbor?” (Mission); and, “What is God calling us to do and to be?” (Vision). Making ample time to mine this data will help a congregation to learn who they are and create a roadmap towards tomorrow.
- Spiritual practices. While the social sciences are helpful tools in working with congregations they cannot replace the practices of prayer, scripture study, worship, meditation and service. If these disciplines don’t become part of the culture then the church simply becomes the Rotary Club at prayer.