The Interim Period

August 25, 2013
Rev. Dr. Leonard DeRoche

In May, the District Executive, Bill Zelazny talked to you about change and described his experience of being in crisis from a change in his employment when his boss, the mayor, resigned and he was the temporary replacement. He pointed out that all change involves a certain amount of stress. Interim ministry is a change and many of might not have known any other Unitarian Universalist minister than Vicki or have never been through the transition between ministries. This interim period will generate stress. You also will be getting a new Director of Religious Education so all of your professional ministry team are new.

As an interim minister I serve a slightly different function than Vicki, your last settled minister. Settled ministry, why that's probably an oxymoron since there is nothing really settled about ministry since your settled minister serves at your pleasure. For those of you new to this process, the settled minister is chosen by a search committee of your congregation and presented to the congregation and after two sermons and week getting to know you, are voted on by your membership. There are then a couple of ways a settled minister leaves: retires as Dick Fewkes did, or resign as Vicki did, and a negotiated resignation, where there is some conflict between the minister and some of the congregation.

The third way a settled minister may leave is by a vote of the congregation which usually divides the parish. Now an interim minister is contracted by your board leadership, usually for one year with an option for a second as I am, but may be there for additional years and usually to meet a specific need that the congregational leadership believes they need. In other words an interim minister comes pre-fired.

Ministerial leadership has been described as herding cats, or moving a wheelbarrow of frogs, but I see it more as being in a field with young newborn pigs. If I make too much noise all I am going to hear is a lot of squealing and the piglets taking off in all directions. I'll give you a moment to absorb that image. But I have been hired to make some noise so… being pre-fired comes with some advantages. The first is that I have a job to do and I have a limited time to do it. There is a story and like all of my stories it is true but I won't vouch for its factuality. It goes like this. A newly ordained UU minister had just been installed as an interim minister into a church in western Massachusetts when she decided to move the piano to the opposite side of the pulpit. She looked at the layout and decided that the placement was obvious for acoustic and esthetic considerations. Her first year went horribly and she resigned to take another church after the year doing interim work. As she left the church she noticed the choir director and some choir members moving the piano back to its original position.

Eighteen years later she returned to the church and met the settled minister who had been there for fifteen years. When she went into the sanctuary she noticed the piano was back where she had placed it and asked the settled minister. He said that the piano was only really right in that location and he had noticed it the moment he had come to the church. "Well when did you move it, she asked". He said, "I moved it right away, but only one inch at a time."

Change is something that needs to be managed, because change, even the right one, causes anxiety. No one likes change. Another difference between settled ministry and interim ministry is that interim ministry has five basic duties. First I've got to come into your community to find out about you so you can come to terms with your congregational history. This is especially vital because of the relative short time between Vicki's resignation and her leaving. All history contains secrets and secrets seem to carry their own problems as was pointed out in the meditation.

Part of your history is to look at your secrets, but part of your history tells you; the median member to have signed your book for membership did so in April 2000. This means that half of you here have been members only 13 years. This means that the other half of the members are not short time members, though chances are these who have been here longer than 13 years have been here much, much longer than 13 years. Why is this so? We really don't know. I have heard it said that the UU faith isn't for everyone, but for people who became members they saw something in us that made them want to join, so that may be only partially correct.

But it does say something about who we are. I like to put it this way. We are friendly, but not always welcoming. We don't integrate people into our membership easily and they leave. I also think people come to us because of our principles, but when they see those principles being lived with the imperfection of being human, they are put off. Like watching sausage being made, you don't want to eat any after you observe the process. We see this with the number of people who visit us each year and come a few times but never return.

This visiting is relatively high in Unitarian Universalism. When our General Assembly was in Salt Lake City a few years ago, a Mormon official once remarked that given the number of people who visit us we should be one of the largest denominations in the country. Another reason I think we push people out the door is that we tend to have members who are fundamentalist in our own way. In my congregation in West Virginia I had an evangelical atheist who would figuratively meet people at the door and tell them why there is no God. I found similar feeling in some congregations with Christianity. In these places it seems we are open to all religions except Christianity. If you look at the demographics of the area there are probably lots of disenchanted Christians or folks with no religious tradition at all out there who are looking for a home and if you want to grow you need to find ways to welcome them on their terms, not ours.

OK, let me be blunt. Many of those potential UU' s who are out there are not all rational humanists who have thrown out the baby with the bathwater of their religion of origin but are looking for something more spiritual that might have included something of the religious organization they left. This isn't to say that Rational Humanism isn't a big part of who we are but it isn't the only part of who we are. I believe this was one of the dynamics that occurred during Vicki's ministry. If you want to grow you have to truly accept religious diversity including those looking for something spiritual or being liberal Christian UU's. Well, so much for my soap box this morning.

