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Your First Sermon as an Interim Rector

By Neal Michell

In this final part, I present a set of resources to help the interim rector in this interim time to motivate the church and its leaders to commit to faithfulness between the departure of the previous rector and the calling of the successor.

Resource 1: Sermon — How to Thrive in this In-Between Time

Introduction — Welcome to the St. Swithin’s Episcopal Church 6.1. What I mean by St. Swithin’s 6.1 is that St. Swithin’s has had six rectors, Mother Betsy being the sixth. Each of our rectors has stamped the church with unique gifts, interests, and foibles. As interim rector I am the point 1 of St. Swithin’s 6.1. I’m here, but generations to come will not pay much attention to me. It’s like asking, “What were the significant accomplishments of a particular vice president of the United States?” For example, who was the Vice President under Jimmy Carter? Who can tell us who was the Vice President under Jimmy Carter? [Walter Mondale]

So, St. Swithin’s 6.1 is an in-between time, in-between rectors. And that raises the question, what do we do during this in-between time, this St. Swithin’s 6.1 time?

Isaiah and Judah’s In-Between Time

That is the question that Isaiah was responding to in our Old Testament lesson today. Isaiah is writing to the kingdom of Judah who are in exile in Babylon. The 10 northern tribes of Israel have intermingled with their Assyrian conquerors such that they have essentially disappeared as an identifiable people group. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had conquered the kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem as its capital in 587 B.C. The “brightest and the best” of these southern tribes have been exiled to Babylon, leaving the oldsters, women, and enfeebled people in Jerusalem. Isaiah is telling these exiles that the exile to Babylon will not be permanent and thus, how to thrive in this in-between time.

Listen to what Isaiah says:

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isa. 58: 4-7, NRSV)

Isaiah is reminding them of why God sent them into exile in the first place. They had ignored the poor and the homeless. Their fasts were perfunctory, arguing over the proper way to fast while ignoring the true fast of God’s righteous care for the poor and needy.

He is telling them, go back to the basics, or as Micah would say, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” He’s telling them that is not rocket science. Isaiah is saying we don’t need high-falutin’ temple sacrifices and mega fasts. Rather, live the heart of God in your everyday life. Nothing new. Just the basics.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

When St. Swithin’s Returned to Itself

How many of you were here before Fr. Bill Cavanaugh was called as rector?

You will recall that at the time, St. Swithin’s was going through a rough period, the congregation was dispirited, the church had been in attendance decline and financial decline for several years, they were in conflict with their rector, and had asked the bishop to intervene.

I want to tell you a story that illustrates the challenges the church was facing. An awful thing was happening at the church: neighborhood children were playing in the church’s playground without permission! Now, this was not the wonderful playground we have today; it was a pretty tired playground, and some parishioners were concerned about the church’s risk of being sued if a child were to get hurt.

Emotions were flying high. The church was stuck. The bishop suggested they work with a consultant, James Hanover, a Presbyterian pastor who would help them work through their major issues.

James Hanover helped them to get unstuck and heal from the conflict they had been living through. They held meetings where they listened to each other, Bible studies. He got them to focus outwardly rather than inwardly as a church, asking why God had put them here rather than navel-gazing in a “woe is me” way. He asked them, “If St. Swithin’s were to disappear, would anyone miss it?” He then challenged them to build a church that people would miss if it were to disappear.

They returned to the basics. Together they determined that God had called St. Swithin’s to be servants of God, the parish, and the world.

So simple. Nothing earth-shattering, but earth-shattering in its truth for St. Swithin’s. It was like a light switch had been turned on.

But there’s more to this story. At the same time, in 2002, as the church was winding up its work with James Hanover, the church went on its first mission trip to Honduras.

Timing is important. Then, in 2004, two years later, St. Swithin’s found and called a rector whose gospel and servant values aligned with the church’s. In 2002, the people of St. Swithin’s embraced the peculiar charism of this church: Servants of our God, our Parish, and our Community. And then they, you, were able to call the rector who also embraced those charisms.

So, how do we apply these principles from our reading in Isaiah, as well as from the life of our church?

First, we must embrace God’s call on our life again as a parish. We, in fact, did that last week. We know who we are: servants of our God, our Parish, and our Community. Repeat that after me.

Second, we obey. We live into our identity. We keep caring for the poor and needy around us. We continue to go on our mission trips, both local and foreign. To care for each other. We continue to study the Bible in groups and in one-to-one pairings, in several men’s Bible studies and women’s Bible studies, and a whole array of classes on Sunday mornings. These basic spiritual disciplines will sustain us during this in-between time.

And third is to pray — regularly. Pray for unity in our church, and unity among our vestry and search committee. These two basic practices of hearing and obeying will allow us to hear the Lord together in the call of our next rector. As St. Paul says, “He who began a good work in you is faithful to complete it until the day of redemption.”

Practicing these basic spiritual disciplines of hearing, obeying, and praying will give us peace and confidence that God will bring us the right choice for our next rector. As the blessing we receive Sunday after Sunday gives us: The peace of God, which passes all understanding, [will] keep our hearts and our minds in the knowledge and love of God.

And when we do these things, what is God’s promise? Isaiah tells us,

then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

That is God’s word to us this day.

Exercises That Will to Help the Vestry, Search Committee, and Staff “Define Reality”

1. What Do These Numbers Mean?

Create a graph of the following numbers for the last ten 10 years of your church: membership, average Sunday attendance, and giving. Is the church in decline or growth? Does the trend of the church match your feelings about the church? If not, why not? If there is a significant decline or growth, how do you account for that sudden shift?

2. Is Your Church Internally Focused or Externally Focused?

This is a variation on the above previous exercise and helps to show to what extent your church is internally focused or externally focused. A priest friend once told me, “If your Altar Guild is the strongest ministry in your church, your church is probably in trouble.”

List all the ministries of the church. In a second column list the number of people in the church reached by each ministry. In a third column list the number of people reached by those ministries who are not members of the church.

Total the numbers in the second and third columns. You will find that if the number reached outside the church by your church’s ministries is fifteen 15 percent or more, then your church is likely growing. These ministries don’t have to be evangelistic in nature; they can be social outreach ministries as well.

3. Is St. Swithin’s a Five-Star Church?

If St. Swithin’s were a restaurant, how many stars would we be rated in the following service areas?

★= Poor.                   ★★★★★= Excellent

How many stars would your church rate in the following categories?

Appearance              Greeting

Parking                      Music

Ushers                        Sermon

Greeters                     Nursery

4. Buy, Sell, or Hold?

This is a great exercise to do with the vestry, the staff, and with the search committee. “If you held shares in St. Swithin’s Church, would you buy, sell, or hold your shares?”

This exercise reveals the confidence that this group of leaders has in the direction or future of the church, and can open up very fruitful discussions about the current reality.

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