There are many kinds of journeys.
People journey when they leave their homes or homelands of necessity, pushed by violence or scarcity or pulled by opportunity.
People journey when they feel called to explore or discover the world around them, or to go on a pilgrimage.
Some of those journeys are physical and demanding, arduous and even dangerous. Some journeys are metaphorical – still demanding – but less so physically and more so emotionally or spiritually.
Like physical journeys, sometimes those metaphorical journeys are forced upon us and sometimes we choose them. Sometimes they are driven by loss and filled by pain, and other times we are drawn by excitement and joyful anticipation and a thirst for knowledge or self-discovery or growth.
Roger S. Nicholson, in this book Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry, writes that interim ministry…
“has been likened to the biblical time of wandering in the wilderness after the flight of the Hebrew people from Egypt. A sense of lostness, confusion and uncertainty may be present in the congregation. There may be pronounced anxiety about the future that prevents people from focusing on the present. As with those ancient Hebrews in the Sinai desert, there may be murmuring and complaining when routines get upset and when accustomed services and programs are disrupted or changed.”
I don’t know what your expectations are of this interim time, but I promise you, it’s not likely to be nearly that bad. It certainly won’t take 40 years. It might include some uncertainty and anxiety, maybe even some complaining. But it can also be a very exciting time in the life of a congregation, a time of exploration and dreaming, a time of trying new things, a time of adventure and possibility.
It’s all in how you approach it.
How adventurous are you feeling?
I am reminded at this point in every interim ministry of one of my favorite adventure stories…The Hobbit.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort…
[The] hobbit [who lived there] was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighborhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbors’ respect, but he gained – well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.
I am an armchair adventurer. I love to read books about the adventures of others – people, hobbits, and dwarves. I love to read about polar adventurers – about those who tried to find a way through the Northwest Passage without being crushed by arctic ice – and those who crossed the inhospitable landscape of Antarctica to plant a flag on the South Pole
I even have a few favorite saints, although I didn’t grow up Catholic. One of them is St. Brendan of Ireland, known as “The Navigator” or “The Voyager” or sometimes “the Bold.” He is most famous for having taken a journey that is said to have lasted 7 years, across the sea, beyond the horizon of the known, in search of an earthly paradise, a sort of “Garden of Eden,” a “Promised Land.”
Whether the stories about him are true – and some have said they are likely a mix of fact and fiction – I’ve long admired Brendan’s boldness – his willingness to respond to the call to adventure, to leave behind all that was comfortable and familiar and set off into the unknown, uncertain as to what he would find or whether or not he’d one day return.
That is so not me. Truth be told, I am more of a Baggins.
In the opening scene of The Hobbit, Tolkien writes about the wizard Gandalf appearing at Bilbo’s door and saying, “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” And Bilbo Baggins responds by saying, “I should think so – in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.”
I confess that I, like Bilbo, appreciate comfort, routine, ordinariness, and good food.
And yet, inside even Bilbo there lurked an adventurer. Who among us doesn’t, at some level, at least on occasion, long for adventure? Bilbo liked to remember the stories of his ancestors, the Tooks, who were more adventurous and less conventional and respectable than most Hobbits. And even Bilbo longed, deep within, for an adventure of his own.
There is within each of us, although it’s sometimes deeply hidden, a part of us that knows, as St. Brendan’s biographer, David Adam has written, that:
“Life is meant to be an adventure. When we cease to reach out and stretch ourselves something in us dies or we feel frustrated; for life to be lived to the full it has to be adventurous.”
…Which may explain the near universal appeal of what Joseph Campbell used to call the Hero’s Journey, the so-called mono-myth, which he described this way, saying:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from his mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
This is the classic adventure story arc.
This is The Iliad and The Odyssey.
This is The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.
This is The Wizard of Oz and The Lion King.
This is also every great memoir that has ever been written and every great story told about a congregation that faced a challenge of some sort and was, through trial, transformed and renewed.
Joseph Campbell wrote about the common stages of the Hero’s Journey.
The first is the “Call to Adventure.” The call is heard in the midst of the mundane, the normal, the routine. It is a call to leave behind the familiar and comfortable and set off into the unknown. It is a call to risk.
Often, what happens next is the refusal of that call. The hero says, no way, not me, whether out of fear or insecurity or a sense of inadequacy or a sense of duty to others, or a simple preference for the known.
If he accepts the call, the hero finds himself in a new world, completely different from his own. It is often filled with magical creatures or supernatural powers. And usually, too, there is a wizard or guide who appears in order to offer supernatural aid. This figure offers the hero the means to complete the quest, but can never complete the quest on behalf of the hero. The hero must do the work.