Another reason you bring in someone who is new to your community for interim ministry is that an outsider comes with clearer vision. Once more a story there's a Muslim story about Nasr-Din taking his donkeys to the market and stopping several times because he thinks he's lost one: while he's riding the total is seven, but when he gets off the donkey he's riding and counts them he gets eight. In this way an interim sees as outsider and observer, but when you are on the donkey the view is different.

The second job of interim ministry is to examine your leadership and organizational needs and occasional make those changes that need to be made. Big changes during interim ministry can be problematic, but necessary. Likewise big building projects shouldn't occur under a settled minister either. It gets back to how much instability occurs with change. This isn't just with church, this is with all phases of our lives. When I was flying in the Air Force they recognized that changes like moves and marriages or divorces, births and deaths and other big events of our lives effect how safely we flew. It is the same with big events in every life and it affects the relationship we have both in families and in organizations.

Anyway, back to your organizational needs, like my monk with the raft, you as a congregation have spent years building some very elaborate structures emotionally, physically and structurally that you are pulling along that might not meet your needs at present or into the future. Part of my job is to help you figure out what these are and help you shed them. Once more creating change and therefore stress. One of these right now is the people who have not been very active in church life the last few years may be coming back. While you welcome their presence in our community, their presence will create a different dynamic which yields stress.

The third task as an interim minister is to help you figure out what resources you have available. This is like what we have to do when working as chaplains in hospitals. Chaplains do not bring anything to patients, but help the patient see what resources they have available within themselves and their families and communities. So far I've seen lots of resources you have available within this congregation. You have some untapped assets in the greater South Shore area and the UUA and District that will probably work to assist you.

The fourth job of interim ministry is to help develop your identity and vision. This is to answer the question "who am I and where am I going?" Let me propose the analogy that this religious organization is a car that has four seats. In each four seats are vision, relationships, programs and management. In this analogy, vision provides spiritual and strategic direction, relationships connect us to each other and ministry, programs functions to connect us to relationships through education, and fellowship and management administers the resources, programs and decision-masking. Well, who's driving? Vision was driving about some of the time as you reworked this wonderful building complex with its solar generation. There is a quote from Proverbs: "Without a vision the people die." Since then, I feel vision has relinquished the steering wheel to programs or management. You found that the conflict around your former minister and DRE occupied much of your time and energy, so management and program started to drive your car. There is a story that may illustrate this. There was a family that gathered for Easter dinner. Tradition had the youngest newly married daughter preparing the family ham. As she was about to put the large ham in the oven to begin baking, her mother-in-law stopped her and said "You have to cut three inches off the ham before you bake it". Puzzled, the daughter asked her mother why? "Because that's the way grandmother taught us to do it." The daughter sought out the grandma and asked why you cut off three inches from the ham. Her grandmother said "that was the way her mother taught her and it was the way this family has always done it." So she went and asked her great-grandmother in the living room where the family was gathered. "Nana why is it necessary to cut three inches off the ham before you cook it?", she asked. "Well, dear, when I was a new bride, just starting out like you, I baked my first ham for Easter dinner. The ham was 18 inches long. The largest roasting pan I had was 15 inches long, so I had to cut three inches off of the ham to make it fit the pan." Vision moved over for management. It's time you looked for your vision again.

My final job as your interim is to leave. This I have always found the hardest. Like Vicki right now, I have to cut all relationship with you. This is so you will make a commitment to new leadership. But one of the reasons we have interim ministry is to give the congregations the time to finish grieving the loss or celebrate the loss of the settled minister, so that they can move on to their next settled ministry. If you were to write a description of the minister you wanted now it might look like Vicki or be exactly opposite of Vicki.

Now settled ministry has been called marriage-like. You try to pick someone who you would like to be perfect, but in reality you hope they will be real like a Swedish grandmother and someone who has the imperfection that is our humanity. Then the congregation makes a long-term commitment to that minister and the minister makes a long-term commitment to the congregation and the community. They buy homes, they move their families here, and they become immersed in the community and community projects. Interims by contrast, usually rent and don't get as involved with local social justice as they would like. For this reason outreach to social justice causes during the interim period has to fall on the congregation.

Now if you see settled ministry as marriage-like, you can see interim ministry as a cruise. Both the congregation and ministry meet on a cruise ship and have a grand affair learning about each other. We will dance too late and probably eat and drink too much and generally have a great time partially because we know the ship must come into port and we will disembark and probably never see each other again. The one real danger in this allusion is that to look to the captain to marry us. In other words, I can't be your settled minister no matter how much we seem to mesh.

In an ever-evolving and never-ending world. Amen.