written by Lee Ann Pomrenke
I recognize this space the Church is in right now. I am an interim pastor, one who leads a congregation through the liminal time between when their called pastoral leader leaves and a new one arrives. The marks of being in a liminal (literally: “on the boundary between”) period of time are unsettling for a congregation, but also freeing: ambiguity, fluidity, disorientation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire Church is in a liminal time. We know we will emerge different from how we entered this era, but we cannot see what that will look like yet. And we do not like it. Trust me that while it is stressful, there are also blessings to this time. Here are at least 3 values to embrace to take full advantage of the “blessings” of being in an interim:
We are all unsettled, disoriented, and fearful of the unknown right now. Naming this honestly builds trust in our leadership, in our relationships. But this is also an unprecedented time to be honest that change is coming. The church has to adapt to technology and people’s shifting values of how we spend our time. While social distancing, decision-making cannot be handled as it always has. It’s an opportunity to open up tightly-controlled or centralized leadership. A “normal” interim time in a congregation is an opportunity for lay leaders to enact the “priesthood of all believers” instead of depending on the ordained leader to do too much. This can be true of checking in on each other during this pandemic, delivering medications, praying together over the phone. We are all the Church, and these ministries belong to all of us.
Clergy and lay leaders who minister each have our own methods of masking and controlling our emotions in order to tend the relationships in our care. Parents and other care-givers do this emotional labor too. But under this peculiar stress, much like during a pastoral vacancy, our defenses might be worn down, and the honesty slips out. This may be a blessing because we need to be honest to protect ourselves from burnout, and to hold clear boundaries for our own mental and physical health. An interim pastor sets different boundaries from the previous leader by virtue of being a different person, and not depending on the strength of their relationships for long-term leadership. So people notice: our relationship with the pastor is different from friendship. Huh. This pandemic will certainly uncover leaders’ own needs for a support network beyond the congregation, if that is not already apparent.
Sometimes honesty takes the form of curious questions from an outsider’s perspective: Why has the church done it that way? During this liminal time throughout our churches we can honestly ask: Is this working for people? What might work better? We’ll continue the questions when we are back to meeting in person: Would people value an online worship option? How do we include those worshiping with online resources in our understanding of the worshiping community? Interim pastors come with the freedom of arriving “pre-fired,” present for only a short period of time. When the future is uncertain, aren’t we all living into that freedom?
- Shared Creativity
An interim period is ideal for trying new things, old things with a twist, adding, or subtracting from our regular patterns to suss out what really matters. Instead of rushing to duplicate all of our activities online, perhaps this is a time to “experiment” with letting go of some things, and putting our energy elsewhere. Later we will have evidence from our experiments to consciously decide what needs to be re-activated. One activity for an interim period might be to have leaders visit other congregations, not in a competitive sense, but in an attitude of learning. What creativity might we gain from others? With abundant online worship opportunities right now, why not share resources and encourage our people to try out different worship experiences? Report back on how those experiences shifted your perspective. We are all part of the Body of Christ, after all.
Obviously, we have “never done things this way before,” but now we are extraordinarily free to experiment and pivot when something does not work. In normal times, being bound by long-term planning (for example, preserving the church building) can stifle a congregation’s ability to put energy or effort into new ventures. A fear of failure can keep us in a rut. Yet the legacy Christians leave in our wake ought to be actions and relationships, not bricks and mortar. Leaders are all learning new skills related to technology right now, so we might as well intentionally discuss all of our attitudes towards experimentation and failure with congregation members. What have you heard of elsewhere that you would like to try? The ability to keep our sense of humor intact and to occasionally retreat to the metaphorical balcony to see the “bigger picture” are key.
Susan Beaumont has written an extremely insightful book for interim pastoral leaders called How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season. The interim pastors cohort in my synod is reading through it together. Although the examples are of course from non-pandemic times in the life of the Church, Beaumont acknowledges that the whole Church is going through a liminal time, needing to re-assess its functioning as our society becomes more and more secular. The pandemic will surely magnify this. Yet it may also give us an expanded toolbox to lead necessary change, once things are “back to normal.”
Image: whispering Gallery Modes Sphere; public domain; NASA
Rev. Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, writer and mother in St. Paul, Minnesota.