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The In-Between Time

Good morning! My name is Larry Smith and I am your interim minister. You may call me "Larry" or "Reverend Larry," I respond to either. Today I want to talk to you about this interim period, the "in-between time." What I am going to tell is by no means a sermon but an address in which I hope to let you know my hopes and dreams for the Unitarian Fellowship of West Chester and how we might attain our goals together. It is also my intention to let you know a little bit about who I am, how I think, and why I am pleased to be with you during this important time. The interim period, the time between settled ministers, in West Chester's case the next two years, is an important time in the life of the church. Some people might think that the interim period is just a holding pattern between settled ministers. That is not so.

The interim years should be busier than ordinary years and there are specific tasks that the congregation and the interim minister should pursue. The tasks are the outgrowth of the experience of many professional interim ministers in many different denominations. They have endured the tests of time and of practice.

The five developmental tasks for the interim year are:

  1. Coming to terms with history.
  2. Recognizing a new identity.
  3. New points of leadership.
  4. Reconnecting with the denomination.
  5. New directions in ministry.

The first task is coming to terms with history. What does that mean? It means that this church has a story. In your case, this is a comparatively recent story. The congregation that I served two years ago celebrated its three hundred fiftieth anniversary while I was its interim minister. Three hundred fifty years, now that's history! However, you will need to deal with is the story of living memory. Most of you probably remember the days of the first minister to serve this congregation. What was that ministry like? What was the congregation like then? What did you do? How did you do it?

"Coming to terms with history" sounds ominous and intimidating but it is not meant to be completely so. The church in its short life has experienced trials and tribulations and moments of joy, bravery and glory as well. You stayed though because this church is more than the ordained ministry. Perhaps you remembered memorial services, fellowship suppers, or weddings. Perhaps you remembered the times when this congregation took a stand which was entirely opposite from the way most people in this area think. Perhaps you remembered the important mission that this church in being an outpost and an advocate for liberal religion in south Chester County.

Ironically, the second developmental task, recognizing a new identity is related to the past. Often when people are participants in community they recall the past, even the recent past, and define themselves accordingly. That means sometimes you think of yourself in one way and realize that you have changed and that your world-view also needs to change. This happens to all of us individually as well as corporately. It happened to me a few years ago. I saw a picture of myself and noticed that my hairline had shifted further back and that I had put on a few extra pounds. After looking at the photo I turned to a friend and asked, "When did I become middle-aged, and why didn't you tell me that it happened?" I wanted to know the exact moment that I changed from a thin young man to the person I saw in the picture.

That is what recognizing a new identity is all about. How has this congregation changed? What is different about the present and past church? Is your identity then what it is now. Taking a good, honest look at yourself can help you understand how others see you and also enable you to envision change.

In order to facilitate the process of coming to terms with history and recognizing a new identity we will be having a meeting in the early winter to discuss the history of the church, especially the recent history.

The third developmental task is new points of leadership. Simply put, during this transitional period some people will step forward to take on leadership roles in the congregation. Others will feel freed to step down from leadership positions. Maybe you felt that you needed to stay as chair of a committee during the previous ministry and feel that the time is ripe to let another member of the committee take on new responsibilities. Maybe you were waiting for circumstances to change before stepping up. This year is a good time for these types of changes to occur. Indeed, many of them have already happened. top

The fourth developmental task is reconnecting with the denomination. In many ways, this is one of the challenges for this congregation. Comparatively few members of this congregation are involved in our larger movement. For my part, my piece to share with you is the Unitarian Universalist ministerial norms.

Another way to reconnect to the Unitarian Universalist movement is through learning about the liberal religious heritage. It is the story of our religious movement's birth and evolution. Our history tells us who we have been as a movement and the reason we are who we are.

