It’s a no-brainer to say that all churches are in transition. With the landscape of American religion changing every time you blink your eyes it’s no wonder our congregations are reeling as they seek to make sense of and negotiate these new realities.

In preparation for my book Transitional Ministry Today: Successful Strategies for Churches and Pastors, I spoke to dozens of practicing interim ministers, judicatory officials and observers of American church life. Those conversations and my research became a collection of essays reflecting upon new models and practices in face of the sea changes churches are facing. Here are some things I’ve learned.

  • One size does not fit all. Each congregation has its own unique DNA that must be analyzed and appreciated. Transitional ministers are detectives and archeologists unearthing patterns and norms, core values and behaviors. A wise transitional leader will pick the most urgent and needful of presenting issues to work on with the congregation in the time they are together.
  • Educate the Congregation. Congregations need to know the dramatic sea changes that have taken place around them over the last thirty years in American religious life if they are going to understand and adapt to current realities. Any number of books such as those by Anthony Robinson, Diana Butler Bass, or Phyllis Tickle are a good place to start.
  • Three Questions. The three most important questions that any congregation must answer, but especially those in transition, are: “Who are we?” (Identity); “Who is our neighbor?” (Mission); and, “What is God calling us to do and to be?” (Vision). Making ample time to mine this data will help a congregation to learn who they are and create a road map towards tomorrow.
  • Context, context, context. The second question, “Who is our neighbor?” requires special attention if the congregation is going to find a good match between their gifts and assets and the hurts and hopes of their community. Demographic services such as MissionInsite, interviews with key community leaders and garden variety folks in town will help the congregation get out of their bubble and drill down to the particular and peculiar ministry God has for them.
  • Spiritual practices. While the social sciences are helpful tools in working with congregations (family systems theory, appreciative inquiry, and change theory) they cannot replace the practices of prayer, scripture study, worship, meditation and service. If these disciplines don’t become part of the culture then the church simply becomes the Rotary Club at prayer.

There are more items I could mention, but these are the most salient ones. Churches that are able to move beyond maintaining the institution as their primary mission have the best shot of recovering their purpose and passion for ministry.

A sense of urgency may be present, but people must be willing to ask the harder questions such as, “What’s really at stake here?” “Is there any cost I would make to see this church become vital?” As Francois Fenelon put it, “The winds of the Spirit are always blowing, but we must hoist a sail to catch it.”

The Rev. Dr. Norman B. Bendroth is ordained in the United Church of Christ and serves as the coordinator for clergy and church resources for the New England Pastoral Institute. He is a Transitional Ministry Specialist certified with the Interim Ministry Network where he also serves on their faculty.