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

For the last five weeks I’ve written about the work of interim religious leaders and have covered the work of the congregation during this transitional time.  In case you missed these reflections, we’ve explored the ways in which the congregation examines its 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.)

These tasks are the work of the congregation as supported and nurtured by the interim leader.  But there are other tasks which the leader needs to fulfill – ones that allow the congregation’s work to go forward.  For the next several weeks we’ll explore the journey I’ve been on as your interim religious education director through this time of transition.  The first of these is Joining the System.

Interim religious leaders spend quite a bit of time studying congregational systems theory.  Family systems work was developed by Dr. Murray Bowen and carried forward into congregational life by Rabbi Edwin Friedman, who authored several landmark books on the ways in which life in faith communities is influenced by what has come before, and how people relate individually and in small groups. (If you want to find out more, read Friedman’s books “Generation to Generation” and “Failure to Lead.”)  All faith communities are systems:  there are particular ways in which things are done, people connect to each other, or tradition is carried forward that is part of its system.  And when a new leader joins the congregation, part of the challenge – in order to be of use in supporting a healthy transition – is finding out how the systems operate and why they have come to be.

In previous weeks we’ve reflected on Follen’s mid-twentieth century history as a small community church that focused on building community and how it drew strength from its emphases on nurturing children and youth in musical exploration, love of family-focused programs and activities, and its affirming and loving messages of support for those who joined the community.  The Waldorf School’s standing as next-door neighbor to Follen helped feed the child/youth/family population; the position of the church in East Lexington meant that it was poised to attract members and friends from both Lexington and Arlington.

Challenges in the late-twentieth century (financial and membership instability) and early twenty-first century (ministerial transition, struggles with religious education constancy, rapid membership growth) were evident, but the congregation has not only been sustained, but blossomed in many ways.  Now, with a minister of five-plus years who is clearly admired and respected; a burgeoning wish for stable staffing that supports lay involvement, and a thriving membership base, Follen has completed a highly successful capital campaign and is poised for more growth – in every sense.

As a newcomer to the system, I found out what ‘assertively lay led’ means at Follen.  You have a leadership structure that encourages ‘action teams’ to meet, plan for the future and work to achieve goals.  While it is not always apparent how professional leadership can be most helpful and supportive to the structure, the size of the congregation has grown to a point where it is clearly needed:  so the dance of engagement is ongoing and for the most part, amicable. The aspiration of the church to be a leader in the community as a social justice advocate is not only evident but admirably palpable:  the development and affirmation of the Follen Responds to Racism initiatve has been one of the more obvious examples of the congregation being able to say, with unified voices, “this is who we are.”

As an interim leader, I’ve observed the congregation move from sadness over suddenly parting with a loved religious educator, through questioning what changes needed to be made for the overall health of the system, to looking forward with enthusiasm to the transition toward a settled Director of Faith Formation.  From where I have perched it has not always been a steady road: the timing of my work was abrupt and sudden at start-up, and the community’s dedication to ‘what we’ve always done’ has been hard, in some cases, to let go of. But in ways large and small, evolution has taken root. Deliberate examination of the why’s and wherefore’s has occurred so that there is clarity about why things are the way they are;  if things haven’t worked, there’s been willingness to examine adjustments in the system. And like the spring, renewal and regeneration have taken root.

Joining the system of a congregation can be tricky business.  It’s always fascinating and, here at Follen, it’s been richly seeded with a mix of history, dedicated congregants and an eye toward tomorrow – all of which helps to support this journey into an unknown, but promising, future.  

Faithfully yours,


Deborah Weiner

Interim Director of Religious Education