The fifth developmental task in interim ministry is new directions in ministry. After you have taken a look at who you were and who you actually are you might decide that you need to pursue a different kind of ministry. I hope that by the end of the year you will have a clearer vision of what you want your church to become and be able to tell the ministers interested in this congregation about yourself and your dreams. I hope that you will be able to tell your future minister about the "glowing ember" at the center of the Unitarian Fellowship, the mission that keeps you together, your strength as a religious community.

Realizing all these developmental tasks can only be achieved by talking with each other, openly and without reservation. The loss of a minister, regardless of the circumstances, always leaves mixed emotions. Some of you might be angry or hurt. Some of you do not feel much at all. That is normal. In the coming year we will deal with these feelings and through being together and talking and working, move through them. I hope that this will be the year that everything changed and that this congregation marks our time together as a "tipping point," a time when this became a new congregation.

So, why did I wish to come to this congregation to become your interim minister in the face of transitions and a lot hard work? A close friend in the Unitarian Universalist ministry is a professional interim minister. In years past she told me about the professional challenges of interim ministry. I became curious about that and served an interim ministry at the First Church in Lancaster, Massachusetts. Later, I served an extremely successful interim ministry in Macon, Georgia. During our interim ministry together the congregation grew more than twenty-five percent, the Macon church's budget grew by more than thirty percent. I liked dealing with challenges and new situations and new people and that I had to hit the ground running and try to learn as much as possible as soon as possible in order to help a congregation.

Additionally, interim ministry has clear sets of goals and objectives. In the day-to-day operations of the ministry goals are set by the settled minister with the congregation and then he or she tries to attain them. It is very difficult in ministry to attain one's goals. A lawyer wins or loses cases. A doctor heals patients. . . or buries them.

Interim ministers attempt to prepare congregations for what is to come. That is often an incredibly difficult task. Which, I suppose, is why I like the limitations of the five developmental tasks of interim ministry. They give me challenge and direction.

As you most of you know, I grew in the South. I was born in Savannah, Georgia and graduated from the University of Georgia. As a child I spent most of my church-life in a Southern Baptist church that claimed that God loved everyone but that only those who were baptized in that faith would go to heaven. As a child I wondered how, if God were loving, he could also send those he loved into eternal damnation.

This paradox caused me to dislike religion when I was a young adult. I considered myself an atheist then because the only god that I knew was one of judgment and retribution that I had grown up with in the South. Walking the mountain trails around Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I lived in my mid-twenties, I began to feel less than alone and really experienced a form of conversational prayer. At the time this experience unsettled me. I needed to find a faith community where I could explore my "God-feelings" without being told that they had to mean this or that. I wanted a faith community that tolerated many different religious ideas and felt strongly about justice and compassion for all and not the select few. A friend told me that I sounded like a Unitarian Universalist. I soon thereafter joined the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga and was off to Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago two years later.

That sounds like a quick decision but I remember lying awake as a youth thinking that if I ever found a faith that I could believe in with all my heart and soul, and that did not insult my intelligence, that I would become a minister, priest, imam, rabbi or whatever in it. I guess that I've always known that I would be a minister. Somewhere my mother has a picture of me at eight years of age presiding over the burial of a friend's pet kitten.

After graduating from Meadville/Lombard, a Unitarian Universalist seminary affiliated with the University of Chicago, and after an internship in a church in the Northwest Chicago suburbs, I went to serve churches in Petersham and Lancaster, Massachusetts, Wilton, New Hampshire and Macon, Georgia. I guess that I am most proud of my work in Macon and Lancaster. I was able to pastor both churches through difficult times in their interim periods. top

As we prepare for our interim ministry together I need to share with you some observations about the West Chester Fellowship. The past two congregations I served as an interim minister were easy to enter. Their issues were obvious. Their issues were so enormous that upon entering the church I could tell immediately what it was that needed to be examined in the life of the church. An elephant sat in their sanctuary! Like any elephant, he required a lot of attention, absorbed the congregation's energy and displaced everything. It was easy to recognize the elephant. Everyone might have disagreed about the nature of the elephant but no one in those other churches denied that he existed.

