Interim Ministry: A Vital Step Towards Congregational Health?

I’ll be the first to admit: I’ve often been no fan of interim ministries. Why? Because these interregnums are too often periods of turmoil and confusion, in which churches and their members are left to flounder, while giving and membership collapse. But when understood and done correctly, interim ministry is a vital step towards congregational health.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that diocesan officials and church members — and even many clergy — often don’t understand what interim ministry is, or what it’s supposed to do.

The concept of interim ministry arose out of Alban Institute studies that examined years of failed search processes and callings. These studies revealed that there is a natural process that occurs when a priest leaves. This process can be encouraged and facilitated, or it can, either accidentally or deliberately, be sabotaged. As a result, congregations are very vulnerable during an interim period.

Many times diocesan officials fall prey to the notion that they just need to get someone in there, and fast. As a result, far too many parishes are assigned a kindly, gentle, retired priest who is reassuring, harmless, and non-controversial. But by their very nature, these priests are seat warmers, whose main purpose is to be a friendly, familiar face until the “real rector” is called. Yes, they may troubleshoot the odd issue here or there, and they may listen with compassion to those who voice concerns, but that and Sunday worship are about the extent of their ministry before they sail back off into the golden years of retirement. Such situations are at best uninspiring, and at worst highly risky for churches in transition.

Real interim clergy, however, have professional training. As part of this, they recognize and facilitate the natural stages of interim ministry. These are:

  • Coming to terms with history
  • Clarifying identity
  • Raising up new leadership
  • Developing denominational linkages
  • Welcoming a new rector

Of course, there are numerous components to each of these stages, far too many to list. But when these stages don’t occur, the parish is placed at tremendous risk.

While all parishes benefit from a proper interim ministry, parishes that have had the same rector for many years may have a particular need for a strong interim. Such parishes often come replete with unexamined issues and hidden conflicts, as well as strongly held notions of the “way things should be done.” This is particularly the case in parishes that have had a charismatic rector, where questioning clergy may be viewed as disloyal or disruptive.

Needless to say, parishes in conflict have a particularly compelling need for proper interim ministry. Left unaddressed — a tendency far too common in The Episcopal Church — conflict can poison parishes for years, if not generations, to come. As the Rev. Robin Hammeal-Urban notes in her excellent book “Wholeness After Betrayal: Restoring Trust in the Wake of Misconduct,” congregations in this situation often learn unhealthy ways of relating to each other that will persist indefinitely if ignored.

This is particularly the case in congregations that have experienced spiritual abuse, which may be recognized only after a troublesome clergyperson has left. Such churches often have experienced behaviors that, taken individually, appear innocuous, yet taken as a pattern are definitely a form of misconduct. For example, an isolated case of a priest yelling at someone may be nothing more than a bad day. But if this occurs repeatedly, it may become clear that there is larger issue. In such cases, normal boundaries may be eroded or missing, natural leadership thin or nonexistent, and roles and expectations for clergy, vestry members, and others confused or distorted.

As Robin notes, such parishes often have become adept at discounting or writing off spiritually abusive behavior, saying things like, “Don’t take it personally. It will be someone else’s turn next week,” or “That’s just how he is.” Moreover, such churches may become breeding grounds for bullies, and it takes only a handful to turn an entire parish toxic.

In these cases, an interim, often with help from diocesan officials and trained experts, can facilitate healing and recovery by promoting disclosure in a safe environment. This is essential, as church officials, fearing potential liability, may cause lasting harm by following a “no comment,” “less is more,” or “everything is confidential” policy. Even worse, diocesan officials and outsiders may come to view a conflicted parish as “damaged goods,” not worthy of pastoral care and support.

Ironically, it is situations in which a parish has not had a successful interim where the church indeed becomes “damaged goods.” Well qualified clergy will want to know that there’s been a successful interim and that church members are ready and able to welcome a new priest with joyful anticipation. So in cases where there has not been a trained interim, the most qualified clergy often will decline to apply for the position, fearing that they are setting themselves and the church up for failure.

On the other hand, there are numerous examples of successful interim ministries leading to vibrant church growth. That is particularly the case here in Virginia, where the property recovery litigation resulted in several churches successfully rebuilding and experiencing tremendous growth, despite the challenges involved in churches “learning to be a church.”

In closing, was your church’s last clergy transition successful? If there was an interim involved, was he or she formally trained for interim ministry? And what would you have done differently, if anything, to make your transition more successful?

Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia Tries to Bully Whistleblower Phil Snyder Into Silence

Ed: Please consider donating to Phil’s GoFundMe effort.

Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of America, a conservative neo-Calvinist denomination, is again trying to silence a whistleblower. Specifically, church officials have filed suit against former member and deacon Phil Snyder, who has repeatedly spoken out about allegations of sexual misconduct involving the church.

Before we go further, let me offer an observation: The church’s actions appear to be straight out of the Grace Episcopal Alexandria playbook in its efforts to shut me down. Replete with references to active shooters, allegedly threatening behavior, and more, it doesn’t take a whole lot of intellect to realize that, right behind the scenes, the church’s real goal is to shut down criticism by infringing on Phil’s First Amendment rights.

That raises the question: If Phil is speaking out about allegations of abuse, why wouldn’t Tenth Presbyterian welcome his efforts? The answer, I believe, is that rector Liam Goligher and other church officials realize they’ve been caught with their hands in the cookie jar; they appear to have turned a blind eye to misconduct within the church.

To answer this question, let’s look at the history of the case.

History (With a H/T to The Wartburg Watch)

In 2001, the music minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, was alleged to have engaged in naked spankings/beatings of students.  The senior minister, Phil Ryken, now the president of Wheaton College, failed to call the police and covered the incident up, allowing the music minister to be in a position of power and influence over young men for another thirteen years.

