November 24, 2011

Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant

In this season of gratitude and abundance, I am particularly thankful for the breadth and depth of ministry and leadership among the laity of our congregations. I mention this not only in the spirit of thanksgiving, but mindful that many of our congregations are also entering a season of transitions. In the coming weeks and months vestry members will attend their last meetings, slates will be made up, and annual meetings held, not to mention the innumerable movements in non-elected committee chairs and team leaders.

As stewards of this abundance of time and talent, we as church leaders must not get so caught up in the administrative practicalities and logistics that we lose site of the pastoral moments, the opportunities for discernment, and the care of the good and faithful servants who are indeed our most precious treasures.

In her excellent book Meditations for Vestry Members, Colleen McMahon reflects on the time when vestry service is reaching its end; I would suggest that her words apply as well to the many leadership roles beyond vestry or bishop’s committee:

During your years on the vestry, you will have developed a vision about the future of your parish. You will have set some things in motion to make that vision a reality. You will have generated or endorsed new ideas or programs and the jury will still be out on whether they work.

In a continuing institution like the church, the leader’s special curse is that he or she must let someone else interpret the vision and finish the job.

At the end of your years on the vestry, you will be like Moses on Mt. Nebo. You will have seen the Promised Land and labored mightily to get there. But like Moses, you will have to let someone else lead your congregation there. That will leave you feeling mighty conflicted, no matter how much you long to give up the burden of vestry service.

So what are some of the things we can do in this time of transition to care for our good and faithful servants, to attend to the “grief and relief” they may be feeling, and to help their successors settle in with confidence?

Here are a few practices that I have observed in my work with congregations of various sizes, styles, cultures, and histories. The thing that these rituals have in common is the element of intentionality in affirming those gifts that were brought forward with wisdom, prayer, and discernment.

  • Many vestries and bishops committees include Eucharist in their December meetings in celebration and thanksgiving for retiring members.
  • Clergy or lay spiritual directors in a congregation approach each retiring vestry member, committee chair, and committee member to offer a time of prayer and discernment around what the Holy Spirit might be inviting that person to do next in his or her journey. With this support for the leader’s spiritual life, he or she is less likely to feel at loose ends after a big responsibility ends and his or her wisdom and experience is retained for the good of the community.
  • Where there has been a history of tension when long-serving leaders were succeeded by a new generation of emerging leaders, a transition ritual may be appropriate. It can be powerfully affirming when newly appointed leaders have the opportunity to thank their predecessors for their wisdom and faithful leadership and the retiring leaders are able to express trust in their successors. I have heard anecdotally of one leader saying explicitly to her successor, “I encourage you to make your own mistakes as you find your way in this ministry. I am happy to be a resource, but I will never judge you or criticize you; I was new once, too.”

These are just a few ideas to get the conversation started. I look forward to your comments and hope that you will share your own ideas for celebrating the good and faithful servants among us who have indeed done well.

This blog is reprinted with permission. It originally appeared on November 22, 2011 on the mainestewards blog.