The West Chester Fellowship has mice. They are lots of little things that eat at your energy; things that are difficult to get a hold on. If the elephant was in the middle of the sanctuary in those other churches, I want you to imagine that there are a dozen mice in this sanctuary today. They would not be all in one place. No single person could possibly see all of them at the same time. Whereas elephants make noise, big messes everywhere they go, mice are small, quiet and do not leave much evidence of their presence. In fact, it is quite possible to have mice and not know that they are even there.

One of the mice I mentioned last week in my reflection with you. In my off the cuff remarks I stated that this congregation is not organized. That is not true and I apologize for any misunderstanding. This congregation is well-organized--for a church with eighty members. The problem is that your membership will soon be approaching one hundred and twenty members. Almost every program in the church will need to be examined in terms of growth and the congregation's current and future needs.

As we work together this year taking care of mice, I will be challenging you as a congregation to make the changes or to be open to them that will be needed for the future you have told me you wish to live. Sometimes you will think, "Kate said this or did it this way." I am not your previous minister. I respect her and value the ministry she had with you but I cannot replicate her ministerial style, the way that she preached, led, and pastored to you. I am different and so will your next minister be.

As your interim minister, indeed like all ministers, I am not your employee. Our relationship is most akin to that of contract consultant to community-based organization. My journey with you is to help you make the changes that you have indicated you want to make.

Sometimes my work with you will seem difficult to take. Change is like that. Remember puberty? That was a big change. Such changes are often stressful. As we are going through these changes I invite you to talk to me directly about them. As we said in the interim covenant, "I will dare to disagree agreeably with you." That means that though I will not stop the changes from coming, I will talk to you, help you adjust to them. I will not ask you to run with scissors nor dare you to run wildly with your eyes closed. I learned my lesson on that one long ago.

Sometimes you will find me asking a lot of pesky questions in our work together. One of the things that my interim ministry training stressed is that it is my duty to operate as a detective, trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, figuring out exactly what the exact truth about the Unitarian Fellowship of West Chester really is, and why.

Sometimes I will ask questions in order for you to think about your answers and at other times I will ask questions to familiarize you with the process of a minister asking questions. Presumably, someone will be here asking pesky questions two years from now asking how this church functions and it would be good to get into the habit of answering. You might find that I ask too many questions but that is to be expected. Most Unitarian Universalists do not realize that their church does some things differently from most of the rest. Every minister struggles at first to understand the lay of this new terrain.

As regards detective behavior, my interim training was very specific about which detective I was to emulate. For the next year you are to imagine that your interim minister is a little bit like Lieutenant Columbo from television. Occasionally I will begin a sentence with a statement like "You'll have to pardon me I'm just a minister, could you explain. . ." I might begin a sentence by saying something like "My colleague Rachel in New Jersey says. . . ." Sometimes I will leave asking, "Oh, and one more thing. . . " Every church is something like a mystery with a known, spoken history and a secret, private history. An interim minister tries to piece the puzzle together with all the abilities he or she has.

Today I have told you about the five developmental tasks of interim ministry: coming to terms with history, embracing a new identity, changing points of leadership, reconnecting with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and discovering new directions in ministry. I have shared with you some of the work that we might do to attain these goals in specific ways. I have told you about my motivations as your interim minister and precious little about myself.

This congregation has many great days ahead. Some of you have mentioned feeling that you were collectively stuck. I wish that I could ascend the mountain and discover what the universe intends for you. What I promise you is that I will be the most dutiful minister, to you to the best of my ability. During the transitions of this interim period I will care for you to the best of my ability. That does not mean that you get off easy. In our work together you will tell me of your "growing edges," as Howard Thurman said it. The work is ours together.

I am optimistic about our years ahead, certain that with much listening and patience and much hard work this congregation will find its way with your settled minister. In that regard: "May we be a blessing to each other; and together, be a blessing to the world!" Amen.

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