Along the way, there are many tests and obstacles. The hero succeeds and through his success becomes stronger. Each helps to prepare him for the final stage of the quest. And the reward for completing the quest is that the hero grows in spirit and in strength. The hero’s success is life-changing and impacts others – not the hero alone – in positive ways. The hero’s journey, like any sacred pilgrimage, is marked by both risk and renewal.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand Interim Ministry as a kind of Hero’s Journey in which the Hero is the congregation.
Your ordinary world – your routine – has been disrupted by the retirement of a long-term minister. And that disruption was your call to adventure. The more adventurous among you may have accepted the call with zeal from the get-go. Others of you may have accepted, only reluctantly and perhaps only more recently. And still others among you may still be struggling to accept. Some of you might think this is kind of fun now, but may find yourselves struggling later.
In any case, this Interim World is somewhat different from the ordinary world you’ve left.
There will be different ways of doing things, and different priorities set, and different conversations to be had.
The good news is that there is a map. And that map is the interim process, with its five tasks:
• Exploring and coming to terms with history
• Exploring and discovering congregational identity
• Navigating changes in leadership
• Renewing connections to the larger association
• Preparing to commit to new directions
This is a path I’ve traveled before…
I am, in a sense, despite my Baggins-like tendencies, your Gandalf. My role is to help you follow the map, to ask lots of questions, to remind you to try to stay curious and open. I can offer you the means by which to complete your quest, but I cannot complete it for you.
And because I am a Baggins who doesn’t relish change all that much, my supernatural gift to you, along with some modest wisdom accumulated over the years, is a great deal of empathy for you as you go through this process and experience change.
There may be some tests and obstacles along the way, and they will make you stronger. Dragon-headed fears may rise up and you will either slay or befriend them. And all of this will help prepare you to find your holy grail: a successful partnership with a newly settled minister with whom you can together grow and serve the world.
I do this work, and enjoy it so much, because I’ve seen how renewing it can be for congregations. And I’m not just talking about the success of finding a new minister. Any congregation – whether they approach their interim time as a hero’s journey or not – can find a new minister. I’m talking about the intangibles, the growth, the transformation that can occur if you make space for it.
I’d like to encourage you to think about this interim period as an opportunity to experience that kind of transformation and renewal. You’re a very different congregation now than you were when, first Andrea, and then Mark arrived. Watertown is a very different place now, too. And the world in which we live together, well, times have changed. And you as a congregation are being called to do new things in new ways. I’m not sure yet what those things are, but we may discover them together. No matter what the particulars, no matter how you decide to spend this time, no matter what you decide to accomplish together, this can be a transformative time in your congregational life.
Or…you could just plod along and treat this time as if it’s nothing particularly noteworthy…just get by…just keep things going until a new minister arrives.
It’s up to you. It’s the hero’s choice. Will you answer the call? Will you take advantage of some of the opportunities this Interim Time affords as they unfold? Will you take some risks?
Adventurousness requires risk. And that means stepping out, putting ourselves at the mercy of something, giving up our need to control.
Growth requires taking risks. I don’t just mean numerical growth here. I also mean spiritual deepening. And the growth that comes with deepening our connections to one another in community. All of it requires courage.
The word “courage” and the word “heart” share a common root, which is the Latin word cor. Brene Brown has said, “Courage is a heart word…In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’”
She goes on to say that “Speaking from our hearts is what [she thinks] of as ‘ordinary courage.’”
To fully engage in the Interim journey requires ordinary courage, the power of speaking one’s one truth. The courage to “speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” The courage to risk sharing your dreams, your doubts, your dreads, and your disagreements with one another.
That kind of courage may be “ordinary,” but it’s not always commonplace. It has been said that “fear is a habit,” and certainly we can easily fall into the fearful habit of not speaking our truths.
But the good news is that courage, too, can become a habit. And we learn courage by taking risks. As the feminist theologian, Mary Daly, has said, “You get it through courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging.”
The other neat thing about courage is that it “has a ripple effect: every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver. And our world could stand to be a little kinder and braver.”
This ripple effect is really what it means to encourage one another, which is what companions on the best kinds of journeys do.
So I invite you to join me in answering the call to adventure. With courage, let us stand side by side, and look to the horizon. Let us prepare to step out boldly together, with open minds, open hearts, and open hands.
Reverend Wendy Bell
Wendy Bell was appointed Interim Minister of First Parish of Watertown in August of 2019, and served a two year term while we searched for a new settled minister.