Midway through seminary, students are required to complete two units of field education as part of training for ministry. At Central Baptist Theological Seminary (the alma mater of Kerry and myself), some students split their field work between a unit of hospital chaplaincy and service to a congregation. Others, already called into ministry, completed their ministry work with their employing congregation. I found myself at this time in seminary thinking, “I want to do something really different!”
I grew up in a congregation that had a long-time pastorate (1971-2001), and I felt like I was well acquainted with congregations enjoying a long and fruitful season of ministry thanks to my years as a congregant. So I set out to find a church that was experiencing transition.
Little did I know that years later, I would be writing this column sitting in Vermont, called to serve a congregation as part of a three-year intentional interim ministry period.
What did I learn seven years ago that still serves me well in the practice of ministry here at FBC Bennington?
(1) I learned that a congregation in transition is fragile yet gracefully resilient.
The church that I served as an intern had gone through a difficult church split. A theologically progressive Baptist congregation in the Kansas City area, the church nonetheless encountered some impasses that resulted in a decision of some folks (about 180) to leave and reform a congregation elsewhere after things became untenable. The church found its own voice and footing over the next few years, thanks to a wise intentional interim minister and a group of very dedicated lay leaders. Some folks thought that the “new” congregation would struggle to make it, but little by little, healing, grace, and more than a little hard work created a viable core group who birthed a new church.
(2) Transition means that loose ends can be tied up, and you can untie knots more easily.
The intentional interim minister was able to engage the congregation around some key questions of identity, purpose, and vision, while helping put the unfortunate and painful recent history into appropriate context. The church took the opportunity to relearn and redefine its basic understanding while also allowing new voices, ideas, and thoughts to add to the mix. (Also, more than a few skeletons were cleaned out of the closet, and a herd of elephants tromping around the middle of the room were able to be discussed freely and frankly.)
(3) The more we talk of change, the more change happens.
When I look over the church newsletters and various mementoes from that internship period, I see more clearly that the leadership of the congregation was able to keep “change” at the forefront of the discussion. While other questions needed to be tackled (where do we meet after the current rental agreement runs out? How do we throw a good potluck? What Sunday school curriculum do we utilize?), the congregation kept asking itself questions that kept “the big picture” in front of them rather than just off to the side of the radar screen.
(4) “Congregationally led” is a beautiful and very good phrase for a bunch of Baptists to toss around in their conversation and planning for a new chapter in ministry.
The church split happened largely over a long history of allowing only one (or a few) voice set the agenda. In this case, the congregation allowed a minister to wield more power than prudent. The result for those who split and went to this other group was a common mantra: “We want to be congregationally led”. This was shorthand for acknowledging a very dear and essential bit of Baptist congregational identity and authority. The strongest Baptist congregation is one that is led by lay leadership. A pastor serves as the equipper of the saints and skilled shepherd of the flock, but the “tone” and “voice” of the congregation is set by the congregation working together, especially through key lay leaders trusted and called forth to discern wisely where the congregation’s ministry and mission can be best utilized.
I offer these thoughts as we prepare for the 2008 annual meeting. While the context and situation of our church differs from the one I served as an intern, I think what I learned along the way might be of use to us as well. Let me know your thoughts and responses to these reflections!
The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot