View Past Interviews
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.
LI: Tim, tell us a little about your story.
TO: Like so many young, gay people from small towns, I moved to San Francisco to figure out my sexuality. I also wanted to join a commune called Sojourners (some San Franciscans said it only qualified as a “church community”). I introduced myself to the group by saying, “I’m gay and I’m a committed Christian. I don’t know how those go together, but I’d like to try to figure that out with you all.” Afterward, one of the pastors, Jack Bernard, told me “I don’t know what all I think about homosexuality, but I wonder if it isn’t a gift to you, and I know you are a gift to us.” Before that I had been trying to exorcise my gay sexuality from my body. But Jack’s counsel revolutionized my life. I began to think of my orientation as a gift from God to be stewarded.
That was November of 1989. It was the height of the AIDS crisis in the U.S., and I started volunteering at San Francisco General Hospital on the AIDS ward. Compelled by that work, I enrolled in nursing school and worked as an RN with AIDS patients for fourteen years. Years later, I also started working part-time as a pastor at Sojourners, and went to seminary.
Members of Sojourners have always had a range of views on LGBT sexuality. While that can be frustrating, I appreciate that our unity in Christ transcends our positions on the liberal-conservative spectrum. Our diversity presses us to think hard about our opinions and grapple with other perspectives. Our unity is a witness that peace that can prevail across all kinds of difference.
LI: What led you to apply for a Pastoral Study Project grant?
TO: Although Sojourners had a long discussion of same-sex relationships twenty-four years ago, there is interest in revisiting that conversation. I wanted to see how other churches negotiated the topic. Is there a way to move to a new place without needlessly alienating some members? How have churches hosted the dialogue and pursued truth while honoring differences? How has the conflict been an opportunity for the church rather than just another occasion for division?
As I began my research, I anticipated learning various conflict resolution models and change strategies. What I didn’t expect was the emotional and spiritual encouragement of meeting pastors who are shepherding their congregations with exceptional wisdom and compassion. One example (I could list several) are Tim and Mary Dickau of Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in Vancouver B.C. They, along with the rest of the pastoral staff and lay members, have led their congregation with extraordinary grace. The congregation is composed of white progressives and recent immigrants from Asia and Africa. Given that, congregants hold a broad spectrum of views on LGBT sexuality—many quite passionately. As the conversation has proceeded, a few members have left. But the vast majority remains engaged, reporting that the conversation has deepened their commitment to dialogue and has helped them think well about faith and sexuality.
As I looked at different congregations from mainline to Anabaptist, I realized that there is no one strategy for hosting a conversation about LGBT sexuality. In the end, I tried to relate the process strategies of different congregations so that other churches can learn from them, and take from them whatever is most helpful for their own context. That information can be found at www.orientedtofaith.com.
LI: Tell us more about your book.
TO: Informed by the research for the Pastoral Grant, I finished a book called Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict in the Church over Gay Relationships. Twenty-five years after my pastor encouraged me receive my sexual orientation as a gift, I reflect on how I’ve been able to do that. I also write about how the church at large can receive this conflict—not just in a way that minimizes the damage—but as an opportunity to live into the kingdom in new ways.