In 2014, the music minister was finally fired.  However, the new senior minister, Liam Goligher, did not inform the congregation of this.  Instead, the congregation was told that the music minister was leaving to pursue new opportunities.  In fact, on his last Sunday, on 02/02/14, there was exceptional music, including the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, David Kim.  The music minister received a standing ovation.  Also, there was a reception given in honor of the music minister.

On 03/16/14, deacon Phil Snyder (the author of this account) spoke out at a congregational meeting, which forced the elders to hold another congregational meeting on 03/30/14, where the congregation was finally told the real reason the music minister left.

In addition to the naked spanking incidents, there was an alleged sexual assault/false imprisonment that occured at a pastor’s house.  The police were not called.  Mr.  Snyder requested to meet with the elders with the victim, witnesses, and someone from the Special Victims Unit, but his request was denied.

On 01/13/13, a woman was allegedly sexually assualted in the catacombs (basement) of the church.  The police were not called and the congregation was not informed of the incident.  The senior minister, Liam Goligher, on 10/10/17, denied he had knowledge of the incident or when it occurred.

Beginning on 01/18/16, Mr. Snyder sent out letters to the congregation detailing these and other incidents.  The elders responded by saying the Mr. Snyder’s letters were “horrible slander” and “utterly false”.  The elders subsequently retracted these allegedly false statements.

On 10/23/16, the elders excommunicated Mr. Snyder, filed a no trespassing order against him, and threatened to arrest him within 1,000 feet of the church.  Because of this unlawful, allegedly criminal threat (per 18 USC 241 and 242), to arrest him within 1,000 feet of the church, Mr. Snyder filed a lawsuit against the senior minister, Liam Goligher, and the Clerk of Session, George McFarland.  This lawsuit was filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, case number 170102293.  The trial is scheduled for 02/19.

On 09/10/17, in response to the elders’ threat to sue him for libel, and in defiance of their threat to arrest him within 1,000 feet of the church, a violation of his constitutional right to free speech, Mr. Snyder went to Tenth Presbyterian Church and handed out letters from a public sidewalk.  The elders responded by filing an injunction against him to stop him from coming within 1,000 feet of the church or communicating with the congregation.  Unfortunately for them, Mr. Snyder was wearing a body camera which proved that their assertions that he was “harassing, threatening, and disruptive” were slanderous and false, i.e. they committed perjury.

Subsequently, Mr. Snyder filed a defamation case against the church. While represented by counsel, it does not appear that his attorney was particularly effective, as the legal discovery process went nowhere for Phil. Possibly as a result, Phil lost the case.

Phil continued to criticize the church by contacting members and by publicly demonstrating in front of the church.

The church responded with a civil action, seeking an injunction that would, inter alia, keep Phil from protesting in front of the church. I have personally examined the church’s pleadings, and while they lack the breathless, inflammatory tone of Jeff Chiow’s pleadings on behalf of Grace Episcopal Alexandria, they are equally laughable. Replete with references to frightening church members, ad hominem references to Mr. Snyder’s mental health and more, the pleadings are well drafted, but content-wise should be an embarrassment to anyone who claims to be a Christian.

When I last spoke with Phil, he was represented by legal counsel, and the case has been continued several times.

My observations

  • Churches love the whole, “Anyone who criticizes me is unbalanced,” routine. But if the church is really so concerned about Phil, why has it not done anything to care for him? And last I heard, the Bible doesn’t exactly encourage churches to sue their members.
  • Where there is smoke, there may not be fire, but there sure as heck is a problem, unless you’re into southern-style barbecue. Churches with nothing to fear are transparent and welcome criticism. The fact that Tenth Presbyterian is virtually foaming at the mouth over these issues tells me there’s more to this story.
  • Narcissists love to borrow a kernel of truth, then shade it in such a way that it ultimately becomes a lie. Phil may indeed frighten church leaders and members, but it’s not because he’s violent or threatening. It’s because he’s disrupting their little slice of stained glass paradise.
  • As I’ve said in other fora, the church is thoroughly lacking in social media and public relations savvy. The way to respond to such claims is either to ignore them altogether, or to chuckle and ask, “You mean you’re just now hearing those stories?” But going to court against your critics is akin to dousing your home in gasoline and lighting a match, then complaining that someone set fire to things.
  • Just like being a good manager requires understanding those you supervise and meeting their specific needs, so too do church leaders make a mistake when they assume the pews are filled with sheep that want to be herded. Every church has members who are the modern-day equivalent of John the Baptist. While they may be off-putting, irritating, and even frightening, they are going to speak their truth, even if they wind up with their head on a platter. The more you push them, the harder they fight. And like John the Baptist, history eventually proves them right.
  • The fact that Liam Goligher and other church “leaders” are willing to behave in this manner suggests to me that they are not by any means real Christians. Yes, Jesus had the power to impose his will by force, but he chose not to.
  • Much as my former church, Grace Episcopal in Alexandria VA, is lurching towards existential crisis as a result of deploying such tactics, so too will Tenth Presbyterian ultimately harm itself by behaving in this manner. If nothing else, churchgoers are notoriously conflict-adverse, and this is exactly the sort of high drama guaranteed to drive away members.
  • There’s a generational issue at play here. Twenty-somethings say behavior like that of Tenth Presbyterian is one of their primary reasons for disliking organized religion, yet the 50+ crowd in the church is plunging over the cliff, oblivious to the reputational damage they are causing for themselves among future generations.

If you’re interested in reading more about this conflict, visit The Wartburg Watch here. You can find Mr. Snyder’s website here.

In the meantime, for the attorneys out there, remember: These are all nothing but allegations.