The Interim Leader’s Tasks within a Congregation: Analyzing the System

My blog series on the work of interim religious leaders continues this week.  If you have been interested in what Follen has experienced – and what the heck I have been doing – during the 22-month interim period that is moving toward its close (at the end of June), I encourage you to keep reading (and catch up with other blogs in this series that you might have missed).  We first focused on the work of the congregation during the interim period, which breaks into five parts: an examination of congregation 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 the coin, so to speak, is the work of the interim leader during the same period.  Last week we focused on the leader’s entry into the church, or Joining the System. But what happens next?  The answer is, study and analysis of what’s going on in the church, and that is this week’s topic.

I love deductive activities and games.  Remember Clue? You had to put the pieces together to figure out that Mister Mustard did the dastardly act with a candlestick in the Library.  Or intuitive exercises that ask you to put information together to come up with the answer to a burning question. Well, some of those same things are going on during interim work.  

Often, the interim time begins with interviews, formal and casual:  coffee dates, meetings, walking around, observing, and always taking notes (physical or mental) about what is being observed.  I remember, many years ago, working with a group of churches in the suburbs of Dallas, TX. I drove up to one church with a member of the UUA regional staff, got out of the car, walked around, and said, “When did children stop coming to this church? And for how many years has there been a decline in visitors?”  He replied, “How did you know that these were issues here?” I explained that the rusting, broken swing set sitting in the brush-filled playground was the first sign that children weren’t part of the church’s current life, and the dust kittens and messy vestibule in the church was the indicator of a lack of visitors or attention to them.  

Those are examples of how interim leaders start to analyze the system…watching, walking around, talking to folks, observing behaviors.  A lot can be learned in this way. What did I see here? A congregation that has grown rapidly (and continues to), one that has demographics that are, in general, growing younger (can I tell you how many congregations envy you for this?), one with a lack of space to offer the kind of programming that might best serve a congregation of this size.  I saw people here who deeply love this church, and who are – despite the growth in numbers and members – wanting to hang on to the traditions that existed when this truly was a much smaller ‘community’ church.

I thought about how – in a time when it remains true that Americans are the most lonely people in the world (think about our too-busy lives, the fences around our homes, and our reliance on digital media rather than face-to-face interaction) lots of people in this church come to knit, to share thoughts through covenant groups, eat dinner together, engage in family activities together.  

And at the same time I realized that some of the possibilities for a larger, vibrant church community might mean being willing to let go of ‘the way it’s always been,’ to embrace the new possibilities that also exist.  Larger faith development programs call for new ways of organizing, training, and administering programs – and they need more volunteers and perhaps, paid leaders. A wish to offer family worship or children’s chapel requires a space that can be organized and maintained for that purpose.  Having more young families in church might mean imagining a ‘cry room’ for parents to sit in with their babies, while viewing the worship service they hunger for on closed-circuit TV somewhere in the building. Safety policies that serve the entire community may mean reviewing what has ‘always’ been done and making changes that support not only the most vulnerable, but all who gather in covenant in this sacred community.

Analysis of the system is a way of illustrating what is, and opening up the possibilities for what might yet be – what we imagine, dream about, yearn for.  There’s a joke in computer programming circles that says, “I’ll start writing code – you go ask them what they want.”  In computer programming and certainly in church life, the cart shouldn’t come before the horse: first comes analysis, then come the responsive imaginings.  As Follen prepares to carry forward the actualization of its ‘Dream Big’ capital campaign and settle new leadership, the learnings that follow analysis can take root and flourish:  just wait, watch, and see!

Faithfully yours,


Deborah Weiner
Interim Director of Religious Education