This year I am working with the Box Hill Baptist Church, in Melbourne, in what is called an ‘intentional missional interim ministry’. It’s a very varied and sometimes demanding role, which has kept me away from blogging for a while, but now I hope to resume with a series of reflections on this work.
The title seems to have a lot more words than necessary. What I am doing is the work of a local church pastor, and I am really enjoying it. This local church has around 70 regular congregants, ranging from primary school children to people of very advanced years. There is also, associated with the church, a congregation of Cambodian people, about the same number. They meet in the afternoons. A dozen or so of these also attend the morning services. There are some people from other cultures as well. This local church has had a rich history of engagement in social justice issues and ventures, and continues to support a very significant work in affordable housing.
Recently, the joint ministry of Drs Anne and Richard Mallaby concluded, after 13 years at Box Hill. It was a long and creative period of leadership. The local church has discerned, however, that before moving to appoint a new pastor or pastors they need to spend some time addressing the deeply challenging questions of why they (and indeed any church) exist into the future: What is the mission and purpose of this local church? How should it engage with the rapidly changing context, in which massive high-rise buildings are being constructed right on the church’s door-step, and the local context is no longer suburban houses and shops. The church is placed in a highly commercial zone, with transport facilities and high rise buildings dominating the scene. What is the mission of the church here? What people resources will be needed for that purpose and what buildings or facilities are or will be needed—in contrast to the old buildings, designed for the ministries of the 1950s or 60s?
These are common challenges for many local churches: but here they are evident in extreme forms. And I think the people of this congregation are deeply aware of the challenges, and bravely seek to face them.
It is exciting to be part of this exploration and it fits well with my own reflections and research into the future of the church beyond religion.
Here, though, I wish to offer some immediate reflections on the role and experience of an interim pastor, as these things emerge and develop for me.
The most important aspect of the role of the Interim Pastor is that I am in between. There was a ministry here before me and there will be ministry here after me.
This is crucial to remember, and to respect. I have observed many leaders in various contexts, from politics to colleges and churches, who seem to operate as if the entire enterprise began the day they took office. There is little reference to those who went before, sometimes no thanks for their work, maybe not even a mention that they have laid foundations for what we are now doing. This is an immense mistake, and it betrays a seriously wrong focus, as if it all depends upon and is indeed created by one’s current efforts or contribution.
It is absolutely crucial to recognize that the church, both local and universal, was here before us and will be after us. We merely engage, for a time, in a long tradition of traditioning, handing-on that which we have received.
Having said that, if I acknowledge that there was a life here before me and will be one after me, I can then focus on the present: my time, our time together, here and now.
The time ‘in between’ is the time I am to address, and this is part of the work of an interim pastor or leader. There are some things of the past that need to be left behind, let go of—and sometimes it requires courage to name these things and the ways they harm or hamper the progress of the community. There are always old hurts, resentments or regrets, that need to be acknowledged, but then left behind.
Equally so, there are things from the past that need to be retained and affirmed for their value and importance. Discerning what these are is a vital work of leadership—which means enabling the community itself to see, own and value these things.
That brings us to the task of discernment. Here, the in-between pastor must learn how this community does this. Every community has its way of making decisions and working through issues. Sometimes these are more helpful and sometimes less so: but it serves no good purpose to come in and impose some other way of dealing with things, even if with time you might hope to improve upon the local processes. First, you have to find out how they make decisions, how they process issues, and initially work with that. So it is vital to engage with the style and character of this local community: to be here, and now, before we can work out the future.
But all of this might be said of the leadership of any organization or community. We have not as yet come to the crucial and distinctive character of interim ministry. We have to recognize the theology of this time in between: and here in fact is something that characterizes the entire being of the Church. Not only a local church, and not only this local church at this interim period, but the very being of the Church can be defined as an interim or ‘in between’ community.
New Testament scholars used to use the expression between the times to describe the ethos and meaning of the faith of the early Christian communities. They saw themselves as a provisional or interim community. They valued their history and heritage, from the Jewish traditions to the more immediate stories of Jesus and the Apostles. But they also had a profound expectation of a new world order, a coming era when the teachings of Jesus about the ‘reign’ or ‘way’ of God would come into historical reality. Their faith believed that this new reality already was, in some sense it had already come. Jesus had announced it. So their faith had the character of ‘already and not yet’.
This faith has been characterised in the work of Hans Küng, in his book The Church, as ‘the eschatological community of salvation’. It’s a community that already belongs to the ‘eschaton’—the last times, the expected new order of things announced and promised by Jesus. We might add, though, that the nature of this faith means that it is also ‘the community of eschatological salvation’. This community is to engage with and express this salvation: it’s present. It’s entered into, even now. It’s not just some day, a distant hope.
This New Testament perspective is the essential theological foundation of all Christian community, all ministry and comes into critical focus in a period of ‘interim ministry’. Here we engage with the expectation and hope that is the essence of Christian identity.
Thus, to engage in ‘interim ministry’ is best described by another immensely important New Testament word, participation. This is a word that sits at the very heart of Paul’s theology of the church, and is especially central to his thought throughout the First Letter to the Corinthians. It makes the whole church eucharistic: we participate in the body and blood of Christ, and we participate in the life of the Spirit, the mission and gifts of the Spirit, the growth of the community into one body of agape love.
Interim ministry is a period of participation in the life of a specific community, which itself participates in the already and not yet life and gift of God’s new creation, the coming of a community of salvation for all creation.
Finally, I have come to affirm how immensely vital (that means ‘life-giving’ as well as important) is a sense of God’s providence. I think it is important not just to have a ‘doctrine’ of providence—an assent to or belief about God as caring for and enabling the creative life of the world. You can have all the doctrines you like, but if they don’t shape how you live and how you behave, they are worth nothing. It’s important to have a sense of God’s providence: this church was before me and will be after me. I can, and must, leave it to God. God will provide: and what God does not provide for can be let go.
This is the nature of our life ‘in between’. Thanks be to God!