Becoming the Curriculum

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jan Nolting Carter and Paul Rhebergen

Picture two people coming together in a conversation. We have met before, even related as teacher and student in the past, but only enough to appreciate each other in that setting — only now we have been brought together by a third person to work together in teaching a class. From that evolves a growing conversation, no, an improvisation if you will, that has led to new ways for us to understand and teach what it is we do.

It occurs to us that an emerging relationship between individuals mirrors developing a relationship with a congregation in transition. For us, reflecting on how relationships evolve is informing the development of new curriculum for transitional ministry.

We are two intentional transitional pastors who have served in a variety of congregations, in a variety of communities. Paul offers twelve transitional ministry experiences and years of Transitional Ministry Education Consortium (TMEC) teaching experience. He brings stories and history to the conversation. Jan brings a Masters in Education, high school teaching experience and six transitional ministry experiences. Together, we embody different generations of theological education, different Myers-Briggs types and multiple intelligences. The diversity that we bring to our conversation inherently helps us to think differently about teaching transitional ministry. We are transitional pastors because we have recognized our calling to consciously work with the elements of change that are impacting the congregations we serve. We have come to understand that we are called to particular congregations, at a particular time, to serve with them as they move into the future that Christ holds for them. This may mean working as an interim pastor, assisting a congregation in discerning the talents, skills and abilities needed in the next pastor that will serve it. More and more it means working with congregations that are realizing that what was, is past and gone, and that is scary. It means engaging a congregation in the multi faceted conversation that listens to those who are tied to that past, while listening with those who call the church into the future.

Out of a shared first experience of teaching The Art of Transitional Ministry Week 1 at Pittsburgh Seminary was the initial comfort of falling back on what we knew and what we had already experienced in our own history. We tried to figure out the roles we were supposed to fill, and worked to make sure we covered the basics of the traditional curriculum for interim ministry. As we talked with one another and the participants, however, we began to question whether the traditional approach is enough.

Dialogue led to exploration of new understandings, new images, and new metaphors for the ministry we share. We believe that interim ministry is not a holding pattern. We hold a conviction that transitional pastors are called to assist congregations in recognizing the intersection of the past and necessity of change to move into the future, working to remove blocks that hinder moving into future that is not our own, but the future that God prepares for us.

Our current focus is developing Week 2 of The Art of Transitional Ministry. The core of Week 2 is writing an LLC, a case study of an issue relating to one’s transitional ministry. Much of the conversation has been and will continue to be around using systems theory to analyze a congregation and help it to move from where it is to where God is calling it to be. We have wondered together, however about integrating elements into the curriculum that help participants to think with different lenses.

jan zootopia transitionWe have discovered, along with our friend and site coordinator, Helen Blier, that we hope to create an evolving curriculum for transitional ministry that serves as a bridge from the “way church has always been” to “the way church is being called to be.” We have tried to think about new and whimsical ways to consider the more traditional curriculum elements of transitional process tasks and developmental focus points. To help participants develop and hone their ability to think outside the box, we have identified nontraditional materials as our preparation. Students will watch Pixar’s Zootopia to think about entering a system and working through the tasks of identity, history, mission and creating a new identity. Our group will also read Wonder, a fictional tale about a boy entering a new school, to engage in conversation about one’s own identity in a system and how relationships can develop over time. Our conversations will be undergirded by reading Acts, the scriptural account of ministry in constant transition. Students will also be invited to think about developing their own metaphor for transitional ministry that we believe has the possibility to strengthen their understandings of the elements we teach, as well as support them in the movement of the work we do. We hope our design will invite creative conversations about context, holy listening, and working intentionally to invite congregations to think about and move through intentional change.

Like working with a congregation, our conversation reflects both an on-going dialogue and an evolution of thinking. It has led to thinking about transition in new ways and has opened our imaginations to new approaches to teaching and training for the ministry of change that we are share.

jancarter paul transitionalPaul Rhebergen serves Ewing Presbyterian Church in Ewing, NJ as its transitional pastor. Jan Nolting Carter serves St. James Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsburg, PA at its interim pastor. Together, they form the teaching team at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for the Art of Transitional Ministry, Week 2, and are trying to imagine a curriculum that reflects the on-going changes we all are experiencing in church and society.

Active Questioning About Transition

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Paul Rhebergen

All ministry is transitional. We are living in the midst of a sea of change in every element of life: our own and the life of the people, systems, and cultures in which we serve as ministers. Transitional ministry is consciously using our gifts and abilities to work with others to live into this change as Jesus Christ would have us live. We are called to use our particular gifts, for a particular time, in a particular place, for the greater purpose of empowering the good news of God’s grace. Martin Luther King, Jr, one of the best transitional pastors, observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I would humbly add that the arc of the gospel is long, and it bends towards love.

I believe these arcs are one, and this arc informs the direction of the church as it moves forward with the flow of change. Transitional ministry seeks to consciously work with the change bringing us more fully into God’s arc of justice and of love. Standing against the flow is to be washed away, and invites failure to understand that the flood of change is part of God’s creative action. Attempting to channel the flow for our own purposes fails to accept our need to be continually transformed by the Spirit at work in the world in which we live. Simply riding the flow of change without thought to the arc of the gospel leaves us adrift in a flood of anxiety.

paul transitional seaTo participate in the flow of God’s grace in the midst of change, here are some questions to consider as we seek to move with the church into the future Christ holds for us:

Would it be helpful for us to strip away the language of Installed Pastors and Temporary Pastors? Congregations often experience anxiety when it thinks it is without “real” pastoral ministry. In contrast, pastors often feel the lack of personal financial and professional security that comes with ending one temporary position and searching for another.  For many of us, both ordained clergy and the congregations, the false perception of a “permanent position” becomes idolatrous as we enter into the seductive search for the “one” position or pastor that is God’s choice for us.  What has happened to the understanding that God will work for good in all things for those who believe?

Would any “good” pastor work well in all pastoral positions?  While there are a few teaching elders, and perhaps many more ruling elders, who can function well in any situation, for most of us there needs to be a good matching of the skills, talents, abilities, and energy of the pastor with the needs of a congregation.  Our matching process has often become a beauty pageant that doesn’t respect the real stories of both congregations and teaching elders. The placement for interims and transitional pastors has become about finding an available body to fill the position.  What if we took seriously understandings of “congregational lifecycles” and placed clergy with leadership traits most appropriate for the lifecycle stage of a particular congregation? What if we considered personality profiles and stopped calling introverted teaching elders to extroverted congregations? We could do “what ifs” with every tool we use to look at the identity and make up of a congregation.  What if we taught our search committees the value of these tools?

What if we considered the reality of a particular congregation? We tend to measure the life of a congregation and the ability of a pastor against a scale of success measured by numbers of members and dollars. The church of Jerusalem did not tally numbers when the Apostles appealed for an offering to assist the followers of the Way. We need pastors who are able to challenge congregations to run with them into the future, just as we need pastors who will walk with congregations through the changes that have enveloped them. Some churches need pastors who can sit with congregations suffering deep wounds from conflict and abuse, and some need the mercy of a chaplain who will be with them through their time of decline and even death.  Shouldn’t we take seriously the varied needs of congregations and find ways to provide pastoral presence appropriate to where they are?

What if we keep on asking the questions that will help congregations and their leaders to better understand how navigate the river of change that is carrying us into God’s future?

paul transitionalPaul Rhebergen is a long time pastor working in transitional settings, who enjoys asking questions, and living with the tension between what has been and what will be.  He also loves walking in the woods, reading suspense novels, and finding time with his wife and three adult daughters.