Back when I was an undergrad at the University of Washington, University Presbyterian Church brought me into contact with some fantastic people. One of them was a fellow college student named Richard P Zimmerman — better known as Rich.
I think he was feeling called to ministry even then — he was the only undergraduate student I knew who took biblical Hebrew. Since then he’s spent his life as a pastor in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, most recently focusing on interim ministry, shepherding churches through times of pastoral transition.
Rich has always been someone who reflects deeply on Scripture, Christian life, and ministry. I was really pleased to find that his life of reflection has borne fruit in a new book. Walk with Me to Another Land:A Narrative Approach to Transitional Ministry (Wipf & Stock, 2017).
So today I have for you an interview with Richard P Zimmerman, as the book hits Amazon and other retailers. (He’s giving away a copy here on my blog — leave a comment after the post for a chance to get it.)
Interview with Richard P Zimmerman
ME: Rich, congratulations on your new book! What’s the back story? Tell me about the title: how did you chose it and what does it mean?
RICH: In the first three churches I served as pastor I was aware of how the dynamics of a pastoral transition affected my relationships and how people thought of me as their new pastor. But then when I served my first church in an interim capacity I came to feel how hard it was for people to get hold of the nature of the change they were going through. I asked myself, “What am I supposed to do here to help them avoid getting stuck in the past as they embrace these changes?”
My training in pastoral care came back to me as I asked that question. We really can’t do anything to pull people along when they are stuck in the middle of loss. All we can do is walk with them.
Then I thought of all the biblical narratives of movement from one place to another. Very rarely do people make a journey alone in the Bible. Having someone along on the walk is the best way to make it from a place of loss to the new life ahead. So I began to think of my role as transitional pastor as primarily about walking with a community of people from a place of loss to a place of hope.
ME: I think every book has a mission. What do you want to happen in your readers’ lives?
RICH: I really want three things for three different types of readers:
Some will be in the middle of leading through a transition and I hope they will consider me their friend along the way–someone who understands a little bit of the challenge, someone who has made mistakes and lived to tell about it, and someone who admires what they are doing.
I also hope lay leaders of churches who have just heard their pastor is leaving will read this in order to understand what they will need from a transitional leader.
And for those pastors who are in long-term positions but who are considering leading a congregation through an interim some day, I hope my book will help them get a good sense of what challenges would face them if they respond that call.
ME: You’ve been both an “installed” pastor and a “transitional” pastor. What’s the core difference that you experience or in what you try to accomplish?
RICH: I was surprised by the inverse of emotions in my transitional work.
I began with excitement and enthusiasm. But the reality for the transitional congregation is that my presence was not a sign of hope and new life. Instead I was a reminder of what they had lost and of the transitory nature of things in their church.
I am a strong leader so I had to work very hard not to start a lot of new programs or push toward my vision of what the mission should be.
ME: If you were to pick one biblical role model for transitional ministry who would it be and why?
RICH: I’m torn between choosing Ruth and Nehemiah.
Ruth comes to mind because she was so willing to patiently walk with Naomi and remain hopeful while looking to see what God would do to provide. But transitional leaders also need to be proacively addressing the challenges like Nehemiah did.
I would say one of the great challenges is knowing when to be like Ruth and when to be like Nehemiah.
ME: In your book you juxtapose stories of biblical people facing times of transition with stories of pastors in transitional ministry. How can pastors (and Christians in general) internalize these Scriptural stories to find wisdom in our own transitions?
RICH: The Bible comes alive for me when I see people today living like those in scripture. So for example, Jeremiah willingly lives out the challenges of his suffering in public and lets his struggles with God be known.
Gary, you and I both have a great example of that in the life of our mentor, Steve Hayner. I think I can speak for many people who knew him when I say that it was so refreshing to have a pastor say, “I have always had a hard time praying,” or, “I sometimes really struggle with temptation.” Steve pointed us toward honest ways of relating to God by pointing to Jeremiah and others who said some challenging and vulnerable things.
I am a great believer in the power of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of those who are trying to follow Jesus as a way of bringing the Bible to life as a guide for all of our transitions.
ME: In the book you write about the promise of narrative theology for pastors and congregations. What is it and how do you envision it working?
RICH: We don’t just have a book of doctrines and moral sayings. The Bible is mostly narrative and it invites people into the ongoing story.
Most of the transformation that has taken place in my life has been through letting stories get inside of me. Sometimes those stories have been conveyed in the lives of good friends who take a risk and let me know what is going on inside of them, or who walk with me in what I am going through. The Bible is full of friends like that who have been through the wringer of trying to live a life of faith and who have held on to the end.
I think of Joseph, who went through so many hard moments. We can read those stories at an emotional distance, as facts being reported. Or we can go to the bottom of a pit with a young man whose brothers have just thrown him in. We can sit in the mud with him, and with him we can overhear his brothers above haggling with Midianite merchants over what price they could get for him.
If I can really get in that story I will have Joseph as my brother when I think I can’t endure the sadness of being tossed by a friend, or a relative, or someone in my church. But it takes a long time to walk all of the way through the pain of Joseph’s story. By really living in the narrative much deeper things happen.
ME: What’s the next book or other big project you are working on?
RICH: We all know that North American culture is going through major shifts. I am studying pastoral history to try to find good analogies for what we are going through. I am researching some of those crux moments in the formation of the church’s stance toward culture in the hope of finding narratives of hope for us.
ME: What did you learn about yourself as you wrote this book? Anything surprising uncovered?
RICH: I learned I could write a book! I have written a couple of theses and some major papers, but writing when the reader has the option to put the book down is a different thing.
ME: What was one surprising story on the road to publication?
RICH: I am surprised at how vulnerable I feel to have a book out there for anyone to read. I put a great deal of myself into this book and I want for it to be substantially helpful to readers.
ME: Any advice for pastors out there (and others) who think they have a book inside them?
It is important to know very clearly why it is that writing a book is the best way to answer the need inside of you. When I was very tired of editing and re-reading my own work I needed to remember the people I hoped would be encouraged by my book because they were my motivation for taking on this challenge.
ME: Thanks, Rich!
Rich is giving away a copy to one reader of this blog. Monday May 8 I’ll randomly choose a name from among those who leave a comment and announce the winner.
Rich Zimmerman is Stated Clerk of ECO’s Presbytery of the Northwest where he is working to help churches embrace change in our rapidly changing world.
Following 18 years of pastoral service to congregations in Alaska and Oregon, he embarked on the journey of leading churches through transition. His degrees include a BA from the University of Washington, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, a ThM from Regent College, and a DMin from Columbia Theological Seminary. He writes from 25 years of pastoral experience and his journey of leading two churches through pastoral transitions.
He enjoys all kinds of sports and outdoor activities. He plays golf occasionally, skis when he is not trying to learn snowboarding, and he loves to be out of doors when the weather is good, enjoying activities like camping, fishing and biking. He has a love of music and he plays the guitar. He sings along but not well enough for others to want to listen. He likes creative writing and has written poetry, hymns, and short stories.
Pick up your copy of Walk with Me to Another Land on Amazon.com
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Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance at the free copy Rich is giving away!