The Interim Leader’s Tasks within a Congregation: Focusing the Work at Hand and Assuming Responsibility

After a week off for Follen’s youth service learning trip to New Orleans, our exploration of the tasks of interim religious leaders and the congregations they serve, as they go through the interim period, continues this week.  I have focused for five weeks on the work of the congregation during the interim period:  an examination of the congregation’s Heritage (coming to terms with history), Mission (developing a unique identity), Leadership (and changes during the interim period), Linkage (the ways in which we renew and deepen connections to our faith and denomination) and Vitality (how to ensure ongoing health in the church.)

The other side of this work is what the leader is involved in during the same interim period.  Thus far I’ve written about Joining the System, the study and analysis of what’s going on in the church – working to figure out the church’s behavior and unique identity, and the relationship the congregation has with the UUA.  This week, we have an opportunity to reflect on the work we’ve done and the responsibilities involved in such work.

I think about interim work in this way:  the interim leader is sort of like an itinerant pastor, or – in terms of connecting with children and youth – Mary Poppins.  Indeed, like that childhood character, we stay ‘until the wind changes,’ which is another way of saying that we are in a congregation for a prescribed period of time to work on particular transitions that are designed to help a congregation prepare for its next settled leader.  Just like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag – out of which the most remarkable things were pulled – there is a tool kit for interims. It includes not only practical elements (knowledge of how to conduct reflection circles, explaining what the Roller Coaster of Change looks and feels like, and of course all the abilities and skills you would expect of a religious educator) but also skills that equip the interim leader to do the work at hand.  Specialized education in family systems thinking, the Diffusion of Innovation Model – which helps to explain how it is that congregations do or don’t adjust to changes in their church – understanding the Iceberg of Culture (which suggests that what we see on the surface is not the full picture and needs to be connected to what lies underneath) and more are all part of the learning curve.

The interim leader also needs to be able to join the staff team, making connections to colleagues and becoming part of the larger effort to help the congregation successfully conduct its ministry for the one to two year period when interim leaders are generally serving a church.  Interims need to be able to work as staff, and to work with staff.  They need to be able to both observe behaviors in the church and to suggest different approaches which might help the congregation move forward through a challenging time, or adopt new behaviors that will, in the longer term, support the church.

One of the areas of focus for the interim leader is on adaptive change – recognizing that applying ‘quick fixes’ to a long-standing problem or concern might seem to remedy a situation, but to create lasting change, an adaptive approach is needed that may ask members and leaders to ‘get up on the balcony’ to better see what the realities of behavior are in a congregation.  Sometimes, helping a congregation move forward requires the interim leader to intentionally create discomfort – something that is called “productive disequilibrium.” It is a fact that if a system is too comfortable in its own behaviors, it will not change – therefore creating discomfort at a level where people will be able to move forward while taking care not to create chaos – is part of the behavior that can help a congregation through a transition.

During these times the challenge – for all – is to live into the change, recognizing that this is a liminal time and an opportunity for re-examination of existing patterns and behaviors, with the goal of building a stronger congregation in the coming years.  It can be a rich and rewarding experience to engage in such ministry for the congregation and its leaders, even though the path forward may not always be clearly marked.

As we head toward the conclusion of this interim time at Follen, it is my hope that you – the congregation’s members and leaders – will be able to reflect on the learning and the changes that have occurred and use them as your own ‘carpet bag of tools’ to benefit the exciting next years to come.

Faithfully yours,

Deb

Deborah Weiner
Interim Director of Religious Education